‘Silence‘ by Thomas Hood is a fourteen line, Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet. The sonnet is divided into two sections, the first is made up of eight lines, referred to as an octave, and the second made up of six lines, a sestet. The octave follows a standard rhyming pattern of ABBAABBA while the sestet follows a scheme of CDCDEE, neither standard nor unusual for a sonnet of this kind.
The separation between the first and second half is comprised of a turn or a volta. This turn provides a beginning and an end to the problem or story. It may also be an answer to a question. In this case, the speaker is expanding on the concept of Silence and providing a contrasting example to those in the first half.
The poet begins by describing the state of silence in the world. There are places that are complete without sound, due to the fact that it is incapable of existing. These places are the “cold grave,” or the deepest parts of the sea. There is nothing there that is able to make a sound, and a sound has never been heard there. All that exists is the presence of silence. The speaker expands on one landscape, the “wide desert,” in which there can be found no life.
In this place which has always been silent, must always remain so. The only things that exist are clouds and the shadows of clouds. In the second half of the poem, the speaker describes other parts of the world in which mankind has left its indelible footprint, and then abandoned. These overrun green places are filled will all manner of sounds, from animals to the moaning wind. Silence is there too, but it sits self-consciously, in its limited power.
Analysis of Silence
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 the wide desert where no life is found,
This piece begins with the speaker making a number of statements about the structure and state of silence. The first two lines give two different examples of the ways that silence is able to exist. The first states that, there is “a silence” where there has never been a sound. It is clear from this first line that the speaker is going to be regarding silence as something that is almost tangible, it is a presence, or more accurately, a distinctive lack of presence.
In the second line, he states that there is “a silence” where a sound is incapable of occurring. While one might take a moment to ponder what kind of a place is incapable of holding sound, the poet gives an example in the next line. He speaks of three different locations that have either never held sound or are unable to. He mentions “the cold grave” as a location that has never been privy to sounds and the “deep deep sea” as a place that there may be no sound. His last example is that of the “wide desert” where there is no life to make a sound, therefore, sound is an impossibility.
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:
In the second quatrain of the poem, the speaker begins by finishing off the thoughts that occurred at the beginning of the poem. He refers to the desert, the sea, and the cold grave, as being places that “hath been mute,” and must remain that way. They must “still…sleep profound.” The silence in which these places are existing is not empty, it is something “profound,” and all it’s own.
In places like this, particularly like the desert, there are no voices, speaking in hushed tones, nor does any life walk there “silently.” This is a world without even a hint of sound, there is nothing present that even has the ability to make a noise.
There are some things in this landscape though, there are “clouds and cloudy shadows.” These ephemeral substances move through the land without noise. They too are incapable of it. They are without sold form, but are filled with the presence of silence.
Lines 9- 14
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.
The sonnet ends with a set of six lines, or sestet, that concludes the poem. In these lines, the poet is making a stipulation about these silent places and the way that silence exists in another place.
He begins by speaking of “green ruins,” natural places that have been overrun by man, and then played host to decaying structures and “desolate walls.” He describes the oldest civilizations, or “antique” cities in which “Man hath been.” These places are different, they are not without sound. Even though they are filled with foxes, the sounds of “wild hyena[s],” the moaning of the wind, and the shrieking of owls, Silence is still able to exist, but in a different form.
It is no longer the overwhelming force it was in the other landscapes, it exists in a “self-conscious,” lonely state. It’s there, but is also actively missing from these worlds.
About Thomas Hood
Thomas Hood was born in London in May of 1799. He was the son of a bookseller and worked from a young age as an apprentice to an engraver. This trade was unsuited to his physicality and he was made to turn to write due to ill health. In the early-mid-1800s he worked as both a journalist in Scotland and as the sub-editor of the London Magazine. Through these outlets, he became familiar with some of the most popular Romantic writers.
Throughout this time period, Hood was able to publish work alongside, and collaborate with, a number of writers. Hood married in 1824, the same time that his first work Odes and Addresses was written with a close friend of John Keats. Starting from around 1828 he contributed regularly to the Athenaeum, and in 1829, as the editor of another publication, he was able to publish some of Tennyson’s earliest poems.
Throughout the 1840s he was forced to move due to financial strain, became the editor of The New Monthly Magazine, and founded Hood’s Monthly Magazine. The work for which Hood is best known is “The Song and the Shirt” while was published anonymously in Punch in 1843. Hood died in London in 1859.