‘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’. 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: ‘Silence, and stealth of days! ’tis now / Since thou art gone, / Twelve hundred hours, and not a brow / But clouds hang on.’
Thomas Hood, ‘Silence’. 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’: ‘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 wide desert where no life is found …’
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Sonnet – Silence’. 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’: ‘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.”’
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 …’ 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’: 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.