Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Meaning Of When I Was One And Twenty

Since I have noticed a few students of English literature—from South Korea, Singapore, India, Texas, California, Tennessee, and lots of other exotic places (Hello, and thank you for dropping by!)—visiting my site and looking for the key to understanding A.E. Housman’s famous poem, "When I Was One And Twenty," the poem after which this blog is named, I thought I would provide a guide to the poem in the hopes that it might help you write your papers.

...

First, before we get started analyzing the poem itself, we must take care of a few preliminaries.

Let us see if we can answer a few questions about the author of the poem, Professor Alfred Edward (A.E.) Housman: who was he, when did he live, when did he die, what was he a professor of, what is
Shropshire, the location where his poems take place, and what is A Shropshire Lad, the book in which we find many of them? I will wait while you check out Wiki.



As you can see, although Shropshire is a real place, in England, a land populated by real people (for the most part), in the poetry of Professor Housman, Shropshire is also an imaginary place—a misty
Victorian region of the mind—haunted mostly by poor young men who lead very depressing, disappointing lives. Professor Housman’s Shropshire is a negative image of the gorgeous green pastoral landscape classical poets (those who wrote in Greek or Latin, like Virgil) referred to as
Arcadia. The principal difference between Arcadia and Shropshire is the mood of those places—which is another way of saying the weather.

Arcadia is nice. The temperature is always about 77 degrees Fahrenheit—in the shade. (The metric system is unheard of there.) In Arcadia, handsome, scantily clad young shepherds play Pan-pipes, nap on the grass, and have sex with wood nymphs, and sometimes with a nymphomaniac milk-maid from the village named Phyllis. If Phyllis (or her girlfriend, Chloe) is not available, or if they are feeling a little gay that day, the shepherds will often have sex with one another. This is why it is perpetually sunny in Arcadia, and why nothing gets done, and the sheep run wild. Everyone is always off getting laid. Hardly a sustainable economy, I imagine, outside of poetry.

The sad citizens of Shropshire, on the other hand, have very little sex. They spend their days in a twilight realm of unfulfilled desire drenched in rain. The people of Shropshire are perpetually plowing, complaining, dying, being sent off to other places to die, thinking about death, and communing with corpses.

I blame this on the lousy climate the poet was subjected to as a child. Professor Housman was a human being, we must remember, even though he was British. And if you are born in a cloudy land and live under a constant drizzle, some of that rain is bound to seep into your heart and drown your soul in sorrow. That is, unless you are very careful and spend a few frisky summers frolicking in the sun, somewhere in the Mediterranean, far away from home...

This is not to say that all Professor Housman ever discusses is death and disappointment in his poems. Professor Housman can be grim, but he is not The Grim Reaper
. The Grim Reaper is really a writer from St. Louis, Missouri named
T.S. Eliot. Mr. Eliot is the original skull beneath the skin, if you will, as anyone who has had the misfortune of being assigned to write a coherent paper on his hopeless poem ‘The Waste Land’ can attest.

Professor Housman has a better sense of humor than Mr. Eliot, I think. I have seen car accidents with a better sense of humor than Mr. Eliot, I think. There is much to enjoy in life besides death, you know. In his own overcast way, Housman urges us to enjoy ourselves because life is temporary, death eternal. In Professor Housman’s poems you will find lots of lovely temporary things: athletes, chairs, beer, cows, chestnut trees, and cherry blossoms. Now and then a necktie goes missing, too.

Nevertheless, we must admit, in all honesty, that Death [notice the capital D—
Et in Arcadia Ego—for all you Latin scholars out there] looms very large in Shropshire and in the imagination of Professor Housman. Perhaps it looms larger and darker in his mind than is healthy for us to contemplate for an extended period of time.

In fact, I have been advised by my doctor that it is safest to read Professor Housman in small doses only: on the subway, waiting for a bus, or sitting on the toilet. My doctor also says (he is unusually well-read for a Harvard man) it is never safe to read Mr. Eliot—under any circumstances—even in the bathroom. He says it is even more dangerous to hear Mr. Eliot read his work aloud. Like far too many writers these days, his
voice practically radiates misery.

Fortunately, for us, what poets say today does not matter in the slightest. Except for maybe me, so listen up: how you, as an individual, approach life, love or literature—tongue in cheek or with a pair of tongs—is up to you. You are the only one you have to live with for the rest of your life.

Anyway, so much for my sermon on Shropshire, the imaginary land where the poem under discussion takes place. Let us move on to "When I Was One And Twenty" itself. Here is the text. Try reading it aloud.

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘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,
And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

What are some of the things we notice about what we have read? The poem is short. It’s divided into three little sections, three little paragraphs (stanzas.) The third stanza is twice as long as the first two. The poem rhymes. It is kind of sing-songy, in an old-fashioned way. Some of the words are a little weird. It is mostly written in the past tense. It is narrated from the the first person—the “I”—point of view.

Anything else I missed? Impossible for me to say, since I have missed it. I depend on you here. If you discover something, pick up your pen and jot your ideas down on a piece of paper. If there is no paper available, write on your desk. If your mother is likely to complain about you vandalizing the furniture, and if you are wearing shorts, write on the top of your thigh. But be sure to take a long hot bath tonight or wear sweatpants in gym class tomorrow if you are using permanent ink. I am not responsible for your body. I am not your brain.

Let’s examine the first stanza:

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away…

What do these words mean? To figure that out, let us first look at them not as lines of a poem, but as an ordinary sentence, as a single thought, by rearranging them slightly.

When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say, ’Give crowns and pounds and guineas but not your heart away...

Okay. The poem is a little clearer laid out like that, but still, “the crowns and pounds and guineas” thing makes no sense. Crowns and pounds and guineas are old denominations of English money. If I were writing this stanza now (I am an American, too, as you can probably tell, but more like
Mark Twain than T.S. Eliot) I might write it something like this,

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give nickels, dimes and dollars
But not your heart away...

Not much better, especially given inflation. What does all of this advice about money management and emotional planning add up to?

“Give your money away, but not your heart...”

Obviously this wise man was wise enough not to become a banker.

In the second stanza, the wise man suggests giving other things away, too: he ups the ante, to borrow a phrase from Poker—he raises the emotional bet. He advises us to keep our hearts and to give away things far more valuable than nickels, dimes and dollars:

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’

Fancy here does not mean bling-bling, or jewelry, it refers back to the heart. Fancy means affection. Fancy is another way of referring to love. He is saying give money away but not your love.

But the young man does not listen:

But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

How would you interpret the tone of that remark, ‘No use to talk to me.’? To my ears (I am fast approaching forty-two—twice the age of the lad being given the advice) it sounds sad, regretful, wistful, and disappointed. But I am one and forty, and my ears are not so good at discerning the separate sounds of sorrow as they once were. Yours are probably better. Repeat the lines once or twice. Listen for yourself. Decide what you hear for yourself.

Once you are finished deciding, we can move on to part 3 of the poem.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;

Here we have this so-called wise man again, reminding us, again—as if we were deaf or had Alzheimer’s or amnesia or something and had forgotten what he said during the two whole seconds it took us to read his last bit of advice—that we should not be giving our hearts away. We know that already. Why is Professor Housman repeating himself?

For emphasis, sure, in case we weren’t paying attention the first time. (Professor Housman knows human nature and rarely takes those kinds of risks.) But Housman also does it because the poem we are reading is something called a ballad, a poetic song. And the repetitions are like the repeated lyrics you find in any song. In poems, repeated ideas, like rhymes, can form their own kind of music.

[Excuse me. I am wandering off into Poetry Land, the Heavenly distance. Senility must be setting in. And so early, too. I really should make a better effort to stick to the point...]



Speaking of points, and wandering off, did you notice how the poem leaves the money and the rubies behind in stanzas one and two? In stanza three (It might be useful to wonder why the money is gone now? Why are we suddenly broke?) we are dealing in a different kind of currency: emotions, hearts. You may get something if you give your heart away, but it might not be what you expect: all we have left to pay for love with now, poetically speaking, are bits of our bodies:

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

The plentiful sighs exhaled here may perhaps represent something Professor Housman was a little too shy to mention: sex. I am not so shy, that’s why I mention it. Or it may not. Again, this is one of those occasions where you must make a decision. What we must remember at this point in the poem is that people moan for pleasure and they moan for pain. Therefore, the sigh heaved here has a double meaning. It is the second meaning, the sadder one, which leads us to the next line:

‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’

Rue is a flower. But, more importantly, rue is also another word in English for regret. The language here is a little quirky, so like we did before, up above, let us reformulate the sentiment contained in the quatrain for ourselves.

Thus:

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

Becomes:

Loving someone will

Cost something: don’t forget
A moment’s happiness
Is followed by regret.

This isn’t exactly what the wise man is saying, of course, but is my translation of it—transfiguration of it really—how I hear it, filtered through the experience of talking to old people in my early twenties. You will hear something different. We all hear poems differently. My reading is a little abstract, I admit, and my poetry not so good as Professor Housman’s, but I think you understand what I mean: according to the wise man—who just seems to grow increasingly bitter and cynical the older and wiser he gets—we are disasterously overcharged for happiness. But are we?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. I am forty-one, and I am not sure we are. Opinions vary about love and life, even among poets, even among individual poets at different stages of their lives. Even in the works of The Grim Reaper. Again, the search for happiness is one of those life-long quests we each undertake for ourselves. My own opinion is that love is not such a depressing prospect, even if it can feel like that sometimes. But then, I probably have more fun these days than Professor Housman does. I am not 151 years old and I am not actually dead yet. Actually, I am having the time of my life writing this essay for you—right here, right now—on my laptop, so perhaps my perspective on serious matters such as Life and Death and Poetry (notice the capital letters ) at the present moment are not to be entirely trusted
.



In any case, as we are nearing the end, we only have two lines to go, let us re-read the poem as we understand it, so far:

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;

Okay.

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

Okay.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’

What does this all add up to? Well, we have a narrator (possibly the young Mr. Housman, before he became a Professor, or possibly just some random twenty-one year old he picked up off the street, possibly even me—remember the poem is being written from the first person—the “I”—perspective) telling us the peculiar advice he received when he was twenty-one: give your wallet away before you give your heart. We have had him admitting he didn’t listen to that advice (“no use to talk to me”) because he was young and stupid. Then we have a summary of the money argument in more emotional terms. Now—

Now, a question just popped into my head: how do we know this wise man is so damn wise? The narrator seems to think he is a wise person, of course, but why should we? Where is the evidence? Why should we believe him? Do you believe everything people tell you? Of course not. You test what they say against your own experience. You ask around. If you are insane, you ask a poet. We only have the narrator’s word to go on that the wise man is truly wise. What has either the narrator or the wise man done to earn our trust, in other words? Bearing that thought in mind, let us add those last two crucial lines:

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

Suddenly, and significantly, in these last two lines, everything changes—starting with the tense—we move from the past into the present.

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away…

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


The key to the poem is the shift from WAS to AM, Past to Present, Then to Now—the value of Experience—and what it implies. Also listen carefully to that repeated phrase, '‘tis true, ‘tis true.' What is true exactly: the words of the wise man, or the more banal fact that lad is now 365 days older, now twenty-two? What happened during that year? What did he learn?


The clue is in the tone of that last remark: '‘tis true, ‘tis true.' It's hard to catch, that tone, but listen. The tone is very subtle, I think, and not entirely sincere. There is something slightly, ever so slightly odd, ever so slightly off about it. Here is where I see one of those little shafts of Arcadian sunlight shine through Professor Housman's
Stygian gloom. Let me explain.

The poem begins solemnly, with the premise that the twenty-one year old had been listening to a wise man’s advice about how costly love is, how painful, how much more sense it makes to give all your money away than fall in love. But the twenty-one year old does not heed the wise man’s advice—he sees himself as stupid at twenty-one (“no use to talk to me”) and he goes off on his own, screws around a bit, and runs straight into the arms of eternal Misery. Eternal Misery at twenty-two.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if this guy has no clue about life at twenty-one, why on earth would I assume (as a reader) that he is so much wiser (like the so-called wise man) at twenty-two? He might be a little bit wiser for having wasted his money on flowers and having fallen in love and then having his heart broken. That love can be incredibly painful and costly is a valuable lesson to learn. But it is not the only lesson here to learn about love.

In this poem, I think, Professor Housman is doing two things: he is making fun of himself as a vain young man and he is making fun of himself as an equally vain, slightly older, ostensibly (seemingly) wiser one. Here, he is ruefully recalling how much he thought he knew about life, but that (in retrospect, looking backwards) he realizes he really didn’t. By placing the poem in the first person, the “I” mode, he cleverly involves us in his mistakes: how he incorrectly evaluates (or ignores) the experience of others, how we incorrectly evaluate (or ignore) the experience of ourselves. No one escapes this poem unscathed. We sympathize with the narrator, we are sad for him, even as we smile at him, and shake our heads sadly (“oh, ‘tis true, tis true”) at our own sometimes silly selves.



Anyway, that is how I read this poem. That is also how I read a lot of poems, actually, the method I use: looking at the poem inside and out and evaluating how it measures up to my own experience.

Sometimes the poems fall short. Sometimes my experiences do. Sometimes the problem lies in my inablity to imagine myself in another's shoes. That is a hard thing to do, but one can get used to doing it with practice. It is a bit like learning how to hear the subtle modulations in a person's tone of voice—the truth behind the words. All it takes is imagination—something which you probably possess in abundance.


Here endeth the lesson for today.

Amen.



12 comments:

kavita said...

I liked your review. And i didn't like your review. GO figure.

Denise said...

I find it puzzling that anyone would even have to read an interpretation of this poem. Seems as straight forward to me today as it did the first time I read it more than 20 years ago at the age of 10 or 11.

If you want to assist in understanding poetry you may want to look at some Poe, or Whitman, even Dylan Thomas is more difficult to comprehend than this one. This is as obvious as Frost.

Shropshirelad said...

This essay is intended to gently introduce students to a method of reading an English poem. When I Was One And Twenty is an easy poem to work with in this respect.

Also, as you may have noticed, my blog is named after this poem. It generates a lot of hits on this basis. When I was One And Twenty seemed a natural fit.

I also like Housman. I might consider Auden next time. Or Emily Dickinson. Or Blake. Whitman, Poe and Thomas do not really appeal to me all that much as poets.

harold marzan said...

THIS POEM IS VERY NICE AND INTERESTING EVEN THO THIS IS A VERY SHORT POET......IT REFERS TO MANY DIFFERENT PEOPLE AT THE AGE OF 21.

Jolan said...

I loved the way you explained the poem and your humor! It's first the poem I ever read to my kids and now I'm like..."Oh snap!"

Unknown said...

I think your point that Housman's speaker mocks himself is an interesting interpretation; it smacks of snobbery to dismiss it as "obvious." Apparently someone's opinion is the poem isn't worth thinking twice about. Too bad.

Also, as a rhetorical question consider this: Is the speaker really full of rue, or is the word "wise" ironic and thus mocking of someone who doesn't appreciate the passion of youth?

Eric Norris said...

Dear Unknown,

I think your points about the ironical uses of 'rue' and 'wise' and spot on. They certainly do mock those who don't fully appreciate the passion and potential of youth and grow old before their time.

I myself can think few sadder things.

All the best,
-Eric

jennifer k said...

Thank you for leaving this little gem on the internet for me to find like a little treasure. I am getting my poetic feet wet, and needed an explanation like that and I really appreciate it. My grade also would like to thank you for not letting me say the wrong thing.

Larry Daum said...

I was trying to remember who wrote the poem and so looked it up and then found your enjoyable interpretation. At my first job out of architectural school, my employer knew many short poems he would recite for clients and friends and this was one of them - though I should add he inserted his own stanzas which slightly altered the meaning to one in which college age kids, 18 - 21 seemed to know it all and certainly believed their parents knew little of what current life was like. Upon graduation or any endeavor in which they were on their own, that year to twenty two , becomes one in which all those voices of experience suddenly seem more wise than one first thought. Thus, the advice, once ignored, rings true, rings true.

Michelle Villareal said...

gosh. u'r so great!:) i like the way u share ur opinion about this poem. it helps me a lot in my lesson in my English subject. now i got the idea of it. :)

mary sanchez said...

gosh i like the way you share that poet
i am just a student but i really like it.. you did not just share a simple poem but you explain it . and student could use your explanation when some of them teach the other students about that poet. like me now i understand what does that poet all about and i can use your explanation because i will
teach the other students about that poet thanks a lot because of your wonderful explanation :)

Silas Rogers said...

Very nice article. Helps with meaning of this lovely verse.