Study Guide

When I was One-and-Twenty

When I was One-and-Twenty Summary

Our speaker gets some advice from an older, wiser person: don't bank too much on love. Like any young person, he promptly ignores the advice. Did we mention that he's 21? Keep that in mind. It'll be important later.

Flash forward: now he's 22. And as it turns out, the advice he got was pretty good. Love hurts. And we're not just quoting that '80s song.

  • Stanza 1

    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.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 9-10

    When I was one-and-twenty
    I heard him say again,

    • Wow. This advisor just doesn't stop.
    • Our speaker also seems to be falling into a nursery-rhyme like litany: "when I was one-and-twenty" sounds like part of the answer to one of those games where your teacher asks you what you did when you were five – or six – or, well, twenty-one. Either he's beginning to laugh at himself for the silliness of his old beliefs or he really does have the mentality of a nursery-schooler.

    Lines 11-14

    "The heart out of the bosom
    Was never given in vain;
    'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
    And sold for endless rue."

    • OK, now we're beginning to understand why the wise man doesn't think falling in love is a good idea: it sounds like he's been seriously burned in the past.
    • Notice how our speaker continues to refer to his heart as a thing – something that can be ripped out of his chest and traded for other things. He's sure not listening to The Beatles – "The Love you take is equal to the love you make" isn't really a lyric that he'd be a fan of. Cynical? Perhaps.

    Lines 15-16

    And I am two-and-twenty,
    And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.

    • Here it is, folks. The Moral of this little story. (That's "Moral" with a capital "m," in case you were wondering). After all, any poem that starts out with wise sayings that get ignored is probably going to finish with some "wise" musings of its own.
    • Wise men, as it turns out, are always right. Got it?
    • OR: Love sucks.
    • See? We told you that this would be a fun little poem.
    • At least we're laughing with our speaker. He seems to get the joke better than we do…after all, it's a joke made entirely at his own expense.