Study Guide

Silence Quotes

By Marianne Moore

  • Language and Communication

    My father used to say, (1)

    We're at the poem's first line, and the speaker already turns it over to her father. We are introduced to the speaker's father before we learn anything about her. Does that bother us? Maybe not. Usually when people begin a conversation with "My father used to say…," they are either going to tell us about how their father nagged them all the time, or they are going to tell us about how crazy and funny their father is. We love to complain about parents, and we <em>really</em> love how weird and out of touch they can be, right? On rare occasions, parents actually say something wise, and that's useful to hear too.

    the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth –  (7)

    You know how parents like to say, "Don't talk with your mouth full"? Well, sometimes you <em>can't</em> talk with your mouth full – because that darn mouse is taking up too much room. We knew from the title that the poem would deal with silence, but we didn't expect <em>this</em> to be one cause for it. Notice how this line is much longer than the previous lines, as if it actually enacts how a mouse's tail dangles out of a cat's mouth.

    and can be robbed of speech,
    by speech which has delighted them. (9-10)

    The silence described here depends on someone having spoken. <em>Speech</em> (delightful speech) robs speech from superior people. One nice thing about these superior people is that they're not into one-upmanship. They're happy just to appreciate something great someone else said; they don't need to prove that they're the funniest or cleverest person in the room. By the way, is that what's going on here?  Is the father's "delightful speech" robbing our speaker of <em>her</em> speech?

    The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
    not in silence, but restraint." (11-12)

    When people are really shocked or amazed by something, sometimes they post it onto their Facebook profiles or Twitter pages with the phrase: "There are no words." That's basically the idea here. When we are really moved by something, the only thing we can say is that we <em>can't</em> say anything about it. The father's distinction between "silence" and "restraint" is worth examining. If we just stay silent, no one would know that we feel anything at all. What people need to see is that our silence isn't just straightforward silence, but rather a <em>meaningful</em> silence. It's a strange contradiction: you have to speak up to let people know you're not speaking.

    Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
    Inns are not residences. (13-14)

    The speaker's father is a pretty sneaky guy. "Make my house your inn" sounds really welcoming – but it's actually a welcome with a warning thrown in. By pointing out that her father actually means, "Don't get too comfortable, this isn't your home" the speaker shows us how phrases can be interpreted in multiple ways and that we should be reading for more subtle meanings, in addition to the obvious ones.

  • Power

    My father used to say, (1)

    As soon as we hear "father," we think, "Uh oh, authority figure." And the speaker tells us we're going to hear what her father "used to say," which implies he said this several times, again and again. Usually when someone says something again and again, they want to teach or instruct their listener about something. The father is really asserting his authority here.

    "Superior people never make long visits,
    have to be shown Longfellow's grave
    nor the glass flowers at Harvard. (2-4)

    The speaker's father describes what superior people do (or don't do), and of course we immediately start to compare ourselves to these people. Do we behave in the same way? Can we qualify as superior people? But the father picks pretty specific examples that clearly tell us that superiority comes with being well-read (such as knowing who Longfellow is) and having spent time around fancy universities (such as Harvard. Don't think the father drops the H-bomb for nothing).

    Self-reliant like the cat –
    that takes its prey to privacy,
    the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth –  (5-7)

    To emphasize how superior these people are, the speaker's father compares them to a cat who has conquered his prey. The detail about the mouse's tail resembling a shoelace is striking. It makes the mouse seem more sympathetic and…a bit like us. Is this detail included to make us identify more with the mouse than with the superior cat?

    and can be robbed of speech
    by speech which has delighted them. (9-10)

    These people are so superior, they're OK with not asserting their superiority all the time. They are confident and secure enough to let other people do all the talking; they don't feel like they have to put in their own two cents every minute. The word "robbed" makes them sound like they are briefly overpowered, or even victimized, but even that's not a big deal. They let it happen. They're still in control.

    […] "Make my house your inn." (13)

    Notice that the only times the speaker or her father mention themselves is when they describe something they own. In the speaker's case, that's "<em>my</em> father," and in the father's case, that's "<em>my</em> house." Calling something yours is an assertion of power – it turns that thing into your possession.

  • Isolation

    "Superior people never make long visits, (2)

    Superior people don't need your constant company. But it doesn't sound like they're fine with being alone <em>all</em> the time. They don't make long visits, but presumably they still do make visits.

    Self-reliant like the cat –
    that takes its prey to privacy,
    the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth –  (5-7)

    In what way is the cat self-reliant? We might initially assume that the cat is self-reliant in how it hunts. It doesn't need anyone else's help to find and catch the mouse. But that's not what the speaker's father describes here. Instead, he describes the cat running off to eat its prey privately – in other words, the cat is self-reliant in that he doesn't need anyone else around to enjoy himself. It's not <em>getting</em> the mouse but <em>enjoying</em> the mouse that the cat wants to do alone.

    they sometimes enjoy solitude,
    and can be robbed of speech
    by speech which has delighted them. (8-10)

    If these superior people are robbed of speech by speech, we assume they've been talking to someone. After all, <em>whose</em> speech delighted them? Like the cat that wants to enjoy his mouse alone, these superior people sound like they might be a little selfish. They grab onto something great someone else has said, but then they want to keep their delight to themselves? That's not exactly enjoying solitude – that's picking and choosing when you want someone around and when you don't. Is that really fair?

    The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
    not in silence, but restraint." (11-12)

    According to the speaker's father, we should be OK with solitude and we should be self-reliant. We assume with this quote, however, that the father describes how we can show our deepest feelings to other people. Why does it matter if our feelings are revealed to others or not? If we are truly self-reliant, shouldn't we be fine with just having our feelings and not caring if anyone notices we're having them?

    […] "Make my house your inn."
    Inns are not residences. (13-14)

    The poem begins with the speaker's father saying that superior people don't make long visits, which suggests that these people prefer not to stay too long. They, for their own reasons, want to keep everything short and sweet. In the poem's last two lines, we realize that, actually, it's the father who doesn't want them to stay too long. Superior people aren't necessarily those who like to keep moving, but rather those who understand the implicit message in "Make my house your inn."

  • Tradition and Customs

    My father used to say, (1)

    Could there be a figure who more directly represents "Tradition and Customs" than a father? Your own father might be really cool and hip, but fathers in general are the universal symbol for "old school and old rules." Also, we're going to hear what the speaker's father <em>used</em> to say – what he said in the past, but doesn't say anymore. The speaker omits <em>why</em> he doesn't anymore, but we guess that the speaker wants to emphasize that her father and his values belong to the past.

    have to be shown Longfellow's grave
    nor the glass flowers at Harvard. (3-4)

    Both Longfellow's grave and the Harvard glass flowers represent 19th-century culture. Longfellow is definitely a 19th-century poet; his poetry basically displays everything that the modernists later overthrew, such as rhyming lines, a clear plot, and sentimental expressions. As for the glass flowers: although they were completed in the 1930s, they were begun in the 1880s and are strongly associated with a widespread 19th-century interest in natural history.

    Self-reliant like the cat –
    that takes its prey to privacy,
    the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth –  (5-7)

    Literary scholar Elizabeth Gregory has discussed how these lines allude to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century American writer and philosopher. You may have heard of him as the primary formulator of a branch of philosophy called Transcendentalism…but we don't really need to know that for Moore's poem. Emerson did, however, write an important essay called "Self-Reliance," and the image of a cat going after its own tail appears in his essay on "Experience." (Notice how Moore changes this to a mouse's tail, making the cat become a real predator.) So the speaker's father doesn't just make obvious references to 19th-century culture, he also embeds these references within his own words.

    […] "Make my house your inn." (13)

    Moore tells us in the notes attached to the end of "Silence" that this quote comes from Edmund Burke, an 18th-century British writer, philosopher, and politician. But the quote doesn't come from him directly; Moore found it in a biography, <em>Burke's Life</em>, by James Prior. This is similar to how we come across the quote from the speaker's father; we get it secondhand. Also, check out how a lot of the poem's references direct us to well-respected, important, and very intellectual <em>men</em>. Longfellow, Emerson and Burke were all stately male figures who weren't shy about expressing their opinions and were greatly admired for their rhetorical skills – sounds like how the speaker's father might imagine himself, doesn't it?