The Poem

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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Forms and Devices

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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