Love's Lessons: A.E. Housman's "When I Was One-And-Twenty"

Categories: Poems


A. E. Housman, in his poignant poem "When I Was One-And-Twenty," delves into the complexities of love, heartbreak, and the wisdom gained through experience. The narrative unfolds as the speaker recounts advice received from an older and wiser man when he was twenty-one. The central theme revolves around the cautionary tale of not surrendering one's heart too easily and the profound repercussions of such a choice.

Wisdom in Youth

The poem initiates with the sage counsel, "Give crowns and pounds and guineas, but not your heart away" (3-4).

The seasoned adviser imparts the invaluable lesson that material possessions can be bestowed, but the heart, a more precious entity, should be guarded. As the verses progress, the counsel intensifies, urging the young narrator to part with pearls and rubies while keeping his emotions detached.

The refrain "But I was one-and-twenty, no use to talk to me" (7-8) resounds through the second stanza, portraying the characteristic obstinacy and idealism of youth. Here, the speaker signals a temporal shift, acknowledging his younger self's unwillingness to heed the advice offered.

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It sets the stage for the inevitable consequences of his actions, unraveling in the subsequent verses.

The Cost of Heartbreak

The third stanza amplifies the warning, elucidating that the toll of giving away one's heart transcends any material wealth. The speaker contends that the price paid for such a seemingly frivolous transaction is immeasurable. The lines, "And I am two-and-twenty, and oh, 'tis true, 'tis true" (15-16), reverberate with regret as the narrator, now aged twenty-two, concedes the veracity of the elder's advice.

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Implicit in the verses is the notion that the adviser, scarred by his own experiences, imparts this sagacity to shield the narrator from the heartache he himself endured. The poem transcends individual experience, resonating as a universal cautionary tale, especially relevant to the impulsive romanticism often witnessed in the formative years of high school and college.

Lessons for the Young

Love's vulnerability and the potential for heartbreak are universal themes that traverse time and generations. Housman's poem serves as a didactic piece, advising the younger audience on the pitfalls of surrendering one's heart without due consideration. The admonition underscores the significance of discernment and resilience in matters of the heart.

As the poem encapsulates the timeless struggle with love, it invites introspection and contemplation. The narrator's realization, mirrored in the final lines, speaks to the universality of the human experience. The elder's counsel, though seemingly harsh, stems from a place of empathy, a desire to spare the younger generation the anguish that accompanies imprudent matters of the heart.


"When I Was One-And-Twenty" stands as a testament to the enduring relevance of wisdom gained through personal tribulations. A.E. Housman, through his eloquent verses, navigates the delicate terrain of love, offering timeless advice that reverberates through the corridors of human experience. The poem serves as a beacon for the young, urging them to approach matters of the heart with caution, resilience, and a discerning spirit.

Updated: Dec 01, 2023
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Love's Lessons: A.E. Housman's "When I Was One-And-Twenty". (2017, Jan 21). Retrieved from

Love's Lessons: A.E. Housman's "When I Was One-And-Twenty" essay
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