by Marianne Moore
Silence vs. Speech
OK, the title makes it clear: silence is an important theme for this poem. We might even think of the poem as demonstrating various ways to be silent – from how the speaker gives more space to her father's words than her own, to the cat who has his mouth full with the mouse, to the father's suggestion that silence often tells us more than speech.
- Line 1: The speaker kicks off the poem by immediately handing it over to someone else. Also notice how the speaker says, "My father used to say," meaning that he doesn't say this anymore. We have to wonder why.
- Lines 5-8: The speaker's father uses the image of a cat running off to hide his prey as a simile for "superior people" – he describes these people as "Self-reliant like the cat" (the "like" tells us this is a simile, rather than a metaphor). But hold on: the cat isn't exactly self-reliant, since he has to rely on the mouse to be his prey. This isn't just a cat minding his own business; he's also been minding the mouse's business. We get what the speaker's father is trying to say, but he also seems to contradict himself. There's definitely a paradox here.
- Lines 11-12: Another paradox seems to occur in the father's statement that "The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence." Silence, by definition, means that nothing is said. How can anything show itself through nothing? In the next line, the father revises his statement to resolve this contradiction. It's not just silence that shows feeling, but restraint – the sense that one wants to say something, or could say something, but chooses to hold it back.
- Line 13: In this line, instead of saying, "He was sincere in saying," she says, "Nor was he insincere in saying." The speaker wants to point out that her father doesn't exactly lie, but she also seems hesitant about saying, "Yes, my father is totally honest," in a very positive way. Is she showing "restraint"? She keeps us guessing about whether she agrees with her father's judgment or not. Her phrasing lets her admit to her father's sincerity through a subtler, and more ambiguous, understatement.