The Lesson (After W.H. Auden’s “But I Can’t”)

One of W.H. Auden’s greatest gifts as a poet was his versatility, being one of the major figures in the 20th century for resurrecting a wide range of traditional poetic forms. He was as comfortable with free verse as he was with long-forgotten French forms. His masterly villanelle, “But I Can’t” – an achingly simple meditation on time – is a perfect example of this. The villanelle is one of my favourite of the traditional forms, so I had fun working with this form for my response to Auden’s poem. One of the advantages of the villanelle is that the repeating refrains allow for more to be said through the form than the words themselves convey. I hope you enjoy both Auden’s use of the form and my response.

The Lesson (After W.H. Auden’s “But I Can’t”)

It doesn't pay to look too deep
If our lives will go on in their contented way;
We must learn just to breathe and sleep.

The questions that in silence creep
And nag at our minds: cast them away.
It doesn't pay to look too deep.

Graze in fields, content like sheep,
Wander, wonder, drift and stray:
We must learn just to breathe and sleep.

Time may show up the truths we keep
And make our lies as plain as day;
It doesn't pay to look too deep.

For time will run and time will leap;
What time will show, I dare not say.
We must learn just to breathe and sleep.

The answer's vague and guessing's cheap.
(If desperate, we can always pray.)
It doesn't pay to look too deep;
We must learn just to breathe and sleep.

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