This unusual poem is a collection of compound words, some real and some invented for the sake of the verse. Francis uses creative language throughout as well as other literary devices like accumulation and portmanteau. Readers’ impressions of the text are likely to be very different considering that the poem lacks traditional structure, narrative, characters, true, clear emotion, and intention.
Explore Silent Poem
‘Silent Poem’ by Robert Francis is an unusual poem that uses compound words to describe rural life, a wooded landscape, and allusions to death.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by listing out a few compound words that describe a natural, wooded landscape. It is unclear where the speaker is, who they are, or how exactly they feel about their surroundings. But, their focus on imagery suggests that they care about nature and respect the rural lifestyle, which becomes clearer as the poem progresses.
In the next lines, the speaker introduces more human-related imagery. This includes examples of farm equipment, structures one might find on a farm, and other objects one could encounter there. The poem concludes with a few compound words that suggest the end of the day or the end of life.
You can read the full poem here.
backroad leafmold stonewall chipmunk
sawhorse bucksaw outhouse wellsweep
In the first line of the poem, the poet, Robert Francis, begins by listing out a series of compound words that allude to a natural environment. He mentioned a “chipmunk,” the “underbrush,” and a “woodchuck.” There is no clear narrative here, nor does a clear one present itself through the next lines.
But, from the first couplet to the second, human-made objects are clearly present. For example, the “sawhorse” and the “outhouse.” These are real sights that someone wandering through farmland or forest might see. This poem is also quite dependent on the reader’s experience with various natural sights, sounds, and experiences. For example, if one does not know what “honeysuckle” looks like or smells like, the poem is going to lose some of its image-dependent impact.
Some have suggested that the beginning of the poem is meant to evoke feelings of morning or a metaphorical new day, while the ending, which mentions a few examples of nighttime imagery, is meant to evoke the feelings of a sunset or a metaphorical conclusion.
backdoor flagstone bulkhead buttermilk
whetstone thunderstorm pitchfork steeplebush
The fifth line carries the reader closer to an undefined home. This can be seen through the use of “backdoor” and “flagstone.” The description of the “brownbread” and “buttermilk” suggests the products of a farm, as did the previous couplets. Perhaps, by creating new compound words and ensuring that every line contains four of them, the poet is trying to remind the reader of how interconnected life is in a rural setting. For example, the speaker transitions seamlessly from woodland images to the area around eight, likely, a farmhouse.
As noted above, this poem hinges on the reader’s ability to take in the images the poet presents and feel, see, smell, and in every other way, imagine them. The rain in a “thunderstorm,” the sound of a “cowbell,” and the feel of a “pitchfork” are all distinct and exciting images in the fourth couplet.
gristmill millstone cornmeal waterwheel
weathercock snowfall starlight cockcrow
In the ninth and tenth lines, the poet once again presents the products of a farm. Here, they mention “cornmeal “and a “water wheel.” These are things and products that one might see on a farm and which are critical for rural life. The necessity of farm equipment, like a “pitchfork,” a “gristmill” (used to grind cereal grain into flour), and a “millstone” (two stones used for grinding grain) are things that the farm owners are likely heavily dependent on.
The poem ends with mention of “starlight,” “snowfall,” and “gravestone.” All three of these images connect to others that are commonly used to define the end of life, the end of the year, or the end of the day. This is a perfect way to conclude a poem that seems entirely interested in the sensory experiences one would encounter in a simple, rural life.
Structure and Form
‘Silent Poem’ by Robert Francis is a twelve-line poem that is separated into couplets or sets of two lines. These lines are written in free verse. This means that the poem does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. At first glance, it is also obvious that Francis did not utilize traditional punctuation or capitalization. There are no examples of either throughout the twelve lines of the poem. This very unusual poem does utilize a few literary devices that helped emphasize its interesting rhythm. Interestingly, while some of the words in the poem are dactyls, most are trochees.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “gravestone groundpine” at the beginning of line eleven and “bulkhead buttermilk” in line five.
- Imagery: one of the most important literary devices Francis uses in this piece. Throughout, he last saw a variety of images, some of which go together and some of which contrast with one another. For example, “watercress buckwheat firefly jewelweed.”
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. In the case of this poem, the poet does not utilize punctuation. This means that the first line flows into the second and the second into the third, and so on.
The main theme of this poem is nature. Throughout, despite the lack of narrative, it is clear that the speaker is focused on a forest landscape and the farmland that may exist around it. They respect the rural lifestyle that some, perhaps the speaker themselves, lead.
The purpose is to highlight the sights, sounds, and experiences that one might encounter while out in nature or living on a rural farm.
The tone is direct and formal. Although there is no clear narrative or characters within this short piece, the poet’s choice of words and the direct way with which they deliver them suggest a respect for the natural environment as well.
The meaning is that there is beauty to be seen in the natural world, particularly around a rural farm. The speaker also appears to be suggesting that this lifestyle is a pleasingly simple one.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Robert Francis poems. For example:
- ‘Nothing is Far’ by Robert Francis – a concise piece dealing with the speaker’s quest to find God in his everyday life.
Other related poems:
- ‘The Life of Man‘ by Sir Francis Bacon – describes the choices that one must make throughout the span of one’s life.
- ‘A Country Life’ by Randall Jarrell – gives a deeply felt depiction of the impacts of life, death, and loneliness on one’s life before death finally comes.
- ‘Late Spring’ by Owen Sheers – details a speaker learning from his Grandfather how to castrate lambs.