When I was one and twenty – A. E. Housman

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)

Here is another love poem in similar vein to my previous Coleridge Post made up of two eight line stanzas with rhyming scheme abcbcaaa / abcbadad and an easy flowing rhythm.

The advice from a wise man goes unheeded and youth must fall in love – falling is unavoidable … part of life … hopefully there is a getting up again without too many scars and the endless rue will eventually fade away. But ‘tis better to have loved’ than never loved at all’ which reminds me of a Tennyson poem.

The personal life for A. E. Housman, who had a dedicated and unrequited same sex love, was used to good effect in another poem. This time in a delightful poem by Wendy Cope who plays on this fact in relation to her, hopefully fictitious, choices of partners –

Another Unfortunate Choice

I think I am in love with A E Housman.
Which puts me in a worse than usual fix.
No woman ever stood a chance with Houseman
And he’s been dead since 1936.

Wendy Cope (1945 –

‘worse than usual fix’ – implying that previous choices for a partner have led to a degree of disappointment for one reason or another.

A link to A. E. Housman on Wikipedia 

Because I Liked You Better – A. E. Housman – Analysis

There is great musicality in this structured lament on the unrequited homosexual love of A. E. Housman for Moses Jackson – a student he met at university. My comments are in italics after each of the four stanzas.

Because I Liked You Better

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

Not easy to admit homosexuality in Victorian times. There was no like response from Jackson – it irked him.

To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Good-bye’, said you, ‘forget me’
‘I will, no fear’, said I.

Jackson went to America and Housman said he would forget him – later we see this is a somewhat cynical response.

If here, where clover whitens
The dead man’s knoll you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,

There is only common ground clover on the ‘dead Housman knoll’ … a tall flower never bloomed – his love never came to fruition. The white flowering could indicate both purity and coldness.

Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say that the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.

Housman’s heart at last dead to his love … and it is only in death that Housman forgets him – and thus he kept his word.

A. E. Housman (1859-1936)

The Immortal Part – A. E. Housman -Comments

The Immortal Part

When I meet the morning beam,
Or lay me down at night to dream,
I hear my bones within me say,
‘Another night, another day.

‘When shall this slough of sense be cast,
This dust of thoughts be laid at last,
The man of flesh and soul be slain
And the man of bone remain?

‘This tongue that talks, these lungs that shout
These thews that hustle us about,
This brain that fills the skull with schemes,
And its humming hive of dreams,—

‘These to-day are proud in power
And lord it in their little hour:
The immortal bones obey control
Of dying flesh and dying soul.

”Tis long till eve and morn are gone:
Slow the endless night comes on,
And late to fulness grows the birth
That shall last as long as earth.

‘Wanderers eastward, wanderers west,
Know you why you cannot rest?
‘Tis that every mother’s son
Travails with a skeleton.

Lie down in the bed of dust;
Bear the fruit that bear you must;
Bring the eternal seed to light,
And morn is all the same as night.

‘Rest you so from trouble sore,
Fear the heat o’ the sun no more,
Nor the snowing winter wild,
Now you labour not with child.

‘Empty vessel, garment cast,
We that wore you long shall last.
—Another night, another day.’
So my bones within me say.

Therefore they shall do my will
To-day while I am master still,
And flesh and soul, now both are strong,
Shall hale the sullen slaves along,

Before this fire of sense decay,
This smoke of thought blow clean away,
And leave with ancient night alone
The stedfast and enduring bone.

A. E. Housman

Strong iambic rhythm and rhyme in each of the four line stanzas (aabb).

As I get older my bones are in tune with the bone-talking words expressed in the first stanza (but I can recommend glucosamine). And I liked the way he talked of death as a birth in stanza five – And late to fulness grows the birth / That shall last as long as earth.

Getting to the bones of this poem, looking at the last stanza and the first line – before this fire of sense decay … while we are master over flesh and before the decay to everlasting bone – the immortal part (if indeed bones last forever) let us make the most of our being! And don’t let’s concentrate our thoughts on that enduring bone or that ancient nightThis smoke of thought blow clean away – line two of  the last stanza.

Housman was an atheist and a somewhat depressive character. Even so it is interesting to have a look at one of his quotes …

The troubles of our proud and angry dust are from eternity, and shall not fail. Bear them we can, and if we can we must. Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.

He believed that we can bear all our troubles and not only we can bear them but he states that we must bear them. Let’s face it, what creator (or God if you like) would design a universe where we were not capable of bearing our troubles – it’s not worth thinking of … it would be such a horrid scenario – in this sense he at least believed in a good creator.

And here is a link to A. E. Housman on Wikipedia