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Silence

Silence

by Marianne Moore

Lines 1-4 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

My father used to say,

  • The real first line of a poem is its title, and this poem's title tells us that, in the next 14 lines, we're going to read something about silence. But check out line 1 – it already throws off our expectations. The speaker presents us with her father…speaking. Isn't speaking the opposite of being silent?
  • We might already see a solution to this contradiction. Notice how the speaker says, "used to say." We know that whatever follows this line, the father doesn't say it anymore. Now he is silent. We should keep our eyes open for any clues about why he's stopped talking.
  • "My" tells us that this poem has an individual speaker. There has to be an "I" to whom the father belongs for the father to be "my father." But this "I" immediately hands over speaking duties to her dad. Yes, she's our speaker, but we're getting her father's speech.

Line 2

"Superior people never make long visits,

  • The father's speech begins, and it's about superior people.
  • What does he mean by "superior" here? People can be superior in many different ways, and "superior" doesn't always mean "better." For instance, "superior" can refer to someone who is more powerful. Imagine a store clerk saying, "Let me ask my superiors if I can give you this refund." Or it can indicate that someone is from a higher social class, such as ritzy people who belong to an exclusive country club. Or it can be used ironically to mean someone who is snobby. Haven't you ever heard someone say, "Oh, she's too superior to sit with us," about a stuck-up classmate? Then again, it can also refer to someone worth admiring.
  • In any case, we're a little put-off by this word (it's never nice to hear, right off the bat, about people who are better than you). Then again we're not sure whether we dislike the people described as "superior," or the person who used the word, the father.
  • So, these superior people never stay too long when they are visiting. Again, how we interpret this fact about them depends on how we read the word "superior." Is this because they don't want to overstay their welcome, or because they want to leave us wanting more, or because they're too important and have better places to be?
  • We have to wonder if the speaker's father gets out very much. Of all the ways he could describe superior people ("Superior people are rich!" "Superior people have nice hair!" "Superior people are Yankees fans!"), he focuses on how they make visits?

Lines 3-4

have to be shown Longfellow's grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard.

  • These lines tell us a couple more things superior people never do. These superior people are starting to sound like really easy guests. They don't stay too long, and you don't have to take them out sightseeing.
  • The father's phrasing is vague here. Does he mean that superior people don't have to be shown around because they are already familiar with Longfellow's grave and the Harvard glass flowers? Or does he mean that they are good at showing themselves around and don't need anyone to hold their hands? Or does he mean that they're not interested in seeing such things, so there's no need to bother trying? Or maybe he means that the grave and the glass flowers are kind of lame tourist attractions, and so superior people know better than to go see touristy things?
  • But hold on. Both Longfellow's grave and the Harvard glass flowers are actually pretty cool. At least we think so.
  • The "Longfellow" mentioned here is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famous 19th-century American poet who wrote "Paul Revere's Ride" (you know the poem: "Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…"). Longfellow lived in Cambridge, MA, and is buried nearby at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Mount Auburn is exactly how you'd picture a New England cemetery: centuries-old tombstones, sprawling groves of trees, and lots of famous "residents," including writers Henry James, Amy Lowell, and Robert Creeley. It's creepy, romantic, and educational – what more could anybody want?
  • And then you have the glass flowers, which are also in Cambridge, at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Oh, those amazing glass flowers! This collection took Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a father-and-son team of glass artists, about 50 years to make (between 1887-1936), and it reproduces over 847 different plant species. Harvard wanted to use these glass models to teach botany to its students, but they're really artistic masterpieces in their own right.
  • OK, so we know that both Longfellow's grave and the Harvard glass flowers are in Cambridge, MA. This suggests that the father lived around there too, which gives us a better picture of the poem's setting – or at least the setting for the father's speech – as well as the characters living within that setting.
  • When we think of Cambridge, we may think of descriptions such as "old-fashioned," "genteel" (which means refined and polite), and "well-educated." OK, "intense overachievers with perfect SAT scores and insane extracurriculars" might also come to mind, but let's remember this poem was written almost 100 years ago.
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