Billy Collins

Start Free Trial

What does the speaker mean by the phrases in Billy Collins's poem "Silence"?

Quick answer:

In his poem “Silence,” Billy Collins meditates on the various qualities of silence that occur in different situations. At the end of the poem, he speaks of the silence broken by his pen, meaning in part that the literal silence is interrupted by the noise his pen makes when he writes but also that his inner silence has been disrupted by the activity of his mind. The silence is poorer because it no longer extends to his internal state.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his poem “Silence,” Billy Collins invites us to reflect on the fact that silence can vary in quality by situation and circumstance. The silence of the crowd in the first stanza is a silence of worry, even fear, as the crowd waits to see if the player will rise....

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The silence of the orchid is a silence of quiet beauty. The silence of the falling vase in the second stanza is a silence of anticipation as it awaits a crash, while the silence of the belt is a silence of relief.

The distinction of the various types of silence continues throughout the poem. There is something quite distinct about the silence of an embrace and the silence of one partner rising and turning away. One is a silence of intimacy, the other a silence of anger or annoyance or disgust.

In the poem's final two stanzas, we learn how the narrator is experiencing the silence of the morning until he picks up his pen and begins to write. On a literal level, the scratching of the pen on paper breaks the physical silence by introducing sound. But there is more. The poet compares the silence before he writes to the “poorer silence” after. Since he has started writing, his mind is no longer silent. It is active now, sorting through ideas and memories, selecting words, creating phrases and lines. The quality of the silence has changed. Externally, the poet's room may be silent when he puts down his pen, but his internal silence has been disrupted. Silence no longer reigns both inside and out.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What you think the speaker means by "the silence of this morning / which I have broken with my pen" and "the poorer silence now" in Billy Collins's poem "Silence"?

The lines quoted appear in the last two stanzas of Billy Collins’s poem “Silence.” The speaker primarily uses the literary device of anaphora, which is a particular type of repetition. In Collins’s use, similar though not identical phrases about “silence” appear at the beginning of every stanza in the poem. The effects of anaphora may be to unify a poetic composition and to arouse emotion, as well as create rhythm and flow within the work.

In this poem, in four stanzas, the speaker establishes many different kinds of silence. Some of them are associated with stillness and quiet, and occur in nature: for example, “the silence of the orchid” and “the silence of the moon.” Others strongly evoke the temporary calm that comes before an action, including a human, violent act: A crowd falls silent at a game when they think a player is injured. A different silence comes before a loud sound is heard.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The first three stanzas serve to evoke a range of emotions, but they are detached observations, not apparently related to the speaker. This mood changes in the fourth stanza, when the speaker introduces self-reference through first- and second-person points of view:

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

The line about “this morning” comes directly after the observation about the other person turning away, and the end of the stanza mentions the “silence that had piled up all night,” followed by a simile about “snow falling in the darkness.”

As the poem takes a personal turn, the idea that the speaker has “broken” the silence indicates their difficulty in writing after a difficult emotional experience. In strong contrast to the anonymous “crowd” in the poem’s first line, the ending is intensely personal.

The poet has also built up to the word “broken”—which may imply that the speaker and the addressee are a couple that is breaking up—by using “striking” in relation to the floor and the child in stanza 2. The “poorer silence” may be both that of the strain within their relationship and that of a negative evaluation of of writing in comparison to lived experience.

Last Updated on