Study Guide

When I was One-and-Twenty Introduction

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When I was One-and-Twenty Introduction

The Victorian age was full of sages – men and women who could write earth-shattering treatises, tromp through the wilderness for days, solve major social problems, edit newspapers, and pen a few sonnets in their spare time. They worked in bottle factories and as patent clerks before going on to rock the world. In other words, it was an age of heroes.

Even though A.E. Housman's long, long career spanned both the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, we're going to think of him as one of the sages. After all, he was a don at Cambridge, which has a reputation for hiring smarties. Interestingly enough, his professorship (which he held from 1911 until his death) was actually in Latin.

Luckily, though, "When I was One-and-Twenty" is written in English. You could even say that it's super-English – after all, it comes from a collection of 63 poems called A Shropshire Lad. But, if you think that Housman was a country boy frolicking in the fields of Shropshire, you couldn't be further off the mark. Houseman wrote them while he was in London. It turns out that he hadn't even been to Shropshire.

…so sure, the guy's a tiny bit of a poser. But as it turns out, his poems were wildly popular in the early twentieth century. And when you think that this guy was being read right around the time that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were breaking out their versions of Modernism, it becomes pretty incredible that such different styles could have captured the hearts (or eyes) of the reading public!

What is When I was One-and-Twenty About and Why Should I Care?

For every poem about how much love rocks, there's got to be at least one poem out there about how much love sucks.

Before you get your hopes up, this is one of the latter. But hey – maybe you're in the mood to pop all those heart-shaped balloons around you and stomp on some boxes of chocolate. After all, if all those online dating sites are making money, chances are that not everyone finds love to be moonbeams and sunshine and candied hearts.

And let's face it – it's totally fun to watch other people's hearts get crushed. We don't say that in a mean way. But sometimes it's nice to see that you're in good company. Admit it: do you watch The Bachelor because two people will find true love? Or do you watch it because 21 other pretty, competent women get dumped on national television?

OK, you don't have to answer one. We're just saying that it's OK to learn from (or even take pleasure in) the sorrows of others. Hey, the Germans even have a word for it: shadenfreude. That's the technical term for taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

Maybe you're not as mean-spirited as we are. But we think that it's all in good fun!

When I was One-and-Twenty Resources


Housman Biography
Sadly, Housman had a kind of tragic life. You can read about it on

Another Biography
This one is longer and comes from the Poetry Foundation.

It turns out that this particular corner of England inspired more poets than Housman. Find out all about this delightful corner of England here.


"When I was One-and-Twenty"
A reading of the poem, plus a kind of scary animation of A.E. Housman.


The History Boys (2006)
A pretty great movie about British prep school. Nope, there aren't any huge house parties. But hey, at least they recite some Housman poems!


Shropshire Songs Put To Music
Get a taste of the Shropshire Lad songs on YouTube.


The Poet
It turns out that Housman was a dapper young lad…


A Shropshire Lad
Can't get enough of the young lad doing the things that young lads do? Well, this is the poetry collection for you.

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