Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’, as Ludwig Wittgenstein put it. For Adrienne Rich, ‘Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome.’ With these thoughts in mind, we’ve gathered together ten of the best poems about silence, being silent, and quiet.
Henry Vaughan, ‘Silence and Stealth of Days’.
Silence and stealth of days ! ‘Tis now,
Since thou art gone,
Twelve hundred hours, and not a brow
But clouds hang on.
As he that in some cave’s thick damp,
Lock’d from the light,
Fixeth a solitary lamp
To brave the night,
And walking from his Sun, when past
That glimm’ring ray,
Cuts through the heavy mists in haste
Back to his day …
The Welsh-born Vaughan (1621-95) is less famous than some of his fellow metaphysical poets, such as John Donne or George Herbert, but his work has similarly been labelled ‘metaphysical’. In this poem, Vaughan laments the loss of a loved one and the silence that ensues.
Thomas Hood, ‘Silence’.
There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave—under the deep deep sea,
Or in the wide desert where no life is found,
Which hath been mute, and still must sleep profound;
No voice is hush’d—no life treads silently,
But clouds and cloudy shadows wander free,
That never spoke, over the idle ground …
This is not Hood’s most famous poem, but as it’s a sonnet about silence more profound than the silence of the grave or the bottom of the ocean, it earns its place on this list of the best poems about silence. This ‘true Silence’ is ‘self-conscious and alone’.
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Sonnet – Silence’.
There is a two-fold Silence — sea and shore —
Body and Soul. One dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s ‘No more’ …
As well as pioneering the short story form and being an instrumental figure in the development of the detective story, Poe (1809-49) was also a poet. In this sonnet, he turns his attention to the ‘two-fold Silence’.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Silence is all we dread’. This poem consists of a single quatrain, so is short enough to share in full here:
Silence is all we dread.
There’s Ransom in a Voice –
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face.
There is something terrifying about silence because it reminds us of infinity and ‘Himself’ – God, the one who does not speak to us.
Edgar Lee Masters, ‘Silence’. Masters (1868-1950) was an American poet and biographer (as well as being fully qualified lawyer). In this poem, Masters ponders different kinds of silence: ‘I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea, / And the silence of the city when it pauses, / And the silence of a man and a maid, / And the silence of the sick / When their eyes roam about the room.’
Sara Teasdale, ‘Silence’.
We are anhungered after solitude,
Deep stillness pure of any speech or sound,
Soft quiet hovering over pools profound,
The silences that on the desert brood,
Above a windless hush of empty seas,
The broad unfurling banners of the dawn,
A faery forest where there sleeps a Faun;
Our souls are fain of solitudes like these …
Beginning with a line containing that unusual word, ‘anhungered’, this poem by the American Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) is dedicated to Eleonora Duse, the Italian actress whom Teasdale adored, but never got to meet.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Silence’.
Since I lost you I am silence-haunted,
Sounds wave their little wings
A moment, then in weariness settle
On the flood that soundless swings.
Whether the people in the street
Like pattering ripples go by,
Or whether the theatre sighs and sighs
With a loud, hoarse sigh …
Another poem, like the Vaughan, about the silence that follows losing someone. In this poem, Lawrence (1885-1930) laments the fact that all noises become swallowed up again by an overwhelming, all-encompassing silence.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Ode to Silence’. Published in 1921, this poem is written in the direct style of Millay’s best work, and addresses itself to a personified female figure, ‘Grave Silence’. Millay goes in search of silence which has been lost to her – a poem that’s bound to resonate with people who live in the bustling, noisy world of the big city…
Amy Clampitt, ‘A Silence’. Clampitt (1920-94) is often overlooked in the annals of twentieth-century American poetry, but as ‘A Silence’ (from her last collection, A Silence Opens) shows, she deserves a wide readership. The poem considers the importance of silence in nature and in a life of religious devotion and contemplation.
Paul Goodman, ‘Silence’. For the American author Paul Goodman (1911-71), there are nine kinds of silence, which he enumerates in this poem: they include the ‘alive’ silence of ‘alert perception’, the silence of apathy, the silence of listening to another speak, and the ‘noisy silence’ of resentment. You can listen to the literary critic Sir Christopher Ricks reading the poem by clicking on the link above.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.