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When I was One-and-Twenty

When I was One-and-Twenty

by A.E. Housman

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1-2

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,

  • Uh-oh. Any time a literary work starts out with a wise man's sayings, you just know that they're probably going to be ignored. If we listened to wise advisors, we wouldn't have any stories to tell. And poems are stories, after all.
  • So, we've got a young whippersnapper and his older mentor. Stay tuned, folks….

Lines 3-6

"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."

  • Well, it turns out that love is worth more than gold. Or, er…the lack of love is worth more than gold.
  • Don't let the happy tone and snappy rhymes confuse you: this poem is about control. It turns love into an economic calculation, one which allows the "wise man" to balance feelings against more conventional forms of currency (crowns and pounds and guineas are, after all, the big guns of the U.K.'s monetary system). As it turns out, the heart is more valuable than money – which is precisely why the speaker's buddy thinks that it should remain soundly within his control.
  • Of course, this is also about the lack of control – since we have a feeling that not too many people take this wise man's sayings all that seriously. After all, there's a difference between once-in-a-lifetime When Harry Met Sally sort of soul mates and a passing crush. You might be able to block out true love with work or friends or Dungeons and Dragons. It'd be hard to stop being attracted to other people entirely, though, wouldn't it? But that's precisely what the advisor is telling our young friend to do. Don't let your "fancy" get entangled in even a passing fling.
  • Frankly, our wise man is beginning to sound like he wants to suck all the fun out of life. With all due respect to the wise one, we've got to say – we're less than impressed.

Lines 7-8

But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

  • Ah, the young. So impetuous. So independent. So unwilling to listen to anything but their own...hearts.
  • We'd take this poor guy's case more seriously, but it seems like he's more than willing to laugh at himself right along with us. Hey, if you pour your heart out in rhyming quatrains, it's probably a fair bet that you don't care all that much about what you're discussing. It may be painful, sure, but you're not ripping your heart out and pounding your chest.
  • Either that or you've discovered that society doesn't tend to like whiners. Maybe the best way to get people to pay attention to your pain is to make fun of it before anyone else does.

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