What is the meaning of this curious Blake poem?
Is it always best to tell someone you have feelings for them? Is it sometimes better to withhold your true feelings, and not confess your love? Obviously this depends, but this underappreciated short poem by William Blake explains why sometimes it’s better to have loved and kept quiet than to have blabbed about the depth of your affections.
Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be
For the gentle wind does move
I told my love I told my love
I told her all my heart
Trembling cold in ghastly fears
Ah she doth depart
Soon as she was gone from me
A traveller came by
O was no deny
This untitled poem, written in around 1793, would have to wait 70 years to see publication, when the Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti included it in his edition of Blake’s poems in 1863. Why Blake didn’t think it worthy of publication during his lifetime – whether he thought it fell below the high standards of his other poetry or couldn’t make it fit with the other poems in his 1794 collection Songs of Innocence – is now difficult to ascertain.
The poem suggests that sometimes it’s best not to confess one’s love but to keep it secret. In one manuscript version of the poem, the first line actually reads ‘Never pain to tell thy love’, but many subsequent editors have altered ‘pain’ to ‘seek’. The critic Andrew Bennett, in his book Keats, Narrative and Audience: The Posthumous Life of Writing, describes this poem as paranoid, and that seems a fair assessment.
After all, many decisions involve making a choice between two difficult, polarised alternatives. Christopher Ricks has used the examples of two contradictory proverbs: ‘he who hesitates is lost’, but on the other hand, ‘Look before you leap.’ We can’t do both. Similarly, we might say that ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ stands in opposition to Blake’s ‘never seek to tell thy love’. If nobody ever took the risk of embarrassment, shame, or alienation (‘Ah she doth depart’), by expressing their affection, the world would be awash with single people and nobody would know true love.
Discover more about Blake with our analysis of his ‘The Clod and the Pebble’, his classic poem ‘The Lamb’, and our thoughts on his ‘The Garden of Love’. If you’re looking for a good edition of Blake’s work, we recommend the affordable Oxford Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.