The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The eighteen free-verse lines of Robert Bly’s “Silence” serve as an introduction to his beginning as a poet actively attempting to explain the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature, of which he became vividly aware during his youth in rural Minnesota. Bly was also intrigued by nature as the source of poetry. In “Silence,” eventually collected in his first gathering of poems, Silence in the Snowy Fields, Bly demonstrates his movement toward a canon of poetry focusing upon deeply hidden images that must be dredged up by the poet from what psychologist Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious,” the source of all memories and ideas. Bly was certain that the source of all poetry, or the inspiration at least, was to be found deep in this repository of an individual’s inspiration.

Like most of Bly’s nature poems, “Silence” depicts a nature that is active, not something just to be admired or rationalized as many earlier nature poets, such as William Cullen Bryant, treated it. The narrator of “Silence,” a rural writer “Cradling a pen, or walking down a stair/ Holding a cup,” is thrust into both the real and the metaphysical nature that surrounds him and tries to explain the nature-human dynamic to himself and to the reader.

The first stanza establishes an archetypal chronology for the poem. The reader is witnessing the end of one point in the speaker’s understanding and the beginning of another...

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Silence Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bly uses three stanzas of six free-verse lines each for his poem “Silence.” Free verse permits Bly to escape the highly stylized poetry of which he is often critical. In addition, each stanza forms syntactical units rather than poetic lines, possessing two sentences each and creating a conversational rather than lecturing tone. For example, stanza 1 opens with the declaration that “The fall has come, clear as the eyes of chickens.” The speaker then begins a more complex sentence to develop the underlying idea of the first. The second sentence describes the effect of this coming autumn through the continuous mention of sounds that are constant reminders to the narrator of this date, much as Whitman’s “hermit thrush” does in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Stanzas 2 and 3 follow this statement-development construction.

Bly freely utilizes sight and sound imagery to produce the physical aspects of nature that trigger the narrator’s contemplation. In stanzas 2 and 3, Bly moves from the reminders set off by the ocean sounds to images that must be pursued, each representing the acquisition of knowledge or understanding, “sunlight” and “window pane” being the most prominent. The “sunlight” is the sought-after objective that is most readily confronted by the narrator, who is hindered by “The sloth of the body” but who strives to enter the ultimate understanding through the mirror of the soul, “the window...

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Silence Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Altieri, Charles F. “Varieties of Immanentist Experience: Robert Bly, Charles Olson, and Frank O’Hara.” In Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Davis, William Virgil. Understanding Robert Bly. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Friberg, Ingegard. Moving Inward: A Study of Robert Bly’s Poetry. Goteborg, Sweden: Acta University Gothoburgensis, 1977.

Harris, Victoria. The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Lensing, George S., and Ronald Moran, eds. Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Malkoff, Karl. Escape from the Self: A Study in Contemporary American Poetry and Poetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Nelson, Howard. Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Peseroff, Joyce, ed. Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Robert Bly Web site.

Smith, Thomas R. Walking Swiftly: Writings and Images on the Occasion of Robert Bly’s 65th Birthday. New York: Perennial, 1991.

Sugg, Richard P. Robert Bly. Boston: Twayne, 1986.