The poem that first drew me to poetry - when I was a H.S. Junior, and I still believe E.L. Masters best, Silence is about our innate inability to express ourselves, not only to others - but even to ourselves.
He touches upon the underlying fears, questions, and mysteries of life that are all around each of us - and which no one fully comprehends.
He lists the great wonders of nature, the tragedy of sickness, death, and the unfaceably recalled horror of war. Through it all - the animal that we are, “we are voiceless in the presence of realities - we cannot speak”.
He almost paints marriage and parenthood as a tragedy, a bridge never quite crossed, which to those who have lived it there is an underlying truth to that. Where words ought to come, there is silence, even though we, “be misunderstood for it”.
We are placed at the scene of Joan Of Arc’s being burned at the stake, in Napoleons’ thoughts after his monumentous defeat, and other such times and places, and yet even these epic experiences render us speechless – perhaps a self-protection mechanism, for, “...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”. Still, silence.
Through this, he comforts us – it’s alright that we don’t know, can’t articulate, or cannot understand – no one can, and perhaps we are not meant to (all this being found to the uninitiated, “too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it in words intelligible”). Therefore – we remain silent at such crucial moments.
He sums it up in the final stanza: "we who are in life cannot speak of profound experiences". Even in death, we are not promised life’s answers, but rather will “interpret” each, “as we approach them”.
In the poem "Silence" we are confronted with the experience of the silence as opposed to the sound, which proves inadequate to express the deepest emotions of our life. Spech cannot even try to describe the true reality that underlies the world, and that is uncovered only when we face the cosmic meaning of Life and Death. Then "silence" can mean "company" (the stars, the sea, the city at rest, the sick), emotional sharing (hatred and love), and consonance with the rest of the universe - all of which make words useless as this perception is as deep as the breathe of an eternal Being (s. Wordsworth and Byron) - or it can mean to cope with too great Measures to be able to comprehend them in the finiteness of few words, so that we are stunned, which again goes back to yhe Romantic cathegory of ineffable as the perception of a supernatural reality, "measureless to man". On top of all that we have Death, the climax of the human existence, that completes our journey and gives it sense and clarity.
The poem "Silence" by Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) can be best understood by studying the three questions which he asks in the poem.
1. In the first stanza the poet asks:"And I ask: For the depths/Of what use is language?" He says that even an animal expresses its sympathy and concern by spontaneously emitting some form of a sound when its young dies, but man remains silent and aloof in the presence of a sick person: "We cannot speak" and not "we are unable to speak." Man's indifference and not his inability to sympathise is foregrounded.
2. A "curious boy" asks a war veteran: "How did you lose your leg?" and the old soldier after a brief period of silence tells a lie: "A bear bit it off." The silence on this occasion helps the soldier to evade the truth for two reasons. Firstly, he knows that the boy will never be able to fully comprehend the traumatic experience of the battlefield and secondly, it is simply beyond his lingusitic ability to do so,because the old soldier is not an "artist."
3. "Why do you marvel that the dead /Do not tell you of death?" No dead person can come back to life and tell us what death is like or what happens to a person after he dies. The poet's cynical answer is that when we remain silent in the presence of life's profound moments why should we try to unravel the mystery of death? We will understand it when we ourselves approach death.