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Wed 22nd
Aug 2018
The Housman Society
Appreciating the Life and Works of Alfred Edward Housman

When I was one-and-twenty

A Shropshire Lad

     XIII      Q
When I was one-and-twentyCQ
I heard a wise man say,C
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies5
But keep your fancy free."Q
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twentyQ
I heard him say again,10
"The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue."
And I am two-and-twenty15C
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.
Key: V: Textual Variation. C: Commentary. Q: Question. Glossary

ASL XIII "When I was one-and-twenty"

Top ▲ Glossary
Line  WordGlossary
3crownA coin worth five shillings, one quarter of a pound in pre-decimal currency.
Consider the regal associations
3guineaOne pound, one shilling
6fancyHere used as a noun:
1. An impulsive desire for something
2. An unfounded belief about something
3. The faculty of using the imagination playfully or inventively
4. Something created by the imagination, especially something of a playful or superficial nature
Consider a suggestion of "fancy-free" - carefree, unconcerned

Top ▲ Commentary
Line Commentary
Date: Jan 1895
1Twenty-one was the "age of majority"; the age at which one was considered truly an adult
2The reference to an unspecified "wise man" gives the poem the feel of a moral tale; combined with the strict metre and rhyme, this suggests the folk-song tradition of English popular music
15There is a rueful acknowledgement of the actual naivety of many a supposedly mature young person in their early twenties.
Whole poemThis is one of a number of poems in the selection which explore the painful nature of emotional experience
MetreStanzas of alternately rhyming lines of seven then six syllables in an iambic metre: this is a common form in Housman. The two syllable rhyme word in the odd numbered lines has an unstressed final syllable, known as a "feminine" ending

Top ▲ Questions
Line Question
1In a letter to Grant Richards (his publisher, from the second edition of ASL onwards), 20 Dec 1920, Housman criticised an illustration of this poem by Claud Lovat Fraser: "How like an artist to think that the speaker is a woman!" Apart from this evidence and the supposed narrator of the collection being 'Terence Hearsay', why else might we suppose the speaker to be a man? Also, what does Housman's comment to Richards tell us about Housman?
1, 7, 8Apart from metrical reasons, why do you think Housman writes "one-and-twenty" rather than "twenty-one"? Consider the effect of "two-and twenty" in line 15.
6What do you think is meant by "Keep your fancy free"?
Whole poemThere is a great deal of repetition in the poem, of words, phrases and in the structure; to what purpose is this put by the poet?