What is the theme in "When I Was One and Twenty" by A.E Houseman?
The overriding theme of the poem is that one should always heed the wisdom of experience. In this particular case, the wise man gives the youngster some useful advice: never give your heart away; it will cost too much in terms of emotional pain, and will lead inevitably to enormous sorrow. Indeed, it would actually be better to be poor than to suffer the heartrending sorrow of lost love.
But when the narrator first heard this sage advice, he was twenty-one and never listened to anyone. The wisdom of old age was simply wasted on him. As with many people of that age, he was young and in love and, as often happens, he did indeed give his heart away.
A year later, he's finally understood what the wise man meant. His bitter experience of lost love has made him a little wiser, so much so that he rues the day he gave his heart away. The emphatic use of the vocative ("oh") and the repetition of the expression "'tis true" in the final line of the poem leave us in no doubt that the narrator has experienced a lot of emotional pain in coming to the realization that the wise man was right all along.
The first stanza simply is advice that is given to the speaker when he was 21. The advice was that he could give away his many and material possessions, but not his heart or his emotions. Those he was to keep control of. However, as the youth tend to do, the speaker ignores the advice.
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away"
The second stanza says that the same wise man repeated his advice. Giving away his heart would only cause him heartache in the end.
"The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue"
At the age of 22, the speaker had obviously learned the hard way. Rather than listening from the beginning, he had to learn thorugh experience.
This is the theme. Youth need to learn on their own. Sometimes just hearing advice doesn't work. We all need to experience it for ourselves to truly learn about love.