Context: Lawrence Aylmer, after a twenty-year absence, revisits a farm he once knew, and remembers a poem that his beloved but now-dead brother Edmund wrote about the brook which flows by the farm. Four times Lawrence interrupts his musing on the past to recall the progressive stanzas of the poem in which Edmund followed the course of the brook from its source to where it joined "the brimming river." Each group of stanzas ends with the refrain "For men may come and men may go,/ But I go on forever." Looking at the farm "where brook and river meet," Lawrence hears in memory the endless talk of Old Philip, the farmer, who "chatter'd more than brook or bird." Philip's only child, "darling Katie Willows," had asked a favor of Lawrence the week before he "parted with poor Edmund," Lawrence to go to service in India and Edmund to death in Florence. A difference had arisen between Katie and James Willows, "her far-off cousin and betrothed," whose "flickering jealousies" had angered her. But each time James had returned so that he and Katie could patch up their quarrel, garrulous Philip talked so much that James left, angry with both Katie and her father. Would Lawrence be a listener to the old man's chatter while Katie and James talked things over? Now, twenty years later, remembering in detail the flood of Philip's words, Lawrence humorously sighs, "O Katie, what I suffered for your sake!" But Katie's ruse succeeded. While Lawrence walked about the farm and listened until "the falling sun," Katie and James were reconciled. They married and moved to Australia but, unknown to Lawrence, they returned to England and now live on Philip's farm. As the poem ends Lawrence sees a young Katie, the image of her mother at "sweet seventeen," who invites him to talk over the old days with the Katie he once knew. The passage containing the famous phrase appears in the poem when Lawrence recalls his asking if James ever came to try to settle his quarrel with Katie, and she answered that he came every day:
". . . ever longing to explain,But evermore her father came acrossWith some long-winded tale, and broke him short;And James departed vext with him and her."How could I help her? "Would I–was it wrong?"(Claspt hands and that petitionary graceOf sweet seventeen subdued me ere she spoke)"O would I take her father for one hour,For one half-hour, and let him talk to me!"