Have you ever overheard someone in a restaurant telling a funny story, or have you ever woken up from a really vivid dream and immediately reached for a piece of paper to jot some notes? This poem sounds a bit like if, awhile later, someone read your notes out loud. Sure, it's short, but it's filled with "fortune cookie" bits of wisdom, quick and powerful punch lines, and unusual cultural references (such as the glass flowers at Harvard). Now all you have to do is take those brilliant notes and flesh them out into a longer essay…
We don't have to dig around too much to figure out what the title, "Silence," means. In the poem's lines 11-12, the speaker's father dishes out this bit of wisdom: "The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;/ not in silence, but restraint." We've all heard versions of this before. Polonius, in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, warns his son Laertes, "Give thy thoughts no tongue…Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice," but our own parents probably used the less poetic "Mind your mouth!" or "Think before you speak!" to get the same point across.
We could say that "Silence" reveals two different reasons for why keeping quiet is often the best option. The speaker's father gives us the first reason directly. Talk is cheap; if we really care about something, we won't go running our mouths about it. Then again, however, we have to consider why silence, or restraint, is given so much value in a poem. Isn't writing a poem basically a way to talk (and sometimes talk a lot) about our deepest feelings?
Yes, we definitely shouldn't miss the title's irony. It claims the poem is about silence, but then 14 lines of verse follow it. And almost all those lines are quoted from the man who says silence is so important. This gets at the second reason we might want to think before we speak. If we say something, just as the father does, who knows what our listener will do with what we said? Our listener could always repeat our words – even turn our words into a (maybe ironic) poem! Anything we say immediately becomes public property, and that's the implied warning "Silence" gives us.
The speaker doesn't give any clues about where, exactly, we're all supposed to be. There are her father's references to Longfellow's grave and the glass flowers at Harvard, but they only indicate that the father may have lived in, or around, Cambridge, MA. We might imagine, then, that we're sitting in the speaker's living room, visiting her for tea or coffee. It's a quiet but pleasant afternoon, and she offers us cookies while telling us funny stories about her father. We feel warm and comfortable in her floral-patterned, lace-cushioned armchairs, but we also catch the subtle hint in her words: yes, she enjoys having us here, but we probably shouldn't overstay our welcome.
The poem is called "Silence," and, unsurprisingly, the speaker keeps pretty silent about herself. Yes, she tells us that she has a father, but then again, we all technically have fathers, right? And sometimes we can figure out what a person is like based on what she says and how she says it, but even that doesn't really work here. Eleven out of the poem's fourteen lines are a direct quotation from the speaker's father. We hardly hear the speaker's voice at all.
So, what can we say about the speaker? Well, we know she's modest and keeps her opinions to herself. She quotes her father, but she doesn't add much commentary to what he said – she withholds her own judgment. She seems to take her father's advice on restraint to heart.
But do you also hear a touch of irony in her tone in the last two lines? Don't you get the feeling that there's a lot she could be saying, but deliberately chooses just to imply? She says, "Nor was he insincere in saying…" (13). What's up with the phrasing here? Why not just say, "And he was sincere in saying…"? Does this reveal anything about her actual opinion on her father's speech?
Another way to think of that question is to consider how (or in what light) the speaker presents her father. What do we make of him after reading this poem? For someone who is into silence, he sure seems to talk a lot. And unlike the restrained speaker, the father has no problem expressing his opinion about proper behavior and what makes "superior people." Do you think the speaker agrees with her father about what "superior people" are like, or do you think she is actually getting him to reveal his own hypocrisy?
Understanding the actual text of the poem is not hard at all. There aren't any long, weird SAT words, the poem's literary references are folded into normal, everyday speech, and the occasional cultural references are easy enough to Google.
So, where does the poem's difficulty lie? In all the things left unsaid. Don't forget that the poem is called "Silence," and, here, silence is meaningful. We have to spend some time figuring out what the speaker suggests or implies but doesn't quite put into words. For example, why doesn't the speaker say anything about herself? What can we figure out about her anyway? Why does she let her father's words take up most of the poem? What is her attitude toward what he says?
Moore found inspiration for her poems in all sorts of weird places. We can easily imagine her (wearing her cape and George Washington hat, of course) prowling around dusty museums or tirelessly scanning through the local library's magazine collection. Almost anything can be turned into material for a poem, and in "Silence," Moore references well-known literary figures such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Edmund Burke. But she also quotes from a personal conversation she had with an acquaintance, Ms. A.M. Homans. Even with her slightly obscure cultural references (such as Longfellow's grave or the glass flowers at Harvard), we feel that she somehow encountered them in her everyday life. It's like they might just be interesting things found around her neighborhood.
Rhyming lines? Nope. Regular meter? Not that we can see. While most of the lines do look like they are around the same length (7-8 syllables), we also get these long, straggly lines randomly throughout the poem (for example, lines 7, 11, and 13). We're not sure that any clear, logical reason exists for why these lines are so long, or why they appear where they do.
But before we just label "Silence" as free verse, we should notice that the poem has 14 lines. 14 lines? That immediately makes us think of a sonnet. Sure, unlike "Silence," traditional sonnets have a rhyme scheme and follow a metrical pattern (usually iambic pentameter; think Shakespeare or John Donne), but they are also almost always 14 lines long. Also, many sonnets have a "turn" that occurs in the last two lines – a sort of surprise ending, much like the punch line to a joke.
Like a sonnet, "Silence" also has a turn at the end. Almost the entire poem is a single quotation from the speaker's father, but in the second-to-last line (line 13), the speaker interrupts: "Nor was he insincere in saying…," setting us up for the punch line at the end: "Inns are not residences" (line 14). So while Moore's poem doesn't exactly fit our idea of what most sonnets are like, it borrows a couple key characteristics.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
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.
In the "Setting" section, we discuss how we could easily imagine the speaker saying this poem while serving coffee or tea in her living room, on a pleasant, peaceful afternoon. This setting, and the generally calm tone of the poem, doesn't immediately call up violence or death. But if we look closely at what the poem says, we see that even silence can have a darkly dangerous edge.
Ever wanted to know how to be a superior person? In "Silence," we get a description of how to be one, but primarily through the example of how such people behave on visits to other people's houses. For the speaker's father, specific actions reveal a person's broader personality and character To him, what a person does or doesn't do while visiting his home can determine whether he is "superior" or "inferior."
While we could say that the cat-taking-mouse-as-prey imagery serves up some violence in the poem, let's be blunt here: Moore, as a poet, is really just not that into the sexy, sensational, or scandalous. And we're not so sure about Moore in actual life. The lady wore a cape and tricorn hat for kicks. Is that kinky or just weird? Well, that's up to you.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (3)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance" (5)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Experience" (7)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Resignation" (11-12)
Edmund Burke (13) – "make my house your inn," as quoted in James Prior's Life of Burke
The Glass Flowers Collection, Harvard Museum of Natural History (4)
A.M Homans, Professor Emeritus of Hygiene, Wellesley College (1) – When Moore published this poem, she also included a note at the end, claiming that this whole poem is actually a quotation from "Miss A. M. Homans, Professor Emeritus of Hygiene, Wellesley College."