If I Could Tell You – W. H. Auden – Analysis

If I Could Tell You

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

W. H. Auden

Looking at the structure, this is a villanelle – a distinct poetic form of 19 lines with five three line stanzas and a closing four line stanza.

The key to the villanelle is the two rhyming lines which flow through the whole of the piece, in this case …

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Once you have created ‘the key’ you have in fact created eight of the nineteen lines.

Another feature of the villanelle is the end-rhyme word of each second line in the six stanzas as well as the rhyming dictated by the key in the other lines.

It has a detached tone and there is modification to the iambic pentameter rhythm in line 14. A well crafted poem.

This is a poem about time and the repetitive nature of the villanelle is ideal for holding the thought on one aspect of time. The inability to see the future but inevitably the future will arrive given time. We all have to pay the price – our lives are input. How do we influence the future? – well that’s another question.

Time is personified. The reader contemplates and adds his or her own thoughts. For example, if time is an animal then this animal knows something that we don’t know … the animal makes real its nature on an on-going basis … until eventually it swallows us up. Or if time is a novel of infinite pages then we must wait for time to turn the page at the same time adding our own lines in the process. Each page is of course unique according to the reading of the individual and when we no longer feature in the story the story still progresses … hopefully there will be a happy ending or happy endings to chapters … we all seek happy endings don’t we?

But returning to the text, the thing is we all want to know the future … we may have expectations … and looking at the text …

In S2 … will we enjoy the show that we are going to tonight … our expectation is usually positive … will we stumble make mistakes, interfere or disrupt others
In S3 … fortunes are unknown … but it looks as though time has a thread of love and would like ‘fortunes’ to occur
In S4 … whatever eventuates has a reason … things will happen because … but we often have little understanding of the ‘because’ and any rationality
In S5 … do the roses really want to grow … does nature have a force for survival … and if roses equates to love then does love always seek expression

In the closing quatrain … there is fear … what will happen if we have no army … a sense of being insecure.

This poem is decontextualized from time and place and this perhaps adds value to the poem. If it was specific to a period and place would this detract?

Adding a date adds a dimension to the poem … this poem appeared in Auden’s posthumous Collected Poems – the editor Edward Mendelson attached a date at the end of the poem – October 1940 … he then linked it to the war equating the ‘lions’ to the English and the soldiers to WWII. This disturbs the notion of the poem as a self-contained unit … perhaps I should say as a timeless unit! And if you have just read this post you will see that I have influenced the future in some small unknown way – enjoy your day!

Your word in my ear ...

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