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Villanelle -- W H Auden

(Poem #677) Villanelle
 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 the lions all 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.
-- W H Auden
[On Auden]

As both Martin and I have commented in the past, one of the pleasures of
Minstrelsy is the discovery of new poems, many of which we'd never have
chanced upon had it not been for this mailing list. Rather less common (but
no less thrilling) is the reappraisal of well-known names, the sudden
realization that you've come to like poets you didn't care for in previous

W. H. Auden tops my list of the latter. For the longest time I was less than
impressed by his work: I appreciated his obvious technical brilliance and
the width of his stylistic experiments, but his actual verse left me a bit

An abundance of guest submissions changed that, though. Perhaps Auden's art
takes time to appreciate, perhaps I just hadn't read the 'right' poems prior
to the Minstrels [1], perhaps my own tastes in poetry have changed in the
last year or two... for whatever reason, I found myself replacing disregard
with tolerance, tolerance with a grudging respect, respect with admiration,
and (finally!) admiration with a whole-hearted enjoyment of his work.

[1] For make no mistake, Auden's poetic output was immense, and much of it
is decidedly uneven.

[On Today's Poem]

At first glance, Auden's villanelle seems to echo familiar Shakespearean
themes: "Time triumphs over Flesh, and Love over all" [2]. But all is not as
simple as it seems. In a particularly modernist twist to the poem, Time
continues to be the malicious tyrant of old, but the triumph of Love is no
longer inevitable [3]. Instead, it's an object to be gained through
struggle. And this struggle is made incalculably harder by the problem of
communication, a problem that lies at the heart of all 20th century art.

Deep Philosophical Questions are all very well; the magic of the poem,
though, lies in the details - the roses and clowns, lions and soldiers. I
confess I can't make sense of every single reference Auden uses (for
example, how can _brooks_ run away?), but the overall effect is brilliant -
it captures the ideas of evanescence and loss and yes, love, remarkably

[2] See Martin's commentary on Sonnet XXXIII, from which the above line is
taken: poem #219

[3] See Cristina Gazzieri's wonderful essay on the crisis of love poetry in
the 20th century, part of her commentary on Yeats' "Solomon and the Witch",
archived at   poem #407

[On Villanelles]

Several modern poets have written villanelles; interestingly, they all seem
to be on the subject of time and loss. Check out the following works in the
Minstrels Archive,

Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", Poem #38
William Empson, "Missing Dates", Poem #202
Elizabeth Bishop, "One Art", Poem #639

The first of the above has an explanatory note on the form, and (as a bonus)
a self-referential villanelle by Peter Schaeffer appended.


A version of the poem starting with the line "Time _can_ say nothing but I
told you so" seems to be floating around the Internet. Needless to say, the
connotations are very different indeed...


56 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Matthew Chanoff said...

Brooks run, but not away. I thought that was the point, echoing:

"The winds must come from somewhere when they blow"

Thanks for a beautiful one. I think villanelle's work particularly well
for turning kids on to poetry.


Ebor Mithwarg said...

What I love here is the way Auden manages to capture a sense of finding Time
tiresome, without getting angry about it - reading the poem you don't (or at
any rate I don't) see time as this evil despot, but more like this fairly
cantankerous old relative who just has to be right all the time (no pun
intended!). But then that's really why I love Auden so much - his ability to
make all these grand themes a little more ordinarily, endearingly human.

Plus I'm awed by the way he almost effortlessly creates this sense of time
passing - wind and leaves decaying turn to roses, a circus of clowns blends
into lions and soldiers - it's the way a great painter can sketch a whole
expression with just a quick dab of paint: it's just a question of knowing
where to put it. And Auden, clearly, knows.


kshocked said...

just a note-
the title of this villanelle is "If I Could Tell You"

Casey Miller said...

Please continue the brilliance

Casey Miller
Absolute Background Search, Inc.
1231 Greenway Drive, Suite 100


Shakespearean? Exactly - for "brooks" and "sodiers" try this:-
If Birnam Wood to Dunsinane should go,
And all the cowards and false thanes run away...

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Angelo said...

Thanks for the post. For me I hear echoes of Yeats's "Circus Animals' Desertion," particularly with the long 'o' rhyme and the lions.

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