‘If I Could Tell You’ by W.H. Auden is a six stanza villanelle poem. A villanelle, also known as a villanesque, is a nineteen-line poem that is divided into five tercets, or sets of three lines, and one concluding quatrain, or set of four lines. There is a very consistent rhyme scheme that the most form conscious poets conform to.
There should, if one is following the poem exactly, be two refrains in the text. This is a kind of repetition in which an entire line is reused. In the case of the villanelle, the first and third line of the first stanza are repeated, alternatively, in the next five. In ‘If I Could Tell You’ the repeated lines are “Time will say nothing but I told you so” and “If I could tell you I would let you know”.
These lines follow a repeating rhyme scheme of ABA ABA, making use of the same end sound throughout the entire poem. That is, until the last stanza. It rhymes with the same end sounds but is a quatrain, meaning it is made up of four lines.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of If I Could Tell You
The poem begins with the speaker making a series of statements about time. Time is thinly force on earth that knows the future. Despite humanity’s best efforts, no one will ever be able to read another’s fortune. The speaker repeats throughout the poem that if it were possible, he would tell the person he loves, and to whom he is speaking, anything they wanted to know about themselves.
‘If I Could Tell You’ ends with some of the speaker’s contemplative thoughts about the world and why it works the way it does. He thinks that maybe “the roses really want to grow,” wonders where the wind originates and considers why leaves decay.
Analysis of If I Could Tell You
In the first stanza of ‘If I Could Tell You’ the speaker begins by making a series of statements about time. He describes what is does and does not do as well as how human beings experience and interpret it. First, the speaker states that the only thing time is going to do is “say…I told you so”. Time, which Auden is personifying, knows, before anyone what is going to happen. No one else has the power to look into the future like “Time” can.
Reiterating this, he adds that it is the only one that “knows the price we have to pay”. This is a reference to life and death and how the latter is unknowable, even though it sits at the end of every human life. The speaker ends this stanza by adding that if it were possible, he would tell the intended listener anything they wanted to know about themselves. As becomes clear in the next stanzas, he cares for this person and would like to “tell” them if he could.
Auden’s speaker goes on, providing the reader and intended listener with a few examples of what might happen in life. “We,” meaning the speaker and the person he is speaking to, might cry “when clowns put on their show” and “stumble when musicians play”. But at this point in they lives, there’s no way to actually know this.
The last line is a predicable repetition of the first line of the first stanza. The phrase, Time will say nothing but I told you so” is a perfect choice to use as a refrain as it benefits from being read more than once. Its repetition plays into the meaning of the words themselves. Time is saying nothing but “I told you so” over and over again.
The speaker knows that humans, and all those bound by the blessing and curse that is mortality, know nothing of the future. They cannot tell the fortunes of others, or their own. But, the speaker says, if he could tell the future, he would let the listener know what it is.
In this stanza it is also revealed that there is some kind of personal relationship between these two people. The speaker professes his deep love for the intended listener.
The next stanzas contains some of the speaker’s contemplative thoughts about the world and why it works the way it does. He knows that the “winds must come from somewhere”. There but be a stating point, and therefore and end point, to everything. But this piece of information, as well as “why the leaves decay,” is beyond him. “Time,” the refrain adds, is not going to tell humanity anything about the secrets of life and death.
In the last tercet of ‘If I Could Tell You’ the speaker continue this thoughts about the world and its inner workings. He thinks that maybe “the roses really want to grow”. Then, also, that maybe “The vision seriously intends to stay”. The speaker is imbuing life and agency onto forces that are not usually considered this way. This is all in an effort to emphasize the fact that humanity really doesn’t know anything.
The last stanza is made up of four lines. He proposes a situation in which everything humanity thinks it knows about the world falls apart. The “lions get up and go” and the rivers and soldiers “run away”. Everything, in this scenario is fleeing, abandoning its previous way of life or post.
This is a very drastic turn of events and he considers whether or not “Time” will have anything to say about it. He asks this rhetorically, knowing the answer. It is the same as has been provided to the reader in the previous stanzas. “Time” is going to tell nothing of its secrets.