4 Poems That Celebrate the Gift of Silence
If we have the humility of a saint and the eyes of a Romantic poet, we will be ever more grateful for the beauty of tranquility.
A friend of mine, a monk, is writing something on silence. He requested that I give him some literary leads on the topic. Happy to oblige, I offered several poems which invite the reader to plunge into the tranquility of quietude. Prior to doing so, I suggested that he take a look at an essay I wrote many moons ago for the Imaginative Conservative, entitled “Distracting Ourselves to Death,” which highlights the dangers of the absence of silence.
The first poem I suggested was Wordsworth’s “Daffodils,” with its unforgettable and unmistakable opening line: “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” This poem, which is wonderful in the literal sense of the word, which is to say that is it full of wonder, engages silence in two ways. The first half engages silence in the moment of experience; the latter half in the memory of experience.
The poet is wandering alone in the hills when “all at once” he sees a field of daffodils “dancing in the breeze.” He is astonished at the swaying sea of gold and finds his breath taken away in the sheer beauty of the gift of the moment. Yet, the deeper gift was not the astonishment of the transient moment but the lingering contemplation in moments of solitude of the memory of the gift:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.
The next poem I selected as a celebration of silence was “The Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” by Wordsworth’s collaborator and fellow Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As with “Daffodils,” this poem also engages silence in both the moment and the memory but does so in very different circumstances.
Coleridge finds himself unable to go walking through the beauty of the countryside with his friends because of an injured foot. Forced to sit beneath the shade of a solitary lime-tree, he uses his memory of previous wanderings through the vistaed landscape in which he knows his friends are walking to imagine himself being with them and enjoying the same views; then, however, he is drawn to the beauty of the present moment in the beauty of his present surroundings.
Unable to experience with his friends the telescopic splendor of the panoramic panoply of a sprawling landscape, except in memory, he contemplates the microscopic splendor of the few things he can see from his imprisoned and stationery perspective in the present moment. He notices the individual leaf, “broad and sunny … dappling its sunshine.” Later, as the blaze of the day gives way to the gloaming of the day’s end, more solitary pleasures are bestowed on him:
… now the bat
Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,
Yet still the solitary humble-bee
Sings in the bean-flower!
In another Coleridge poem, “Hymn Before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni,” the poet finds himself in the presence of that moment which is given as a free gift, every single day, inviting silence and the contemplation which is its fruit. Every rising of the sun, and every setting, is a unique work of art, inviting the heart and soul to dilate into the glory it presents.
In his “Hymn Before Sunrise,” Coleridge gazes at the majestic alpine peak of Mont Blanc and is moved to meditation:
O dread and silent Mount! I gazed upon thee,
Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,
Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer
I worshipped the Invisible alone.
Seeing the beauty of the work of art, the poetic heart, wrapped in the moment and enraptured by the experience, gives praise to the Artist:
Thou too, hoar Mount! With thy sky-pointing peaks…
Rise, O ever rise,
Rise like a cloud of incense, from the Earth!
Thou kingly Spirit throned among the hills,
Thou dread ambassador from Earth to Heaven,
Great Hierarch! tell thou the silent sky,
And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun,
Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God.
Many will be reminded in reading these lines of “The Canticle of Brother Sun” by Saint Francis of Assisi who speaks of the beauty, radiance and splendor of the sun as “a sign that tells, All-highest, of you.” If we have the humility of the saint and the eyes of the Romantic poet, we will be grateful for the gift of beauty, being rendered speechless in its presence that we might hearken to the silence and its visual music. It is through this silence, born of wonder, that we are moved to the contemplation that opens us into a closer communion with God.
This essay first appeared in the Imaginative Conservative and is published with permission.