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.

Language

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.

 

Structure

  • 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.

 

Form

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. If you cannot find the poem, it would be worth looking for the poem on PoemAnalysis.com.


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