17 pages 34 minutes read

W. H. Auden

If I Could Tell You

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1940

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Summary and Study Guide


“If I Could Tell You” is a famous lyric poem by W. H. Auden, written in 1940. The poem uses simple language and refrains typical of the villanelle lyric form to meditate upon mankind’s endless search for love and meaning in spite of the relentless march of time. Above all, it is a wistful reflection on the impossibility of truly understanding and knowing the world and its purpose. “If I Could Tell You” reflects many of Auden’s characteristic strengths as a poet: his elegant and arresting language, his interest in intricate poetic forms and meters, and his willingness to grapple with some of the big-picture issues that confronted his readers in the 20th century and beyond.

Poet Biography

Wystan Hugh Auden—more commonly known as W. H. Auden—was born on February 21, 1907 in Yorkshire, England. Auden was raised in an affluent family: his father was a doctor, and his mother was a trained nurse. Auden received an excellent education growing up and later enrolled at Oxford University in the 1920s to study biology. While at university, he soon realized that his interests were more literary than scientific, switching his degree major from biology to English as a result. Although he soon became close friends with fellow writers, such as Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood (with whom he would later closely collaborate), Auden did not distinguish himself academically, graduating in 1928 with a third-class degree.

After graduating from Oxford University, Auden decided to take some time to travel. He spent several months living in Berlin, carefully observing the political and social upheaval then taking place in Germany. During his absence, Stephen Spender arranged for a private, limited-run printing of some of Auden’s poems, which circulated in England amongst their small social circles in 1928. Two years later, in 1930, Auden’s first commercial poetry collection was published by Faber & Faber under the auspices of T. S. Eliot, who was then one of the most famous figures in English Modernism. The collection was simply entitled Poems. During the late 1920s and through the mid-1930s, Auden earned his living mainly through teaching, working first privately as a tutor and subsequently as a schoolteacher at various schools in England and Scotland. Around 1935, he left teaching behind to focus more intensively upon his writing. He contributed essays, reviews, and other miscellaneous pieces to various publications as a freelancer.

Auden was gay and already pursued relationships with several men during his youth and early adulthood, but in 1936 he married Erika Mann, the daughter of the famous German novelist Thomas Mann. Because Erika faced persecution under the Nazi party, Auden undertook the marriage as a gesture of solidarity so that Erika could gain British citizenship and flee to safety. There were no tensions or misunderstandings in this arrangement, as Erika was a lesbian and had no desire to live permanently with Auden. After their marriage, Auden and Erika went traveling together for a period of time, visiting Spain, China, and the United States. The two remained legally married until Erika’s death in 1969. Although they eventually spent most of their lives apart from one another, they always remained on friendly terms.

In 1939, Auden decided to emigrate to the United States. He was accompanied by Christopher Isherwood, with whom he collaborated on various pieces, such as plays and the book Journey to a War. It was also in the United States that Auden would come into his own as a poet: In 1940, the year after his arrival, he published one of his most important poetry collections, Another Time, and a series of intricate, long-form poems throughout the decade, culminating in The Age of Anxiety (1947), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Auden’s private life also blossomed in the United States, with Auden meeting fellow poet Chester Kallman, who would become his lover and sometime-collaborator on many librettos, including The Rake’s Progress in 1951 and The Bassarids in 1966. Their relationship would endure until Auden’s death in 1973.

Auden was a prolific writer who worked across a myriad of genres, from poetry to drama to criticism. Some of his poetry collections include Nones (1951), City Without Walls (1969), Epistle to a Godson (1972), and Thank You, Fog (1974). Auden also personally anthologized his poetic works across the years into major collections, dividing his shorter works from his longer pieces in Collected Shorter Poems, which was published in 1962, and Collected Longer Poems, in 1968. His poetic subject matter was as varied as his forms, traversing religion, politics, art, private emotion, and the social issues of his time. During his career, he received several major awards including the National Book Award and later spent several years teaching as a professor of poetry at his alma mater, Oxford University.

Auden died of heart failure on September 29, 1973 while visiting Vienna. He was 66 years old. A memorial plaque in his honor now appears in Westminster Abbey. He remains a major figure of 20th-century English poetry on both sides of the Atlantic.

Poem Text

Auden, W. H. “If I Could Tell You.” 1940. All Poetry.


“If I Could Tell You” is one of Auden’s shorter lyric poems. Taking the strict classical form of a villanelle, the poem’s speaker reflects upon the passage of time and the fragility of human emotions and knowledge. The speaker begins by reflecting upon how time often reveals very little apart from the costs humans must pay. The speaker meditates upon the impossibility of predicting what will happen, regretting that they cannot even explain to their beloved the point of the human experience. The speaker then uses natural imagery to reflect upon the changing of the seasons and the relentless passage of time, wondering about the cycles of blossoming and “decay” (Line 11) amongst living things and whether there is an overarching order to the world. The speaker also toys with the possibility of intentionality and agency, even though these elements appear to remain elusive in the experience of living things. The speaker closes the poem by returning to the characteristic refrains, questioning if there is any way to evade this cycle and concluding once more that if they had the definitive knowledge of such things, they would be eager to share it with the one they love.