Study Guide

When I was One-and-Twenty Analysis

  • Sound Check

    If they made nursery rhymes for high school-ers, we're pretty sure that they would sound a lot like this. With the oh-so-catchy rhyme scheme and cleverly repeated phrases, this poem is actually pretty tightly controlled (see what we have to say about that in "Rhyme, Form, and Meter"). To the casual reader, though, it comes off as a pretty little bit of fluff.

    Check out what we mean: with all the nifty lists ("Pounds and crowns and guineas," and pearls and rubies), you could almost imagine that this was one of those Sesame Street episodes about counting.

    And then there's the matter of the moral at the end of the story. After all, nursery rhymes are all about teaching you little lessons. "The Itsy Bitsy Spider"? Persistence. "Jack be Nimble"? Move fast or you'll get burned. "Little Miss Muffet"? Don't be scared of spiders. Or you'll lose your…tuffet? You get the point.

    And this poem falls precisely in that category. It's even got the nifty repetitive phrasing that would make it easy for the little kiddies to remember. Housman plays up the childish quality of his poem, using the form of a kid's rhyming game to emphasize just how juvenile his speaker's mentality actually is. Then again, he could be trying to emphasize that love is child's play. Either way, his poem comes out sounding suspiciously like something written by Mother Goose!

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Well, we hate to point it out, but the "title" of this poem is actually the first line of the poem. Chances are that the poem, which appeared in a collection of poems by Housman entitled "A Shropshire Lad," didn't actually have a title when it was published initially. In fact, it was just referred to by its numerical place in the lineup of 63 poems.

    So the real question here is "Why doesn't this poem have a title?" And the answer to that…well, that's a little trickier to come by. After all, A.E. Housman hasn't been available for interviews for quite a while now. Here at Shmoop, though, we've managed to put together some educated guesses. Here are our best thoughts:

    1. Housman wanted all of the poems in his collection, "A Shropshire Lad," to seem like intimate glimpses into a young boy's life – sort of like stealing and publishing some little kid's journal. You don't normally title your journal entries, do you? But Housman wants to maintain the illusion of browsing through someone's intimate thoughts. No titles necessary.
    2. Like many lyric collections, A Shropshire Lad interweaves similar themes through several of the poems. Giving them each separate titles would signal that you intend to consider each as a separate work – instead of thinking through the ways that the poems all relate to each other. Skip the titles, and you'll be forced to thumb through numbered poems – perhaps reading some along the way.
  • Setting

    Frankly, we're not all that sure where this poem is set – and that's largely because our speaker doesn't go about the business of writing love poems in any traditional way. We don't get any comparisons to brooks or sunshine or flowers that would allow us to think of the poem taking place in the woods or meadows or gardens of our speaker's little world.

    Sure, if we believe the title of the poetry collection from which this little gem was pulled, our speaker is a "Shropshire lad." (Quick translation: Shropshire is a rural area in southern England. A lad is a young boy.) Given that hint, we'd be inclined to say that our speaker is from Shropshire.

    Here's the problem with that analysis, though: Housman had never even been to Shropshire when he published his poems. It's not surprising, then, that this speaker doesn't seem to have any telling Shropshire-like characteristics. In fact, although he's definitely young, he doesn't seem to have too many personal attributes at all.

    In fact, if we were to think of a metaphorical home for our speaker's life, it'd probably be the stock market. Or craigslist. We can see it now: "For sale: One Heart. Probably worth bunches of money. Willing to exchange for a casual encounter." After all, this poem pivots on the concept of love for sale. So, to make it work, it's got to take place somewhere where the selling is good!

  • Speaker

    When it comes right down to it, our speaker has the emotional maturity of a fifth grader. Sure, being twenty-one nowadays means you're pretty much an adult. You can drive, you can vote, and now the U.S. of A. recognizes your right to drink legally.

    What about back in the nineteenth century? Well, if you were a woman, you were practically over the hill at twenty-one! Maybe that's why it's so strange that our speaker seems so…juvenile. "Love is Big. Love is Scary. Who needs feelings anyway?" C'mon, folks. Doesn't that sound like the soundtrack to just about every conversation about girls (or boys) you had when you were in elementary school?

    Of course, our good friend is grown-up enough to realize that love can be seen as a commodity – it can be bought and sold like money or jewels. We could even say that our speaker has a good grasp on dollars. Just not on sense. Hehe.

    Then again, there's always the possibility that our speaker is gaming us. He could be faking his sincerity in order to make us despise him (and through him, the types of love he wants) in order to get us to be cynical about love…just like him. That, quite frankly, would be a pretty smooth move.

    What would that look like? Well, he'd be speaking with his tongue pretty firmly lodged in his cheek throughout the whole poem. Think he's a wimp? Well, that's because he wants you to think so. Then maybe you'll think love is for wimps. See what we mean?

    Whether our speaker's playing it straight or slant, though, the effect is the same: he's a bit weak. A bit out of touch. And maybe just a little bit whiny. After all, who ends a relationship and then spends their next few months talking about how love is totally not worth it?

    This guy. That's who.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (1) Sea Level

    Welcome to the cake walk of poems. Come to think of it, we're not really sure why cake walks are easy. In fact, we're not even really sure what cake walks are. But they sound fairly pleasant. And they involve cake. In some ways, then, they're like this poem: sweet, simple, and easy to digest. This poem is, in fact, the Little Debbie of cakes.

  • Calling Card

    Self-Deprecating Silliness

    Housman may actually mourn the loss of love – but he never lets his speakers tackle problems like love or loss or sadness with anything other than a light, sardonic (cynical) wit. He may come off as cynical, sure, but the joke's always on him. And as long as we feel like he's laughing at himself harder than we're laughing at him, chances are that we're probably going to be willing to go along for the ride.

  • Form and Meter

    Almost Ballad Stanzas

    Divided into two eight-line stanzas, this poem follows traditional ballad rhyme schemes: the stanzas each break neatly in half, with the second and fourth lines of each group rhyming.

    Wait…how can you tell that the stanzas break into two four-line chunks? Well, for starters, check out the punctuation in these stanzas. Lines 4 and 12 each end with semi-colons, which suggests that there should be a slight pause before you move to the next line. Read it aloud to see what we mean.

    Of course, the stanza doesn't stop at line 4 or 12 – in fact, that would cut the wise man's sayings in half. That's why there are two stanzas of eight lines.

    When you look a bit closer at the stanzas, something else interesting happens: you see that the wise man takes up the heart of each stanza (the middle four lines), but the young man gets the first and last words. Talk about a sneaky way of allowing your poetic form to control your message! Housman makes it impossible to access the thoughts of the "wise man" without going through the consciousness of the young man first.

    Other than that, the regularity of the stanza structure and the rhyme scheme give us the soothing feeling that this guy has it all under control. He's able to reflect up his life and do it without missing a beat. We've just got to trust a man as controlled as that...right?

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    It's All About the Money

    If you've read Karl Marx, you've probably learned that commodities make the world go 'round. That seems to be the general opinion of this poem, as well. Feelings get compared to all sorts of objects – just like the stuff you own, your heart can be weighed and calculated and sold. Know how much gold goes for on the market? Well, pretty soon you'll be able to trade your heart on the NASDAQ, as well. Bet you didn't know that, did you? Despite all the sing-song-y lyrics, this poem conceals a pretty shrewd analysis of the "worth" of emotion.

    • Lines 3-4: Comparing your heart to pounds sets up an image that allows you metaphorically weigh your heart against gold.
    • Lines 5-6: The repetitive structures of these lines, which are remarkably similar to lines 3-4, reinforce the sense that hearts can be bought and sold.
    • Line 11-12: If you're a good student of capitalism, you know that giving anything away is a "vain" enterprise. These lines help build an elaborate conceit (an extended metaphor) comparing the heart to a commodity.
    • Lines 13-14: Continuing to build the metaphor of the heart as a commodity, these lines use market terms like "paid" and "sold" to create an economic analysis of emotion.

    If At First You Don't Succeed…

    Try, try again. Repetition is the key to this poem: it's only by shoving his age in our faces at every possible turn that the speaker is able to slam home the point that he was pretty dumb when he was 21. Subtle? Not exactly. But if you've listened to the same commercials over and over, chances are you'll start to remember a company's slogan. In this case, repeating our speaker's age reinforces just how stubborn and unchanging he really is.

    • Lines 1, 8, 9: These lines repeat various forms of the "when I was one-and-twenty" refrain, making sure we realize how important it is.
    • Line 15: Here it is: the non-repetitive line. We know it's important because it's almost syntactically identical to line 8, which makes its differences even more apparent.
    • Line 16: Ending the poem with a repeated phrase makes us think that he's summing up an argument. As it turns out, he is!
    • Sex Rating


      The speaker's discussion of the "heart" never gets past first base. Heck, we're not sure he even gets off the plate in the first place!