Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Sonnet — Silence,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 320-323 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 320, continued:]


This sonnet is one of Poe's most enigmatic poems, and has troubled the few commentators who have ventured to discuss it. It has some relation to the prose tale, “Silence — a Fable,” written in 1833. I think it is primarily a poem of nature, with which Poe loved to commune alone, especially in wildly beautiful scenery. In his “Tale of the Ragged Mountains” he writes of a man's emotion when he believes himself the first human being ever to tread some remote spot in the virgin wilderness. As do hymns of the church, Poe also contrasts the death of the body, which is inevitable, and that of the soul, which is not.

John Phelps Fruit said, “Poe was deeply impressed with the idea of Silence as the eternal voice of God, as the music of the spheres” — which we mortals cannot hear. This impression is supported by an early canceled line after “Al Aaraaf,” I, 125, “Silence is the voice of God,” itself reminiscent of the “still small voice” heard by Elijah. Richard Wilbur also refers to the music of the spheres, and thinks Poe wished to contrast “death of the body (which is not the end of being)” with “death of the soul (or non-being).” Quinn saw a contrast between the silence that “hovers over those resting places of human souls we have loved, and that [page 321:] shadow cast by silence upon the soul, which is an active breeder of terror.”(1)

The sources are clearly to be found in two sonnets of Thomas Hood; Poe answers the first with material from the second. They appeared with the signature “T.” in the London Magazine of February and June 1823 (5:215, 636), respectively, and Poe copied the first as a filler in Burton's for September 1839 (5:144).(2) They follow.


There is a silence where hath been no sound,

There is a silence where no sound may be,

In the cold grave — under the deep, deep sea,

Or in wide desert where no life is found,

Which hath been mute, and still must sleep profound;

No voice is hush’d — no life treads silently,

But clouds and cloudy shadows wander free,

That never spoke — over the idle ground

But in green ruins, in the desolate walls

Of antique palaces, where Man hath been,

Though the dun fox, or wild hyena, calls,

And owls, that flit continually between,

Shriek to the echo, and the low winds moan,

There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone.


It is not death, that some time in a sigh

This eloquent breath shall take its speechless flight;

That some time the live stars, which now reply

In sunlight to the sun, shall set in night;

That this warm conscious flesh shall perish quite,

And all life's ruddy springs forget to flow; —

That verse shall cease, and the immortal spright

Be lapp’d in alien clay, and laid below: —

It is not death to know this, but to know

That pious thoughts, which visit at new graves,

In tender pilgrimage will cease to go [page 322:]

So duly and so oft, and when grass waves

Over the past-away, there may be then

No resurrections in the minds of men!

In December 1839 Poe sent a copy of his poem to Joseph B. Boyd, a watchmaker of Cincinnati, for his autograph collection, probably before he gave another copy to the Saturday Courier for a first issue of the new year, to which all prominent Philadelphia authors were asked to contribute. The Boyd manuscript was sold by the American Art Association on April 21, 1921; I examined it at the time. The partial file of the Saturday Courier at the New York Public Library contains the issue of January 4, 1840, and was consulted for the readings of B.


(A) Manuscript, in a letter to Joseph B. Boyd, December 25, 1839; (B) Philadelphia Saturday Courier for January 4, 1840; (C) Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, April 1840 (6:166); (D) Philadelphia Saturday Museum, March 4, 1843; (E) Broadway Journal, July 26, 1845 (2:45); (F) The Raven and Other Poems (1845), p. 26; (G) Works (1850), II, 39.

[page 323:]


Title:  Silence, a Sonnet (A, B, C); Silence (G)

2  which thus is / life aptly (A, B, C)

3  A type / The type (A, B, C)

6  lonely / desert (A)

8  and / a (A)

14  That haunteth the lone / Who haunteth the dim (A, B, C)

[page 323, continued:]


1-15  The form of “Sonnet — Silence” is a deliberate experimental variation of the Italian sonnet, although its fifteen lines have annoyed some criticasters. In the earliest form (in a manuscript) and in the publication in Burton's Poe divided the piece plainly into three stanzas of four, five, and six lines respectively, and in the notice he wrote of the magazine for Alexander's Weekly Messenger of April 1, 1840, he remarked laconically, “Mr. Poe has a clever Sonnet.” Poe was not fond of sonnets and wrote only four others, two of which are Shakespearean and the others of varied Italian rhyme schemes.

9  Poe, like many poets of his day, was pleased with the sonorous phrase “no more.” The most familiar use of it before Poe's is probably in “A Lament” by Shelley, with the refrain, “No more — oh, never more.”


[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 321:]

1  Fruit, The Mind and Art of Poe's Poetry, p. 54; Wilbur, Poe, pp. 141-142; Quinn, p. 294. Killis Campbell told me that he wanted to withdraw a suggestion he had proposed in Poems, p. 241, that Poe's sonnet had some relation to Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, I, i, 195-209.

2  Poe almost surely did not know that the author was Hood, but merely gave a copy of the sonnet, signed “T.;” to his printer. In Poe's usually very legible hand, capital T is very much like P, and the poem appeared in Burton's signed “P.” — a matter of little interest had it not led some scholars to suppose that Poe claimed the authorship.





[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Sonnet -- Silence)