When I was one-and-twenty

A Shropshire Lad

When I was one-and-twenty C Q
I heard a wise man say, C
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies 5
But keep your fancy free.” Q
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty Q
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-twenty 15 C
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 Word Glossary
3 crown A coin worth five shillings, one quarter of a pound in pre-decimal currency.
Consider the regal associations
3 guinea One pound, one shilling
6 fancy Here 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

14 rue Regreted


Top ▲ Commentary

Line Commentary
Date: Jan 1895
1 Twenty-one was the “age of majority”; the age at which one was considered truly an adult
2 The 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
15 There is a rueful acknowledgement of the actual naivety of many a supposedly mature young person in their early twenties.
Whole poem This is one of a number of poems in the selection which explore the painful nature of emotional experience
Metre Stanzas 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
1 In 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, 8 Apart 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.
6 What do you think is meant by “Keep your fancy free”?
Whole poem There 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?