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

The poem, 'If I Could Tell You' by Auden is a poem which ultimately does not have a clear message in an attempt to encourage the reader to think up an ideology themselves more specific to the reader creating a bigger impact. The poem talks about the theme of time where time knows your predetermined fate and will say to you, 'I told you so'. However, as well as involving the theme of time, the poem can be considered a romantic poem too. All we be explained below in a complete analysis of the poem. Feel free to skip to the parts most relevant to you.


Stanza One
The first stanza talks about the price we have to pay.
  • The poem was created in the 1930s.
  • Time has been personified through the use of giving it a capital 'T' and by giving it actions of humans such as 'say' and 'tell'.
  • For Time to say 'I told you so' makes clear Time knows our predetermined fate. This is only if our fates are predetermined. Are our fates predetermined? This poem creates deep universal meanings.
  • The statement 'I told you so' is taken as fact. It also uses colloquial language.
  • There is alliteration on 'price we have to pay'. There is reference with price to being sinister: is it death?
  • The use of 'I' on 'If I could tell you I would let you know' makes clear the voice is first person singular. The voice is talking to the reader and embracing them. A different interpretation could bring religious reference into this quote. The voice could be telling us that it would tell us unexplained questions such as religion, the meaning of life, the past and future if it could. But, it can't. The fact that Time knows our predetermined fate gives it God-like qualities.
Stanza Two 
Stanza two talks about when things become clumsy. There is strong juxtaposition on the first two lines of stanza two:
  • 'Clowns' should make us laugh. However, the voice states 'If we should weep'. 
  • The alliteration of 's' on 'If we should stumble' creates a sense movement. As well as this, 'If we should stumble when musicians play' contrasts because music should make us dance and not fall over.
  • The first line 'Time will say nothing but I told you so' is repeated at the end of stanza two. The meaning to the line is different though that if we make fools of ourselves, Time will stay silent and say 'I told you so'. This creates a mocking quality to Time.
Stanza Three
Stanza three talks about how the voice wishes he could tell the fortunes of others and introduces the theme of love.
  • This stanza is awkward from the way is doesn't flow with the rest of the poem. It is about predicting the future.
  • When love is mentioning for the first time, 'I love you more than I can say', we are unsure what type of love it is. 
  • The last line of the stanza, 'If I could tell you I would let you know', illustrates how the voice wants to but can't. 
This whole stanza can link to Auden's sexuality who was homosexual. Auden lived in a period of time where it was illegal to be homosexual. Therefore, he is showing his frustration through this poem how he can't show his true emotions. 
'If I could tell you I would let you know'
If Auden could show his true emotions, love and sexuality, he would. The fact is that in 1930, he couldn't. But, when he can, he will let his lover and the world know.
Stanza Four
Stanza four continues the theme of love how his love is at the end of a cycle. This stanza is a causality that things happen for a reason. The verse was about the future. This verse is now about the past.
  • The imagery of nature is used on the first line, 'The winds must come from somewhere where they blow'.
  • Pathetic fallacy is used on the second line with the use of nature imagery, 'leaves decay'. From mentioning the 'winds' to 'leaves decay[ing]' mimic the autumn to winter cycle being at the end of a cycle. This links in with the theme of love that the voice (or possibly Auden) is sad because just like the leaves that are decaying, the romance is deteriorating. 
Stanza Five
Stanza five describes how the voice wants his love to carry on but time won't let it happen.
  • The 'roses' suggest a rebirth and is associated with love. 
  • The fact the roses 'really want to grow' makes clear the voice (or Auden) wants his love to grow like a rose. However, he knows it can't because of time and the society he lives.
Stanza Six
All bravery has departed in stanza six. It finishes on a rhetorical question to create afterthought for the reader.
  • There is a pun that 'all the brooks and soldiers run away'. Brooks run downstream already creating an image of time: brooks flow on and never stop just like time. 
  • The third line has the first two words swapped so the line is read as follows, 'Will Time say nothing but I told you so?' The voice is now questioning time contrasting against what the voice said at the beginning. This is a rhetorical question which entices the reader to answer it. The answer comes from personal thought rather than being told like traditional poems such as The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning. This makes the impact of the poem bigger.


  • The poem adopts an iambic pentameter. This is where there are feet of un-stress and stress (U /). 
  • The meter is therefore strict replicating the rigidly of the poem and Time.
  • The villanelle form (you will find out in the form section below) means there are only two rhyming sounds. These appear on lines one and three of stanzas with the second rhyming pattern being on line two. Again, the consistency reflects the characteristics of Time. We are also able to predetermine when the line is going to rhyme and what it is likely to rhyme with just like Time can predetermine our fate.


The poem adopts the 9th century villanelle form. This form for poems is very rigid and structured with a villanelle poem consisting of 19 lines long, with five stanzas (four stanzas of three lines long and one quatrain stanza).
  • A villanelle has potential musical qualities. 
  • The form provides repetition to emphasise the message being the refrains that are repeated at the end of each stanza alternatively. With each repeat develops more meaning to the line (refrain).
  • The rigidity of the form tells us something about time that it is rigid too.
  • The songs that use the villanelle form are associated with country (they are old fashion).
Here is the outline of a villanelle poem:

Refrain 1 - Time will say nothing but I told you so
Line 2 
Refrain 2 - If I could tell you I would let you know

Line 4
Line 5
Refrain 1- Time will say nothing but I told you so

Line 7
Line 8
Refrain 2 - If I could tell you I would let you know

Line 10
Line 11
Refrain 1- Time will say nothing but I told you so

Line 13
Line 14
Refrain 2 - If I could tell you I would let you know

Line 16
Line 17
Refrain 1- Will Time say nothing but I told you so? (First two words swap creating rhetorical question)
Refrain 2  - If I could tell you I would let you know

Be sure to check out other poems by Robert Browning and Wystan Hugh Auden I have analysed on Ask Will Online.

About Will Green

A student in England studying Automotive Engineering with Motorsport, Will created Ask Will Online back in 2010 to help students revise and bloggers make money. You can follow AskWillOnline via @AskWillOnline.

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  6. Thank you so much. You helped me out so much.

  7. Hi! I've been reading this poem for a while now and read this analysis a couple times but i'm still not sure of what "time will say nothing but i told you so" means and how the context of time relates to the poem about love. Please help me!

    1. Hi there,

      The line 'Time will say nothing but I told you so' seems to be a reoccurring line throughout the poem, homing in that Time is always there and will always mock you (potentially has power over you too, like it always knows what is right). Time is personified in the poem referring to it with a capital 'T' and as 'I'. The fact that Time seems overpowering to us all makes it seem as if we all have predetermined fates, such that no matter what we do and how we do it, Time, at the end of the day, will tell us 'I told you so'.

      I think how it links to the theme of love is a tough one. Potentially does the poem reflect that love does not last forever and that everything has a limited life. If you think about it, Time is the one thing that will always come and go - it is everything around time that changes. The voice in the poem questions time at the end to get the reader thinking. So you can almost see that the tides have turned - Time told the voice 'I told you so'. But, by the end, the voice has the power question time if he will tell the voice so or not.

      I think another way time relates to love as a theme is that we have to remember that Auden wrote this poem in the 1930s - when it was a crime to be a homosexual. Instead of letting his emotions boil, he put his emotions onto pen and paper. However, he could not refer to a man in this love poem as it would raise suspicion about his sexuality. Therefore, instead, Auden referred to his homosexual feelings as Time, who can be deemed quite a masculine personification.

      Hope this helps!

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  9. My reading of this poem is that Auden is writing to his lover, who perhaps is not aware of the depth and strength of Auden's feelings. 'Because I love you more than I can say' can be read on more than one level - to put his love into words would be literally a criminal act, but also, words would be inadequate to express his feelings. Auden therefore has an ally in Time. Time will reveal all, it's more powerful than the finite, decaying body. Auden is placing his trust in Time to speak for him, even beyond death. I love this, my favourite poem. The unspoken power of his feelings,and the devastating imagery are all he has to convey his loss. It's heartbreaking. Jimmy Sommerville / The Communards put this poem to music. It's amazing - conveys the loneliness and sense of profound loss. Of course, JS would empathise with Auden. A truly beautiful piece of writing.