‘If I could tell you’ by Wystan Hugh Auden

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose all the lions get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

This is a beautiful poem by Auden that speaks of the passing of time, of love and regret. I love the images that summon up the idea of failing to seize the day — the “If we should weep when clowns put on their show,/ If we should stumble when musicians play” — they are so poignant. If we cannot enjoy life (if we weep when we ought to laugh, or stumble when we ought to dance) then “Time will say nothing but I told you so”. Time unforgiving, and will steam ahead whether we are paying attention or not.

“There are no fortunes to be told”, writes Auden, yet “because I love you more than I can say,/ If I could tell you I would let you know.” This part of the poem is so very touching, as the speaker explains that the future is unknowable (not only does he not personally know how to tell fortunes, but there are no fortunes to be told.) He loves the person to whom this poem is addressed, and wishes that he could tell him. But he does not know the secret to stopping Time, telling the future, or living without regret.

I always read this poem with the thought in mind of Auden’s homosexuality at a time when it was illegal. I feel that the “If I could tell you I would let you know” is repeated not only to emphasise the fact that he does not know the secret of passing time and the meaning of life, but also to suggest that Auden is not permitted to ‘tell his love’.

For me, the rhythm and the repetition in this poem really make it memorable. It is also the expression of inescapable regret and the passing of time that make it a poem to which I always return, because these are timeless themes and preoccupations.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

  • Adrian Morgan

    For me, the first few verses of this poem resonate strongly at the end of a relationship. The way I’ve always understood it, Time’s unspoken motto is “ALL THINGS PASS”, and that’s what “I told you so” refers back to. Any time you become attached to something and then it’s gone … “I told you that all things pass”, says Time. In verse two, I’ve always had a mental image in which someone met their partner at the circus or something, so that after the relationship ends, such places come to be mixed up with too many bittersweet memories. The last couple of verses have never resonated for me, and some of the word choices seem strange (e.g. that “seriously”, which perhaps in Auden’s time wasn’t as tinged with informal usage).