Some people say that love is like a little boy or a bird. Others say it makes the world go round, which some people find absurd. A man who seemed to know annoyed his wife when he defined it.
Maybe love looks like pajamas or smells like llamas, or does it smell comforting? Is it rough or smooth? What is the truth about love?
History books are cryptic, and people talk about love while crossing the ocean. It is mentioned in suicide accounts and is etched on the backs of train guides.
Does love howl like a hungry dog or boom like a military band? Can it be represented on a singing saw or a piano? Does it sing at parties, or does love prefer classical music? Can it be quiet on command? What’s the truth?
The speaker tried looking for love in a summer house, and at the River Thames at Maidenhead and Brighton, but he didn’t find it. He doesn’t know what the blackbird or tulip said about it. He couldn’t find it in the chicken run or under the bed.
Can love make special faces? Does it get sick on a swing? Does it get bored or preoccupied? Does it have a special relationship to money? Is patriotism enough for love? Does it tell vulgar tales? Tell the truth!
Will love come and surprise him, knock on his door, step on his feet, or turn up like the weather, mildly or roughly? When it comes, will it change his life? He asks for the fourth time, “O tell me the truth about love.”
In this delightful poem from the 1930s, Auden playfully considers the nature and form of love. Many of his poems are abstruse, complicated paragons of modernist erudition, but as he moved into his middle and late period, his poems became more conversational and vernacular. He took up the subject of love numerous times, leading him to be considered something of a poetic philosopher on the subject.
In his article on Auden’s poetic treatment of love, scholar Zsuzsa Rawlinson writes, “on a more personal and private level the subject of love, the trope of ‘in or out,’ with an equal persistence, also fills a large place in his work. It was here, in the personal, everyday things of life where Auden seems to have truly triumphed in giving a reflection and confirmation of our own comparable experiences.”
The poem was included in Tell Me the Truth About Love, a small volume of ten love poems and cabaret songs. In this volume, as in the poem itself, love is celebrated in and for its various guises –as joy, despair, mockery, fulfillment, and yearning.
What is love? This poem provides questions but no firm answers. At the ends of stanzas two, four, six, and seven (out of seven), he demands, using the title of the poem, “O tell me the truth about love,” although he asks only one person directly, his next-door neighbor. The answer was insufficient, at least to the ears of the man’s wife, who “got very cross.” The man “looked as if he knew,” but he may have said some cliché like “it makes the world go around.” Perhaps it was better for the man to act loving without trying to put it into words.
Indeed, the poem expresses the idea that love cannot be pinned down. A metaphor like “love’s a little boy” or “it’s a bird” will not do; love cannot be reduced to one simple thing. Auden extends the point in the second stanza to humorous effect: “Does it look like a pair of pyjamas, / Or the ham in a temperance hotel?” There is wit and absurdity in the metaphors and similes, which has led critic Lytton Strachey to compare Auden to court jesters of the Middle Ages and the philosophers of the 18th century, who were fond of pranks and buffoonery.
The poem does not directly mention sex, but one might catch references to the act (“odour … of llamas”) or various kinds of pubic hair in the second stanza, as well as “ham” doing double duty as buttocks and “pair of pyjamas” relating to an overnight tryst. Alternatively, a G-rated reading might see this stanza evoking emotions: sometimes love may seem “prickly” or “sharp,” and sometimes it may seem “soft” or “smooth.”
The third stanza turns to words written or spoken about love. Here it seems quite different from how it seems in poets who write verbosely and floridly of roses and swooning and deep metaphysical connections. Here Auden grants that love might be discovered in unlikely or unattractive places, such as “scribbled on / The backs of subway guides” or as “cryptic little notes” as footnotes in a history book. People often seem to discuss love in passing, on a Transatlantic cruise. Newspapers mention it when explaining suicides.
The fourth stanza suggests that love might also have its own sound that one could try to imitate. Perhaps it is like a hungry dog howling or the regular pulsation of a booming military band. Perhaps it makes an odd and playful noise like a singing saw, or perhaps it is grand and sweeping like classical music played on a fancy piano.
Each image, here and in the next two stanzas, seems to add something to the varieties of love and the different ways it is experienced. The regular pattern of the stanzas, each generally following an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme, together with the refrain “O tell me the truth about love,” reinforces the idea that the poem is unified in presenting different variations on the same theme.
In the final stanza, the speaker wonders how love might enter his life. Again the low diction and imagery reflect the humor of the poem generally: will love come as a surprise while “I’m picking my nose?” The speaker’s coarseness reinforces the poem’s immediacy and approachability, which might be a reason it has been one of his most popular poems.
Overall, the poem suggests that love can be subtle or bombastic, private or public, eternal or fleeting. As Rawlinson notes, reason is hardly any help on this subject, since it provides only “partial truths,” which is the same limitation in the poem’s imagery. Auden successfully conveys the playful irrationality and confusing character of love. The "truth about love" is unsayable.