“If I Could Tell You” – W. H. Auden’s Hopeful Whisper in the Dark

Through the window by my desk I can see that our backyard garden is crashing.

Vibrant summer greens are now tinged with yellow and brown. Hollyhocks bend toward the ground in graceful curves; tired sunflower heads droop.

Yet shafts of early-autumn sunlight illumine beauty in the bean stands and potato vines. Work remains to be done among the still-green tomatoes and the still-straight corn.

Seasonal change whispers to my soul.

In my morning reading I encountered a poet who also whispered of change.

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.

The poet is W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden, who published “If I Could Tell You” in 1940.

W.H. Auden at his desk.

“The Second World War had just begun,” notes Emily Andrews in 30 Poems to Memorize Before It’s Too Late. “And Auden had moved to the United States on a temporary visa:

“Informed by the British army that his return was unnecessary, he watched helplessly as his homeland crumbled (quite literally) across the sea under the pressure of German bombings. Both Auden’s personal life and the future of Western civilization looked highly uncertain.

The uncertainties of my life are quite different, and Western civilization’s future remains perilous for different reasons than those in 1941 as well.

As I write, I’ve just returned from visiting my 87-year-old father. Over lunch at Dos Charros, a café we love, I surveyed his weathered face.

While he enjoyed his favorite Denver omelet and I a plate of cheese enchiladas, we chuckled over family stories. Suddenly my dad’s eyes welled. The conversation turned to our family’s unexpected winter sorrow: we lost my younger brother, his son, to Covid-19.

“Time only knows the price we have to pay.”

The poet’s words suit the mystery of these days.

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.

Auden was a Shakespeare scholar, and Andrews comments that he’s thinking of the profound statements clowns often make in those plays–a twist from the frivolous entertainment we see in clowns when we’re children.

And Shakespeare’s comedies end in dancing, too, a nod to nature’s final harmony. Yet as we age, stumbling overtakes us, Auden says. Our dancing is no longer graceful. My once-athletic father’s walker is a steely reminder of this fact.

The poet has no definitive answer for these mysteries, but he will not leave us without hope.

“The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,” he considers. “There must be reasons why the leaves decay.”

The world would be quite different if there were no cycle of seasons, no generational change. When we rail against reality, we have no better idea to offer.

But Auden takes us even further, suggesting:

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay.


Well, yes. Pondering the Christian doctrine of theosis while reading CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces this summer, I see the reason for our hope.

This world may well be a seed of something more, a preparation for a dimension where, as Christ promises, “moth and rust do not corrupt and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Further, St. Paul tells us that “all creation groans,” is in a state of longing, or as J.B. Philips rendered it in his translation of the New Testament, is “on tiptoe” until the children of God come into their inheritance.

I’m saying more here than the poem is, to be sure.

Still, Auden, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1954 to 1973, was a Christian and the hint of eternity is whispered in his words.

Andrews notes: “As the ever-changing nature of time is embodied in the blowing winds and decaying leaves, the speaker wonders whether that change originates from some fixed source. Surely reversals come from somewhere and for some reason. We know that the leaves’ decay fertilizes the coming spring.”

Could our desire for perpetual youth and beauty, seemingly mocked by the progression of time, actually indicate a deeper reality?

Is there a more permanent coming spring?

Andrews calls it “the hope of unknowing.”

Like Auden, I believe in it. The fallen leaves are not the final word. “The vision seriously intends to stay.”

Visions cannot be measured on a scale, yet poets and prophets see them. Springtime buds conceal their truth.

If I could tell you more, I’d let you know.

As I watch autumn overtake the summer garden, I feel it.

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You might also enjoy Poetry’s Penetrating Power in Five Minutes with the Daily Poem Podcast. Host David Kern edited 30 Poems to Memorize (Before It’s Too Late). I highly recommend both! Kern also edits FORMA, one of my very favorite literary journals. Emily Andrews is an associate editor.

It’s never too late to read Dante…but over the weekend I discovered a great reason to begin now. Check out this video (which explains why the pace of this large group read is very manageable) for 100 Days of Dante. The website is stunning. The lectures for each canto are short and absolutely accessible for a beginner. The soul journey begins! I’ll be sharing more Dante resources soon!

Photos by pure julia on Unsplash and John Kjellström via Wikimedia Commons.