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If I Could Tell You

W.H. Auden

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2002-09-17
Added by: Eat Me.
W.H. Auden’s “But I Can’t” INTRO PARAGRAPH TO START HERE.
Auden writes “But I Can’t” in the villanelle style- a couplet separated by an unrhymed line, making three lines per stanza. Each unrhymed line rhymes with its corresponding line in the next stanza, or ABA/ABA. The poem has five of these tercets and a quatrain as the final stanza. The first and third lines in the opening stanza alternate as the final line for each subsequent stanza, with an exception in the final stanza, where the last two lines are the first and third lines of the first stanza. Auden uses a variation on this in the last stanza, where, instead of “Time will say nothing but I told you so” he uses “Will time say nothing but I told you so?” The transposition of “Time” and “Will” creates a question FROM a declarative statement, and this question reflects themes in the poem.
The repetition of the lines “Time will say nothing but I told you so” and “If I could tell you I would let you know” emphasize the narrator’s acknowledgement that only the passing of time will SHOW events, emotions, or actions that will happen. The second stanza’s oxymoronic “ifs” may happen, but perhaps only after many “I told you so”s FROM time. Predictions of the future cannot be made, as stated in the third stanza, and, although the narrator would tell if he could, he has an ineffable love for some person. The fourth stanza reveals about the speaker that he actively questions how and why things happen around him. He implies that all things have a cause in the line, “The winds must come FROM somewhere when they blow,” and strongly reiterates his assertion in the following line, “There must be reasons why the leaves decay, / Time will say nothing but I told you so.” Auden appears to say that even time will SHOW that all reactions have a cause. The final stanza asks the reader to imagine that “the lions all get up and go, / And all the brooks and soldiers run away.” In this supposition, an unknown presents itself, as neither soldiers nor streams, here personified, run away. A stream may dry up, just as a life ends, but Auden asks whether time can even prove or disprove these possibilities- whether one man’s question will be remembered long enough for an answer to evolve. Auden recognizes that nothing exists to foresee events and no true presages exist in life, as they do in literature. The perception of life and its events only comes FROM the passing of time, and in that perceivable flow it ‘tells’ what has happened- “I told you so.”
“But I Can’t” generally has ten syllables per line, except for line 14, which has 11 beats. The syllable usage adds a rhythmic feeling of time, an overtone in the poem. Auden’s use of alliteration adds to the flow of the poem, as the rhyme scheme and meter give a beat of time. On line 13, the phrase “roses really want to grow” has both alliteration and personification, and more alliteration in the words “we should weep” appears on line 5. In each stanza, the recurrence of either “If I could tell…” or “Time will say nothing…” also confer more depth to the rhythmic tick of time in the poem.
2002-12-12
Added by: Jemima
Its so sad that poems have to be picked apart in such an uninspired way. It think a artist like Auden is worth more than dry analyize. let his words do the talking
2003-03-04
Added by: Crystal
The analysis is an important part of the poem. Just because you don't necessarily care for it does not make it wrong or dry. It is important and informative; especially for those of us who are studying literature. What goes into the rhyme scheme is almost as important as the word choice. These are things that were important to the author, if you lose sight of that, than the full intention of the poem is lost.
2003-03-03
Added by: Anne
while it may not be fun, analysis of a poem often reveals many meticulously planned nuances a poet wove into his or her work of art. every word has a purpose and every line has a reason. i believe it was Frost who said he wrote all his poems so that the wrong people "wouldn't get it." litterary analysis is something every english student will encounter at some point in time, please have some appreciation for the dicipline.
2003-04-26
Added by: Emil
Thankyou Eat Me for your analysis, it helped me with mine for a project. Poems are written to be understood and if it is not understood, it has to be analysed. Analysis is an art in itself.
if i could tell you
2003-04-30
Added by: sam
The poem asks why things happen the way they do, and explains that we will never know because only time tells us and time is always hindsight. In the poem Auden shows anger towards time itself for withholding warning, which underlies the conflict and theme of the poem.
2004-09-21
Added by: Gemma
This poem is a good example of a villanelle, as it follows the correct villanelle format. The poem repeats two lines separartely throughout then brings these two lines together in the last stanza. It has an a,b,a rhyming pattern with the last stanza adopting an a,b,a,b pattern. The repeated lines add rythm to the peom and reinforce thier importance; "If i could tell you i would let you know".
MIssing the Point!
2005-01-05
Added by: Philip Morris
Whatever "merits" literary criticism advances for the dry, joyless dissection of poetry (sadly exemplified by Eat Me), true writers and lovers of poetry will "fast forward" to the music and beauty of the language and the messages of a poem.

This poem is so much more subtle than seems to be noted. The jokey sadness of clowns; the human frailty of stumbling to a dance - an unpardonable error!- the reference to war (just think about the SYMBOLISM of lions - the British Empire, strength, exotic Africa etc) - and the touchingly simple and honest refrain at the end of each stanza. The colourful images of imagination dissolve at the touch of reality, and the poet is forced to the mundane, simple but profound statement that for all our dreams and acheivements life is a puzzle. We don't know why things happen and are thus vulnerable as well as visionary.
the addressee
2005-11-22
Added by: Barbara Toczek-Luteijn
I like the commentary, still it misses an important point - the person whom the speaker in the poem addresses. The addressee of the poem is the lover whom the speaker treats with the parent-like tenderness. "but I told you so' is used in every day speech as a kind of reproach. The tone of the poem, however, is far from scolding. On the contrary, it is full of consideration for a younger addressee. 'If I Could Tell You' is one of many Auden's poems in which he transposes base things into form which enshrines a humanistic belief that love alleviates the inevitable harm that is awaiting us.
2005-12-11
Added by: M.F. Luder
I believe the title should be "If I Could Tell You (But I Can't)"--which adds another nuance to the tone

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