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This excerpt came from The Confidence-Man (1857) from Herman Melville:

Oh, the cripple. Poor fellow. I know him well. They found me. I have said all I could for him. I think I abated their distrust. Would I could have been of more substantial service. And apropos, sir," he added, "now that it strikes me, allow me to ask, whether the circumstance of one man, however humble, referring for a character to another man, however afflicted, does not argue more or less of moral worth in the latter?

It seems to mean "I would or I could", but I am not sure, is this an idiomatic phrase? I doubt it. What do you make of it?

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"Would I could" here simply means "I wish I could".

The meaning matches up with this definition (under "will, v.1") from the Oxford English Dictionary:

[...] with ellipsis of 1st pers. pron. as an expression of longing = ‘I wish’, ‘O that’

This definition is marked archaic, so I think that it was archaic when Melville used it.

For more examples of "I would I should" from slightly earlier see The Waverley Novels, Volume 2 (1839) and Book of Martyrs (1831). In Kallundborg Church (1865) there's an example of the pronoun being omitted: "Would I might die now in thy stead!"

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The word "would" has been used instead of "would that" in the sentence.The phrase would (that) is used in formal English to make a strong wish.

The more common and idiomatic is "I wish (that) I could have been......

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  • "Would that I could" means "I wish I could have been"? Weird. Feb 17 '19 at 3:46
  • According to Cambridge Dictionary: "would that ...formal used to express a strong will or desire. Would rhat she could see her famous son now".
    – Khan
    Feb 17 '19 at 11:57
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It means "I wish that I could", and you'll also come across it as "I would that I could".

It is not idiomatic now. It is archaic. Educated native speakers will recognise it, but would rarely say it except when looking for a certain effect.

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