As is so often the case, Philip Larkin hits the nail on the head:
"Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much -- the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you're dragged along at the speaker's own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing 'there' and 'their' and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. . . . When you write a poem, you put everything into it that's needed: the reader should 'hear' it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don't think it stands up on the page."
Philip Larkin, "An Interview with Paris Review" (1982), in Philip Larkin, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1982), page 61 (italics in original).
It is not unlikely that Larkin, as he was wont to do, is engaging in a bit of interviewer-baiting here, as well as trying to perpetuate the curmudgeonly caricature that he fashioned for the media. But he is exactly right. Things have steadily worsened in the ensuing 30 years: in addition to universities offering academic degrees in, of all things, the writing of poetry, we have a never-ending circuit of poetry readings in which poets become known for their entertainment value. The dramatic posturing is horrendous and risible at the same time. And wholly typical of our age.
Now that I have finished my own curmudgeonly rant, let's return to poets and silence.
David Young Cameron (1865-1945), "En Provence" (1922)
There are times when we each of us longs for "a little peace and quiet." Imagine a place without the background hum of modern civilization in your ears. I have experienced such a silence a few times: for instance, on an atoll in the Cook Islands, in the high desert of eastern Utah, up in the Sierra Nevada of California in the early 1970s, and on the Isle of Skye. It takes some getting used to.
Poets are sometimes inclined to take this thought to its natural conclusion. But perhaps the ultimate silence of our "implacable fate" is not such a bad thing after all.
What land of Silence,
Where pale stars shine
And dew-drenched vine,
Is yours and mine?
The silent valley
That we will find,
Where all the voices
Are left behind.
There all forgetting,
We will repose us,
With our delight
Hid out of sight.
The world forsaken,
And out of mind
Honour and labour,
We shall not find
The stars unkind.
And men shall travail,
And laugh and weep;
But we have vistas
Of gods asleep,
With dreams as deep.
A land of Silence,
Where pale stars shine
And dew-drenched vine,
Be yours and mine!
Ernest Dowson, Verses (1896). "Beata solitudo" may be translated as "blessed solitude."
An aside: the phrases "laugh and weep" (line 22) and "with dreams as deep" (line 25) remind me that all of Ernest Dowson's poems seem to be a variation on the poem that captures the essence of his poetry (and of most of the poetry of the 1890s as well). I say this with a genuine sense of affection, and not as a criticism. I am very fond of Dowson's poetry, and there are times when I am in perfect sympathy with his view of the world. Here is the poem of which I speak (it has appeared here before, but it is always worth revisiting):
Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Ernest Downson, Ibid. "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam" is a line from one of Horace's Odes (I.iv), and may be translated as: "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in long-term hope."
David Young Cameron, "The Hill of the Winds" (c. 1913)
Ernest Dowson and Christina Rossetti could not be more different. Dowson, like many poets of the 1890s, flirted with Catholicism while living a dissolute life. Catholicism held some sort of aesthetic attraction for these poets. I sense that it added a measure of self-created drama to their lives, providing a contrast to the hedonistic, love-sick melancholy in which they found themselves. Rossetti, in contrast, was a devout Christian. She was a member of the Church of England, with ties to the Oxford Movement of the Victorian era. A great deal of her poetry consists of devotional verse, and she wrote a number of devotional prose works.
Yet, when I read the following poem by Rossetti, I cannot help but think that she and Dowson do not sound so far apart. Perhaps I am stretching the point, but if the poems were unknown to me, and if I was not told who had written them, it would not seem strange to me that Dowson wrote "Golden Silences" and that Rossetti wrote "Beata Solitudo."
There is silence that saith, "Ah me!"
There is silence that nothing saith;
One the silence of life forlorn,
One the silence of death;
One is, and the other shall be.
One we know and have known for long,
One we know not, but we shall know,
All we who have ever been born;
Even so, be it so, --
There is silence, despite a song.
Sowing day is a silent day,
Resting night is a silent night;
But whoso reaps the ripened corn
Shall shout in his delight,
While silences vanish away.
Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).
David Young Cameron
"The Norman Arch" (c. 1918)
Rossetti and Dowson come from the ethereal side of silence. On the other hand, and as one might expect, Thomas Hardy arrives at silence through the minute particulars of the World.
There is the silence of a copse or croft
When the wind sinks dumb,
And of a belfry-loft
When the tenor after tolling stops its hum.
And there's the silence of a lonely pond
Where a man was drowned,
Nor nigh nor yond
A newt, frog, toad, to make the merest sound.
But the rapt silence of an empty house
Where oneself was born,
Dwelt, held carouse
With friends, is of all silences most forlorn!
Past are remembered songs and music-strains
Once audible there:
Roof, rafters, panes
Look absent-thoughted, tranced, or locked in prayer.
It seems no power on earth can waken it
Or rouse its rooms,
Or its past permit
The present to stir a torpor like a tomb's.
Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).
A side-note: Hardy often recalled, and mused upon, what appears to have been a happy childhood. Thus, "Silences" is reminiscent of an earlier poem of his which was also prompted by a visit to his old family home.
Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (1901).
David Young Cameron, "A Little Town in Provence" (1922)