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An Auden villanelle

Tuesday, 21 February, 2017

On this day in 1907, the English poet Wystan Hugh Auden was born and we’re celebrating his birthday with one of his lesser-known works written in the ‘villanelle’ form. The villanelle emerged during the Renaissance and the word comes from the Italian villano, or peasant. What began as Italian folksong turned into nineteen-line poems with two rhymes throughout, consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with the first and third lines of the opening tercet recurring alternately at the end of the other tercets and with both repeated at the close of the final quatrain. The most famous villanelle in English is Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

WH Auden Written in 1940 during the darkest days of the Second World War, If I Could Tell You conveys Auden’s sense of uncertainty about the future of life and love.

If I Could Tell You

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 reason 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 the lions all get up and go,
And 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.

WH Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973)


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