Thursday, January 14, 2010

Silence

THERE is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave--under the deep, deep, sea,
Or in wide desert where no life is found,
Which hath been mute, and still must sleep profound;
No voice is hushed--no life treads silently,
But clouds and cloudy shadows wander free,
That never spoke, over the idle ground:
But in green ruins, in the desolate walls
Of antique palaces, where Man hath been,
Though the dun fox, or wild hyena, calls,
And owls, that flit continually between,
Shriek to the echo, and the low winds moan,
There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone.
Thomas Hood (1799-1845)


Poet, satirist and humorist, his The Last Man is said to have inspired Mary Shelley's novel of the same name. Thomas Hood was an English poet famous for his humorous verse. A great wit with puns which was the true power of his mind. I have had a few students over the years in the field of education that could drive most teachers to distraction with word plays that I saw as welcome additions to (and was frequently criticized for by peers) a lesson here and there. Some teachers thought these kids were more of a nuisance, but for the most part the entertainment was welcomed as long as it was within reason. Knowing many others would benefit it made for more powerful writers, after all the primary goal in teaching is to teach students to think critically.

To have enough of an understanding of words and their meanings to craft a novel idea, well that is quite a talent and Thomas Hood possessed just this gift. For a while he was a sort of "sub editor" of London Magazine during its heyday from 1821 until 1823 . At the time there were a number of members from the great literary circles of the era including Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey, and William Hazlitt. In 1827 he published a volume of poems strongly influenced by Keats by the title of Plea of the Midsummer Fairies. Yet he was known primarily as a humorous writer and won his reputation for the most part through his compositions for the Comic Annual between 1830 and 184, in which he deftly caricatured events and contemporary figures.

Hood had also a serious side, and a deep sympathy for the poor. You may be interested in another of his poems written about here called The Song of the Shirt which reveals his feelings about the social evils of the day; sweat shops, unemployment, and the double sexual standard.

When he did write about a more sedate subject like Silence, he was able to produce a remarkable sonnet like this one. Submitted only to be rejected by the London Magazine in February 1823, it was later printed in the Burton's Gentleman's Magazine issue for September of 1839. You might recognize the first verse:

    There is a silence where hath been no sound
    There is a silence where no sound may be
    In the cold grave, under the deep, deep sea.
It's from the movie, The Piano where it is recited in voice-over by Ada.

Deep thoughts are not necessary to good poetry and there is nothing profound here however there is a unique conceit and that is the idea that there are two kinds of silence, that where life has never been, and that which flows back after man has come and gone. Hiking along fragile desert trails in the shadowless heat of summer there are times one can glimpse this after image of silence. It's the one that comes into focus at the point of no longer appearing natural or spontaneous, the showing of a realization of certain knowledge.

One is struck by the maze of upright rocks, ancient sandstone giants keeping mute vigil over vanished civilizations. How powerful a poem is this one that has the ability to please one hundred and fifty years after it was written.

Sources:

Blair, Bob

minstrels Silence -- Thomas Hood

Public Domain text taken from the Poet's Corner

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