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Featured Poem: When I Was One And Twenty by A.E Housman

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 20th September 2010

Being twenty-something is a precarious thing. It’s a time of transition, a time where a great deal of things change but can also seem to remain the same for a frustrating while. A time of complete contradiction. You’re on the precipice of many things, still in part trying to consolidate your identity, finding your feet. There are enough things lying ahead of you not yet experienced that it can leave you feeling overwhelmed and, at times, quite young and clueless compared with the rest of the wide world (not to mention some of your peers). Yet there are also moments – and I seem to find they’re increasing of late – which leave you feeling considerably older. It’s not in terms of body, and not even really so much in terms of mind. You just find certain aspects of your outlook on the world altered, the colours changing slightly and gaps being filled in. You can’t pinpoint exactly when things change; they seem to do so invisibly and unbeknown. But somewhere along the line, they do.

The positive side of feeling a little bit more mature is that you’re given a greater sense of self assurance, a confidence in your own beliefs and opinions and a willingness to stand out. What’s not quite so good is veering dangerously between being disapproving and downright critical of those a bit younger than yourself. To illustrate, a few weeks back I found myself watching a rather bizarre programme about beauty pageants and being sufficiently saddened when one aspiring child model expressed a wish that they could fast forward time and instantly become a teenager, or even a fully fledged adult. I found myself shaking my head, lamenting what seems to be the complete loss of childhood in the modern era…until I realised I was being a complete hypocrite. I’ve done it myself. We all have. Spent time willing for the day that you could be that bit older, to reach a certain age that bit faster (whatever that age is, it doesn’t have to be one of the traditional milestones) so you could reach the top cupboard where the biscuits are kept without assistance, be allowed out by yourself and for longer, be finally taken seriously by everyone else as much as you regard yourself to be. And when you get there, you spend half the time thinking that it’s not quite all it’s cracked up to be, and actually, it’d be quite nice to be completely irresponsible with no weight of worries again. The grass is always greener, and all that.

Which brings me to this brilliant poem by A.E Housman, and the opposition it presents between the bright-eyed, blustering, blind to reason youth and the well-versed, experienced student from the university of life. So much can be taken from those apparently plain lines “But I was one-and-twenty, no use to talk to me”; it seems to sum up so many aspects of youth, its tendency to be flighty and preoccupied, even naïve but somewhat paradoxically, the sense of knowing-it-all, which of course comes crashing down in the shortest space of time – the lesson being learnt but a year later. Yet I don’t think it simply demonstrates that being older means knowing better; we are told that the man is wise, not how old he is. Whatever age you are, there are always lessons to be learnt, especially when you have yet to deal with something firsthand. And unfortunately, it’s also the case that you’re unlikely to listen to the voice of experience until a price has been a paid.

When I Was One And Twenty

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.

A.E Housman (1859-1936)

2 thoughts on “Featured Poem: When I Was One And Twenty by A.E Housman

Sue Garner-Jones says:

Wonderful, I love Housman!

I am ‘wishing my life away’, as my lovely old scouse nan used to say, and already dreaming of spring (Keats can keep his ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, for me) so please can you use my favourite poem next May, i.e. Housman’s ‘First of May’? I’ll even write a blog piece to go with it! Oh go on, as Keith Lemon says, you know you want to …

[…] The poem that we are reading this week is A. E. Housman’s When I Was One And Twenty, click here. […]

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