“If I Told Him, A Complete Portrait of Picasso”

Throughout Gertrude Stein’s poem, “If I Told Him, A Complete Portrait of Picasso”, many of the lines and sentences are repeated. Stein even acknowledges her repetition in line 19 when she writes “now actively repeat at all”, which she then repeats three times. What is the purpose of all this repetition, what is she using it to say? As every line is repeated multiple times and sometimes in different sentence structures, but always with the same words, I thought that it sounded like the author was unsure of something, debating it back and forth in her head and constantly questioning herself.

She mentions Napoleon many times, and I thought of that with the last line of this poem, “Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.” Napoleon is a historic reference of Napoleon Bonaparte from whom we learn not to let history repeat itself. From my high school history knowledge I remember that Napoleon tried to invade Russia in the winter and due to the freezing conditions he lost and then the Germans did not learn from napoleon, they too tried to invade Russia in the winter and lost as well. Through her repetition she seems to be debating something that maybe she should know from the past not to repeat or may influence the course of history.

Maybe she is debating whether to tell Picasso something or maybe through her poem she is trying to tell the readers something about Picasso, his art, his life. Picasso is known to have used numerous mediums and maybe the repetition is describing that. And maybe the repetition is describing how popular and spoken about the works of Picasso were.

As she mentions Napoleon many times through her poem, I connected this idea to the title of this poem, “If I Told Him, A Complete Portrait of Picasso” to interpret it to mean that Picasso, who is compared to “Napoleon” here “came first” and then influenced many other painters, sculptors and even writers (26). I am still uncertain how the first part of the title connects to the second.


What do you think is the purpose of the repetition?

How do you think the first part of the title connects to the second part and how do you think the title connects to the poem itself?

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2 Responses to “If I Told Him, A Complete Portrait of Picasso”

  1. Rani says:

    Stein often repeats the same phrase using varying forms of syntax throughout the work. In my opinion, she uses this inimitable syntax to address Picasso within the confines of their friendship. Picasso strove to explore new mediums of art and revolutionize the artistic community though his creation of cubism. Cubists cast away the conventional approach to art and focus on the two dimensional shape of figures. Similarly, Stein approached a similar path as she delved deeper into the world of poetry. She endeavored to create a form of poetry by casting away the conventional “time-orientated” poetry of the time and creating her own unique form. By writing this poetry for Picasso, she seems to be offering recognition and support of his own undertakings by sharing with him her own. She titled this work “If I told Him”, and it is difficult to tie this into the second half of the work. It is my belief that she uses Napoleon as an example because he was a great general of his time, and was among the few to come close to conquering Europe. However, his major crucial mistake was underestimating the harshness of winter. By alluding to him in her work, she means to compare both Picasso and Napoleon. Both were great pioneers in their field and encountered hardships along the way. It is possible that this work served as a warning to Picasso to avoid making the same mistake Napoleon did by going too far with his innovative methods.

  2. Conor McGuire says:

    I too am very perplexed by this poem. I believe that the repetition in this poem is done so in order to illustrate a certain state of mind. The constant, what seems like darting back and forth about weather or not she should “tell him” seems to imply a state of anxiety about weather or not to “tell him”. what this she is referring to is not clear, nor do i think it is supposed to be clear. How this ties into Picasso is again unclear. Perhaps the repetition is designed to mimic what stein believes goes through Picasso’s creative process. However, the constant reference to Napoleon and history further makes this poem ambiguous. I think that Napoleon serves as a direct opposite to Picasso. Whereas Napoleon was somebody who was victimized by not paying attention to what history offers i believe that Picasso is depicted here as somebody who transcends history, Picasso is somebody who operates within his own domain of creativity and this poem tries to attest to that. As for the title, i can only believe that the first part of the title serves only to illustrate how Stein perceives her artistic relationship with Picasso, as i see no other connection between the two.

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