What's the exact meaning of "Did one but know" at the end of "Sonnet" by Christina Rossetti?

This is the full context:


by Christina Rosetti

I wish I could remember that first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or winter for aught I can say;
So unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and to foresee,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom yet for many a May.

If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!

And can anyone explain the meaning of 'but' here?

  • 5
    I think Did one but know! = If only I knew!
    – user230
    May 14, 2015 at 15:54
  • 1
    @snailboat: I'm not going to pore over it too much (it's poetry, so quite possibly multiple interpretations are credible), but my first impression is that final exclamation/lament means something more like Had I but known [realized at the time] - i.e. that I was experiencing my first physical contact with you, which I now can't recall because I wasn't paying much attention (because I didn't know then how important it would seem to me now). Effectively, If only I had known!. May 14, 2015 at 17:42
  • 1
    Sure, I don't think the perfect is required there, but it seems reasonable.
    – user230
    May 14, 2015 at 17:46

1 Answer 1


"But" here means "only"

See, among others, definition 5 in Old Websters or modern Collins, definition 10

Did one but know!


Did one only know!

Which is present tense, and equals

If one only knew!

This is similar to

Had I but known

which is past tense and which means

If I had only known.

Other uses for your construction include:

1 Did I But Know The Way

Did I but know the way (If only I knew the way)
I would go and pluck, On Suminoe's
Shore the sprouting
Grass to forget my love.

2 Did But She Know

November skies of blue and gray
Hang over low;
A quiet, hazy, chili day,
Earth white with snow.

As is the day, my heart is chill,
I wander slow.
With restless pain I murmur still
"Did she but know!"

I murmur still: "If she only knew"


“Shepherds, did they but know it, walk through greater halls than kings.”

Shepherds, if they only knew it, walk...


"We cannot say, with this poor heathen, 'Ah, did I but know him, how would I love him and honor him.' for... we do know him."

"Ah, if only I knew him"


"I, who would undergo all the plagues and miseries which any demon ever invented mankind to procure her any good; nay torture itself could not be misery to me, did I but know that she was happy!"

"If only I knew that she was happy."

Etc, etc, etc.

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