Edgar Lee Masters' "Silence"

Updated on June 9, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Silence"

Oddly enough, even though human beings possess the marvelous ability to create language and employ it for most of their utilitarian necessities, those who enjoy waxing philosophical about the nature of human communication seem to naturally gravitate toward the notion that for the important, truly deep-down, heartfelt human emotions, the only language is no language at all. In fact, no sound exists that can communicate the profound feelings that humankind is wont to experience—or so that is the claim.

Interestingly, a useful argument could be made for the idea that physical silence is a requirement for attaining and sustaining the most profound experiences that the human heart and soul actually crave; thus, the kind of "silence" addressed in Masters' poem is not the profound silence that devotees of the Divine Silence seek. While the speaker in Masters' "Silence" describes a melancholy, undesirable silence, true inner quietude is another animal altogether.

It is thus with a very large grain of salt that readers/listeners of this poem take the ultimate philosophical stance revealed in it. In the final movement, for example, the speaker asserts that we marvel at the dead not speaking to us, while we who are alive can barely speak for ourselves. The speaker has thus shifted his focus from the physical level of being to the afterlife, and he claims that, in fact, we will be able to understand the silence of the dead as "we approach them."

Masters' classic work, Spoon River Anthology, belies this speaker's claim that the dead do not speak. That the dead, speaking in epitaphs from their Spoon River graves, are revealing a wide range of profound experience to readers/listeners contradicts the notion that only as we approach the dead will be able to interpret their silence.

Therefore, it is vital to understand the true nature of silence, that there are, in fact, two distinct types of silence—one that is merely the absence of sound, and the other that is inner quieting of the physical functioning along with the shutting down of the restless mind. Of course, this poem, "Silence," addresses only the physical silence, and therefore should not be confused with the inner stillness which affords mystical experience. Nevertheless, the ultimate philosophical stance of this poem can be considered true only in tangential ways. Perhaps a better title would be, "The Absence of Sound" or "The Inability to Speak," as the poem focuses more on the failure of language than the nature of true silence.

Masters' poem, "Silence," plays out in five versagraphs, which remain unthemed, and vary in length from 7 to 19 lines. The speaker does not seem interested in organizing his thoughts. He seems to be speaking rather erratically, as he sometimes narrates and, at other times, pontificates.

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.
And I ask: For the depths,
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities —
We cannot speak.

A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
"How did you lose your leg?"
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
It comes back jocosely
And he says, "A bear bit it off."
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe.

There is the silence of a great hatred,
And the silence of a great love,
And the silence of an embittered friendship.
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
Comes with visions not to be uttered
Into a realm of higher life.
There is the silence of defeat.
There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
And the silence of the dying whose hand
Suddenly grips yours.
There is the silence between father and son,
When the father cannot explain his life,
Even though he be misunderstood for it.

There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
After Waterloo.
And the silence of Jeanne d'Arc
Saying amid the flames, "Blessed Jesus" —
Revealing in two words all sorrows, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.

And there is the silence of the dead.
If we who are in life cannot speak
Of profound experiences,
Why do you marvel that the dead
Do not tell you of death?
Their silence shall be interpreted
As we approach them.

Reading of "Silence"

Commentary

First Versagraph: Philosophical Reasoning Questionable

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.
And I ask: For the depths,
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities —
We cannot speak.

Regarding the philosophic reasoning of this poem, the reader/listener should be put on alert with the first obviously impossible claim in the first line. The speaker asserts that he has "known the silence of the stars and of the sea." This line is completely experience and information free. Everyone on planet Earth experiences at all times the "silence of the stars," and there is no "the silence of the sea."

When has any star ever communicated a sound to any individual? "Stars" are by their very definition soundless. While the "sea" as one stands on the shore does make crashing wave sounds, those sounds never cease. Thus the speaker's claim is false on both counts. He cannot have known silence of the stars as a unique experience different from anyone else on the planet, and he cannot have known silence of the sea, because the sea is never without the crashing the waves. Even if the speaker has spent time far from the shore, he would have had to be in a vessel, at the sides of which the waves would then be continuously lapping and producing sounds.

The other claims for experiencing silence are relatively benign: he has known "silence" of the city as it "pauses." Again, one may be tempted to dispute that a city ever pauses, as even at night, there is always some motion in some part of a city, but we may give the speaker that one as perhaps he experienced some brief moment when the city had been quieter than usual.

Then the speaker offers other instances of "silence" that he sas known: one assumes he is referring to the inability of a couple to communicate when he says, "the silence of a man and a maid," or that he has sat with an ill individual who is not speaking, and he had nothing to offer. But then he attempts to insert a philosophical conclusion to all this inability to speak: "For the depths, / Of what use is language?"

The speaker then absurdly provides the image of an animal out in the field moaning "a few times" at the loss of its offspring. This image accompanies another stab at philosophical, conclusive truth that in the face of "realities," humans remain voiceless and unable to speak. But even the beast of the field can only moan. So where does that leave us? Take away: In the face of sorrow, just moan a few times?

Second Versagraph: A Narrative Example

A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
"How did you lose your leg?"
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
It comes back jocosely
And he says, "A bear bit it off."
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe.

Now the speaker is prepared to offer some narrative to exemplify his assertions regarding the inability of humans to speak when realities bump up against them. A boy has inquired of "an old soldier" how the old man lost his leg. Sure enough, the old soldier is unable to speak. He is "struck" by "silence." However, his mind starts churning away, remembering exactly how he lost his leg at "Gettysburg."

But instead of revealing the details of losing his leg in war, the old soldier tells the boy, "A bear bit it off." Leaving the boy to muse on that image, while the old soldier continues to relive in his head images of "flashes of guns," "hospital surgeons with knives," and the old soldier lying in bed for many, long days.

The speaker reckons that in order for the old soldier to describe to the boy what actually happened to him losing his leg in war, he would have to be "an artist." Again the speaker waxes philosophical asserting that if the old soldier were an artist he would possess "deeper wounds" and alas! again would not be able to describe those.

The junk philosophy of this speaker continues to dig and sink his claims into a deep hole of absurdity. Not exactly a reader of minds, this one, but possessing the supercilious ability to pile image on image in services of philosophical swill.

Third Versagraph: Catalogue of Abstractions

There is the silence of a great hatred,
And the silence of a great love,
And the silence of an embittered friendship.
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
Comes with visions not to be uttered
Into a realm of higher life.
There is the silence of defeat.
There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
And the silence of the dying whose hand
Suddenly grips yours.
There is the silence between father and son,
When the father cannot explain his life,
Even though he be misunderstood for it.

The speaker now catalogues a group of silences that remain rather abstract, such as the silence of "great hatred," "great love," "embittered friendship," "defeat," and the "unjustly punished."

The lines regarding the "spiritual crisis"—"Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured, / Comes with visions not to be uttered / Into a realm of higher life"—offer a brave attempt to rise above the mediocrity of the junk-philosophy of all the other inaccuracies and plain absurdity. The soul coming into the "realm of higher life" sounds like a truly profound experience, but that the soul must come to that realm through exquisite torture and with "visions" that cannot be uttered blurs the meaning of such an experience. The soul is pure, yet the mind and physical encasement do torture the soul, when they remain in defiance of spiritual understanding of the laws that reign on the spiritual level of being.

While that statement regarding the soul and the "higher life" remain somewhat accurate, they do not really impart any substantive information. In other words, what the speaker has experienced causing him to impart this abstract image remains uneluciated by that semi-accurate statement.

Fourth Versagraph: More Examples of Failed Communication

There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
After Waterloo.
And the silence of Jeanne d'Arc
Saying amid the flames, "Blessed Jesus" —
Revealing in two words all sorrows, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.

The speaker now is becoming a bit repetitive as he mentions the "silence that comes between husband and wife," without further explanation. He then returns to cataloguing of abstract concepts: "those who have failed," "broken nations and vanquished leaders," a bit less abstract, but then he brings in Lincoln, Napoleon, Joan of Arc, who uttered, "Blessed Jesus," among the flames that took her life. The speaker then claims pathetically that those two words, incorporated "all sorrows, all hope."

The speaker then moves on the "silence of age." Those who have some age on them are so full of "wisdom" that their tongues cannot "utter it,"—at least not to those who have not experienced as much of life as those aged have.

Fifth Versagraph: Dead Men Don't Talk

And there is the silence of the dead.
If we who are in life cannot speak
Of profound experiences,
Why do you marvel that the dead
Do not tell you of death?
Their silence shall be interpreted
As we approach them.

Finally, the speaker addresses the "silence of the dead." The speaker's mundane claim that the dead do not speak to us again offers little by way of known information. We all know that dead people have stopped talking, along with walking, eating, laughing, and any other activity that living people perform.

The speaker's likening the fact that the living cannot speak should make it less unclear that the dead do not speak: both groups do not speak because the communication of "profound experiences" remains impossible, according to the thesis of this treatise. Thus, the dead do not cease to speak because they are dead, they simply join the living in their inability to explain their inner most thoughts, that is, those profound thoughts that must remain unsaid, like the old soldier who claimed this leg was bitten off by a bear because he could not bring himself to communicate to a mere boy his war experience.

However, the speaker does not leave readers/listeners without hope for the dead: we will be able to understand the silence of the dead "[a]s we approach them." In other words, we will understand the silence of the dead when we, ourselves, die. This state of affairs impacts the living in such a gross and non-compliant way that not having heard it remains a more affable option than having heard it.

Poetry vs Philosophy

Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology has become an American classic. The work is well-crafted, interesting to read, and offers a variety of characters with differing personalities. Like a playwright, Masters in his Spoon River Anthology has created a dramatic piece of writing that stands the test of time.

That Masters was able to offer the literary world a piece of writing that could, indeed, become a classic in no way proves his ability to offer a well-thought out philosophical stance regarding the life of the heart, mind, and soul of humanity. In order words, he was no Ralph Waldo Emerson, who did offer both philosophy and poetry to the literary world.

Also, that Masters was not a gifted philosopher does not in any way denigrate his ultimate literary output. Although he penned a rather pathetic attempt to make a comment on the inefficacy of language in this piece he called "Silence," his superior works still contain much of value.

Similar to politics, the philosophical stance of poets should never become the gold standard for determining the value of their works. Each piece of writing offered by a poet must stand or fall on its own, and not be judged simply by the known political or philosophical leanings the poet.

Edgar Lee Masters Stamp USA

Source

Life Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters, (August 23, 1868 - March 5, 1950), authored some 39 books in addition to Spoon River Anthology, yet nothing in his canon ever gained the wide fame that the 243 reports of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him. In addition to the individual reports, or "epitaphs," as Masters called them, the Anthology includes three other long poems that offer summaries or other material pertinent to the cemetery inmates or the atmosphere of the fictional town of Spoon River, #1 "The Hill,"#245 "The Spooniad," and #246 "Epilogue."

Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas; the Masters family soon relocated to Lewistown, Illinois. The fictional town of Spoon River constitutes a composite of Lewistown, where Masters grew up and Petersburg, IL, where his grandparents resided. While the town of Spoon River was a creation of Masters' doing, there is an Illinois river named "Spoon River," which is a tributary of the Illinois River in the west-central part of the state, running a 148-mile-long stretch between Peoria and Galesburg.

Masters briefly attended Knox College but had to drop out because of the family's finances. He went on to study law and later had a rather successful law practice, after being admitted to the bar in 1891. He later became a partner in the law office of Clarence Darrow, whose name spread far and wide because of the Scopes Trial—The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—also jeeringly known as the "Monkey Trial."

Masters married Helen Jenkins in 1898, and the marriage brought Master nothing but heartache. In his memoir, Across Spoon River, the woman features heavily in his narrative without his ever mentioning her name; he refers to her only as the "Golden Aura," and he does not mean it in a good way.

Masters and the "Golden Aura" produced three children, but they divorced in 1923. He married Ellen Coyne in 1926, after having relocated to New York City. He stopped practicing law in order to devote more time to writing.

Masters was awarded the Poetry Society of America Award, the Academy Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, and he was also the recipient of a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

On March 5, 1950, just five months shy of his 82 birthday, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.

Questions & Answers

  • It does seem that the philosophy of Masters' "Silence" flies in the face of his Spoon River poems. Do you think he would ever try to make them more compatible or is some other literary device taking place here?

    The disparity between the philosophical stances in the two works is not problematic, if one remains aware that poets, like novelists and playwrights, create characters. Thus the philosophy of Spoon River and the philosophy of "Silence" may be different because they are spoken through different characters.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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