Will It Alter My Life Altogether?

Will It Alter My Life Altogether?

My dear stepson Tom proposed to Charl this week and she said “yes”, so this week’s theme has to be love so I have chosen “Tell Me the Truth About Love” by W.H. Auden.

Will it come like a change in the weather?
 Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
 O tell me the truth about love

W.H. Auden (1907—1973)

Poem 290. Tell Me the Truth About Love

Some say love’s a little boy,
 And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
 And some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next door,
 Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
 And said it wouldn’t do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
 Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
 Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
 Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
 O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
 In cryptic little notes,
It’s quite a common topic on
 The Transatlantic boats;
I’ve found the subject mentioned in
 Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
 The backs of railway guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
 Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
 On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
 Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
 O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
 It wasn’t ever there;
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
 And Brighton’s bracing air,
I don’t know what the blackbird sang,
 Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’t in the chicken-run,
 Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
 Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
 Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
 Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
 O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning,
 Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
 Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
 Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
 O tell me the truth about love.

In this poem Auden describes love’s essential indefinability—it’s so subjective that no single definition can embrace its gamut of emotions.

The narrator of the poem is clearly desperate to find out about love but gets a different answer everywhere they ask. They start with hearsay—is it a bird or a little boy? Does it make the world go around or not? In a comic moment, they then ask their male neighbour and inadvertently offend his wife.

The second stanza asks questions about love that seem kind of nonsensical—how can love look like a pair of pyjamas? How could it have an odour, let alone a smell of llamas? Auden engages the senses to try to define the nature of love: visual, olfactory and tactile cues are queried to see if there are any clues, but none of them give a hint. The pyjamas, the eiderdown fluff and the ham are not themselves relevant but they suggest the random and incomprehensible sensations we feel when we are in love.

In the third stanza we visit the library to inspect histories, newspaper reports of suicides and railway guides, and eavesdrop on the conversations between passengers on transatlantic liners, but we are no further forward—all these resources describe the implications and ramifications of love, but they give no clue to the central question: what is it?

Like the second stanza, the fourth considers how love might be sensed: what sound does it make? A howl like a dog or the boom of a drum; a musical noise that might be elicited from a saw or a grand piano; does it sing popular or classical songs, and will it stop on demand? Auden suggests the sounds people might make under the influence of love (including the insinuation that people won’t stop talking about it “when one wants to be quiet”) but the characteristic noise love makes, if any, remains mysterious.

The fifth stanza describes the narrator’s rather cursory search for love: they fail to find it in the summer house, or out on the river and it’s not on the promenade at Brighton, nor is it with the chickens or under the bed, though it may be that this failure arises from incomprehension of the blackbird’s song and the tulip’s message. Love might appear in any or all of these places, but it’s not there when it’s actively hunted for, rather like Macavity the Mystery Cat or an electron.

The sixth stanza asks more odd questions, though these are more about the character of love, personifying it and asking how it acts, rather than investigating its effect on the senses. All the actions described may be associated with the birth of love but are not characteristic of it.

In the last stanza the narrator wonders what they might be doing when love comes to them, and this too is demonstrative of the randomness and wild nature of love—it may come upon us as we engage in a rather personal activity, or when we answer the door; it may be that we fall in love with the person who tramples our toes, or because of a change in temperament, and its advent may be heralded by a rough word or a courteous gesture—there’s just no knowing. The one thing that is certain, and the question that is easiest to answer is the last one: “Will it alter my life altogether?”—yes, it certainly will.

I like this poem because although it fails to define love in any specific way, it presents a sort of circumstantial view that is a definition of sorts: we cannot point at any specific relationship and say, “That’s the definition of love” since there are so many variations. We should also remember that Auden lived in England at a time when homosexuality was illegal and so he was unable to say directly that homosexual love was no different to that of heterosexuals. This poem makes the point: you can’t define love, so equally you can’t exclude any form of affection from its scope.

There are several performances of this poem on YouTube, so I selected what I considered to be the best one: Stephen Fry reads the poem as I feel it should be read as part of the launch of Allie Esiri’s 2022 anthology, A Poet for Every Day of the Year.

I chose this poem because it’s a favourite of mine and it’s dedicated to Tom and Charl as an engagement present. I wish them every happiness together.


  • Watch Stephen Fry’s performance at the Hay Festival on YouTube.