The new Coen Brother’s film Hail, Caesar! was recently advertised with a trailer focused on the strange English expression “Would that it were so simple.” (if you haven’t seen it, check it out here!). This is an interesting construction, generally seen as would that + past tense, which you might otherwise see as “Would that I knew”, “Would that there was another way” or many other possibilities. It is also not always joined with that, for example would he knew the answer, though this is far less common. It is not a strange tense, though, merely an idiomatic use of more archaic language.
Why we can say “would that it were”
Would in this construction is not a past tense form of will – it is an old-fashioned, different meaning of would, to mean wish. The form would that is effectively the same as wish that or would rather that. These two sentences effectively have the same meaning:
- I wish that I knew the answer.
- Would that I knew the answer.
Notice that this use of would has an idiomatic use, however, and is mostly used without a subject. Without a subject, this idiomatic expression can carry a slightly different emphasis, making the expression more passive or general than the simple I wish that. While it might therefore translate to I wish that in the archaic (old) use of the word, it is more accurate to translate it to If only… in idiomatic use. It is not necessarily connected to a subject’s wish, therefore, more a general sense of longing (though of course in context it will be clear who is expressing that longing!).
Hence, would that it were so simple is an archaic, idiomatic way of saying if only it were so simple. And considering it might confuse a lot of people, the expression is fairly apt!