By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘If I Could Tell You’ is a poem by the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden (1907-73), who was born in York and made his name as the foremost English poet of the 1930s, before emigrating to the United States (where he would live on and off for much of the rest of his life) towards the end of the decade.
‘If I Could Tell You’ is an example of a curious verse form known as the villanelle, so some words of analysis may help in shedding light on this enigmatic and moving poem. You can read ‘If I Could Tell You’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
‘If I Could Tell You’ is an example of a villanelle: a French verse form, although one that took its name from an Italian one (the word derives from villanella, a form of Italian part-song which originated in Naples in the sixteenth century). This intriguing verse form comprises 19 lines made up of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a concluding quatrain.
As the Oxford English Dictionary summarises it, ‘The first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated alternately in the succeeding stanzas as a refrain, and form a final couplet in the quatrain.’ In Auden’s poem, the two refrains are therefore ‘Time will say nothing but I told you so’ and ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’
The villanelle really came to the fore in English verse when poets of the 1930s started to use it: poets including Auden but also others like the wonderful modern metaphysical poet William Empson, who was the one who really first made the verse form popular among poets of that decade (after Empson encountered it in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).
Why it became popular is perhaps easy to conjecture: the poets of the 1930s were following the 1920s modernist poets, like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but also wished to distance themselves from their styles and modes of writing.
Auden, for instance, disliked free verse and the whiff of elitism we find in much modernist poetry. A villanelle is just about as far removed from free verse as a poem can get: a strict form, always comprising 19 lines, and using rhyme throughout – and, what’s more, just two different rhymes, an a rhyme and a b rhyme, throughout. And, of course, lots of repetition, with two lines being repeated no fewer than four times each, and thus comprising 8 of the poem’s total 19 lines. That’s almost half!
A poem like ‘If I Could Tell You’ also shows the 1930s poets’ dislike of elitism. Where in a poem like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the 1922 poem that would become the most famous modernist poem in English, we find the poet quoting ancient Greek and Latin as well as modern German and French, and we find him alluding to Shakespeare, Spenser, Marvell, and Greek myth. The poem presents a challenge, on some level, to just about any reader.
After all, who could possibly know all of these languages and all of these frames of reference, except for Eliot himself?
By contrast, ‘If I Could Tell You’ will not send us scurrying to a bilingual dictionary (or even to an English one, for that matter: everyone knows what a rose, a brook, or a soldier is), nor does it allude to other writers. Auden once claimed that he writes ‘for his betters’ (‘Doggerel by a Senior Citizen’), and we can see this reflected in ‘If I Could Tell You’.
Of course, this is not to say that the poem is therefore ‘easy’ or straightforward. The very title says as much: ‘If I Could Tell You’. ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ Unlike the modernists, he wants to communicate to use in a direct and clear, accessible way; but he can’t. Something eludes even his understanding or comprehension.
So what is ‘If I Could Tell You’ about? What does the poem mean? Auden wrote ‘If I Could Tell You’ in late 1940, when the mood in Europe was still bleak and the future looked increasingly uncertain during the Second World War. From across the Atlantic, in New York where he was living at the time, Auden felt as though civilisation itself was under threat, as a poem from the previous year, ‘September 1, 1939’, so poignantly shows.
The two refrains of the villanelle – we’ve discussed this feature of villanelles in more depth here – appear to alternate between certainty (‘Time will…’) and uncertainty (‘If I…’). But what is so masterly about Auden’s use of these two refrains is how both actually pull in opposite directions, poised somewhere between knowability and conjecture: ‘If I could tell you’ is the first half of the line, but the second, ‘I would let you know’, promises the surety of personal guarantee in an uncertain time.
Similarly, ‘Time will say’, but what it will say is just a smug, all-knowing, ‘I told you so’, which doesn’t help to explain much – anyone can be wise after the fact, and Old Father Time is in a better position than most. And observe how, in the brilliant final stanza of the poem, Auden turns that declarative statement into a question: ‘Will time say nothing but I told you so?’
The rest of the poem operates on a similar see-saw between clarity and ambiguity, confident declaration and timid vacillation (‘Perhaps the roses…’; ‘The vision seriously intends…’).
This uneasy combination is even there in the unusual word-combinations Auden uses: both brooks and soldiers can be said to ‘run away’, in a linguistic feature that approaches zeugma (much as when Queen Anne takes both counsel and tea in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, or a Dickensian character leaves in a flood of tears and a sedan chair); combining the masculine, contemporary reference to soldiers (contemporary for 1940 certainly) with the more feminine and traditionally poetic ‘brooks’ offers a microcosm of what is going on in the poem at the macro-level.
‘If I Could Tell You’ is, in the last analysis, a deeply paradoxical poem: a poem at once about being certain of nothing (except that the speaker would tell us the truth if he had the answers) in a time of uncertainty (except that we can be certain that there ‘must be’ reasons why things happen, even though we don’t know what they are).
About W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. He described how the poetic outlook when he was born was ‘Tennysonian’ but by the time he went to Oxford as a student in 1925, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had altered the English poetic landscape away from Tennyson and towards what we now call ‘modernism’.
In early 1939, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden left Britain for the United States, much to the annoyance of his fellow left-wing writers who saw such a move as a desertion of Auden’s political duty as the most prominent English poet of the decade.
In America, where he lived for much of the rest of his life with his long-time partner Chester Kallman, Auden collaborated with composers on a range of musicals and continued to write poetry, but 90% of his best work belongs to the 1930s, the decade with which is most associated. He died in 1973 in Austria, where he had a holiday home.