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"When I was One and Twenty" by A.E. Housman (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

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Published on Jul 26, 2009

This poem is very short so I included "With Rue my Heart is Laden".

These sentimental verses are very popular. Sentiment isn't considered to be a good thing in Britain. It's a fair criticism to say that they're untruthful and unrealistic - unless you can believe that he really met a wise man who was having a lapse of good judgment.

If he'd asked me for advice at twenty-one I would have told him that it's not a good idea to give your heart away nor any other organ for that matter. And if you have any crowns, pounds, guineas, pearls and rubies don't give them away either, give them to me and I'll take care of them for you: I promise to give them back when you've learned better judgment.

Anyway, what does giving your heart away mean exactly? If it means that you shouldn't make a fool of yourself by embarrassing somebody with your unwelcome attentions then I'd go along with that - and I suspect this was the truth in Housman's case. But "rue" is too dignified an expression for the emotion you'll experience as a result.

However you should love judiciously, wisely and appropriately where your attentions are welcome,reciprocated and appropriate because love is the antidote to spiritual isolation and the terrors of mortality. You need other people in your life whose welfare matters more to you than your own.

Rue is a bitter herb also called the "herb of grace" as by mad Ophelia, mourning the death of her father Polonius who was killed by Hamlet:

"There's fennel for you, and columbines:
there's rue for you; and here's some for me:
we may call it herb-grace o' Sundays:
O you must wear your rue with a difference..."

T.S. Eliot describes Polonius in Prufrock as:

"an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool."

(Okay this is beside the point, but I felt like quoting it)

Housman was strongly influenced by Shakespeare, and this is evident in his language, but he was more taken with Heinrich Heine to the extent that some of his work comes close to plagiarism.

Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis kept two editorial rubber stamps on their desks. One read, "What does this mean?" The other, "Why should I care?"

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