A Plea for Silence

IRREVERENCE and want of faith are, according to current criticism and popular delineations of life, the prevalent defects of the age. How much of both may be traced to its fluency ! Sacredness and silence are twin born ; expression is usually in the inverse ratio to conviction, or, rather, the more earnest a belief or an affection the more is it reticent. We discuss subjects about which our fathers only mused ; we proclaim what they cherished, we expose what they concealed. Facility of intercourse breeds contempt, badinage begets scorn, talk engenders indifference. We take up a weekly journal and find the mysteries not less than the frivolities of life made a note of; womanhood is dissected as remorselessly as crime ; character is assailed as recklessly as faction ; society is analyzed as coolly as finance. Each of these primal and permanent elements of humanity has, or should have, to every unperverted man and woman, associations and significance hallowed to memory, to conscience, or to hope. Yet each is flippantly interpreted by garrulous tongues, caricatured by unscrupulous pens. In the vain attempt to talk or write them into “ victorious clearness,” they are profaned, perverted, betrayed. The distance that lends enchantment is annihilated by egotistic hardihood. Forms and phases of religion are so debated and depicted that no shrine is left whereat the devout may kneel undisturbed ; love is portrayed by the novelist, not as an individual sentiment, a personal instinct, but an accidental, social phenomenon ; the lofty thought, the comprehensive deed of the statesman evaporates in the jargon of the politician ; the essence, the vital principle of civic and domestic integrity being thus diffused, through excess of speech, all that intensifies will and harmonizes sentiment — true passion, distinct purpose-—is lost in the eclipse of faith, which germinates and flowers in silence.

Travellers of moral sensibility unite in declaring that they are brought singularly near the heart of nature in the East; the deserts, shores, ruins, and even cities there, at certain seasons, bring them into what seems like the primeval relation of humanity to the universe, — an experience fraught with grateful mystery to the weary and fevered child of modern civilization. Doubtless much of this occult charm is due to local associations acting upon sensitive minds and to the meditative mood incident to the climate ; but no small part thereof is owing to silence, not only as the characteristic of the people, but as the law of life, inasmuch as the press, parliaments, and social usages of the West are in abeyance; the countless intrusions and impertinences, from politics to pastime, have died away on the eager ear of the wanderer ; he is thrown back upon himself; only nature and the past appeal to his consciousness, and there is nothing in the present to remind him of the gregarious habits, the perpetual chatter of the busy routine of his life at home. He has entered the realm of silence ; his pet phrases, his hoarded quotations, his conventional compliments, his partisan argument, and his table-talk have lost their significance. His soul no longer evaporates in speech, his thought is no longer diffused by expression, but ideas, emotion, and sentiment are fused and fostered in the alembic of contemplation, deepened and purified by silence. He realizes how les Orientaux trouvent d'ineffables dehces nans un beau silence, and that this heretofore contemned element of life est une aes richesses de l'Orient. All the poetry of the East sought by imaginative enthusiasts, from Byron to Lamartine, and from Volney to Chateaubriand, is solemnized by this lapse of speech, by this instinctive reticence, so that a kind of religious experience, a return to the patriarchal feeling, to the simplicity of Scripture sublimity, to the content of the human heart with nature, is apparent. In a word, there is then and there brought home to consciousness a sense of the artificial relation of language to thought; it is clearly suggested to the mind that, after all, this redundant expression overlays and dwarfs quite as much as it expands the vital significance of life; that breath and brain are incalculably wasted in talk ; that publicity profanes, discussion disenchants, and that to possess one’s soul in peace is better than all triumphs of utterance, whether from rostrum or in salon. Nowhere more than in the East is it felt how “ silent is the light that moulds and colors all things ” ; nowhere do the latent facts of consciousness so assert themselves. “ Language,” says Isaac Taylor, “ consisting as it does of arbitrary signs, is manifestly a rudiment of the material system. It is a fruit and a consequence of our corporeity ; in the recesses of the human soul there is a world of thought which, for the want of determinate and fit symbols, never assumes any fixed form.” This vague but vivid sphere of ideas and feelings becomes conscious and prevalent in the East, and is one secret of her charm.

The silence of Nature is often her most expressive influence. How noiselessly are her wondrous processes carried on, —the growth of vegetation, the condensation of moisture, the ebb and flow of the tides, the gathering and illuminating of clouds, the stainless particles woven into avalanche and earth-shroud, the lull of the wind and wave, germination, efflorescence, harvest, frost, sultriness, crystallization, the tinting of flower, rainbow, and insect ; all the means and methods of transformation ; all the sublime movements of the universe, from the law that keeps a planet in its orbit to that which paints the lily and poises the dewdrop! And what a solemn beauty haunts the silence of the forest, beneath leafy arcades and along woodland aisles whose paths are bright with the mosaics of moss, leaves, and flowers ! How ominous the hush before the thunder-storm ; how serene the still lake, and sublime the calm ocean ; what balmy brooding in the Indian summer, and latent vitality in the soft stillness of spring twilight ; what luminous tranquillity in winter, —

“ Shod with fleecy snow,
Who cometh, white and cold and mute,
Lest he should wake the Spring below ";

while

“ Without debate,
The stars that are forever to endure,
Assume their thrones and their unquestioned state ! ”

What a hush of expectancy heralds the gifted orator, and how impressive the silent homage when on

“ The singer’s lips expires the finished song ! ”

I have heard a naval hero declare that the most intense experience came to him with the awful silence preceding the battle, and not in the excitement of the fray. To look upon the quiet sleep of a child is to hear the deep, “ sad music of humanity,” fraught with solemn tenderness ; and the tranquillity of death is more awe-inspiring than life’s most eager manifestation. Lamb has memorably described the religious silence of a Quaker meeting, and Taine reveals the secret of Fra Angelico’s naïve art, when he refers the childlike piety that inspired it to the calm isolation of St. Mark’s, where for years no sound breaks the long day’s stillness but the echo of the friars’ steps, gliding from chapel to refectory. Silence is the nurse of devotion, the conservator of primal instincts ; and monasticism has a genuine basis in human needs ; not merely penitential may be the system of La Trappe, but recuperative also ; only in our age the discipline of silence should be a voluntary penance, that, like so many other forms of voluntary renunciation, it can become, as it were, a renewal, not a lapse of the best conscious life, an æsthetic resource, a physiological refreshment ; “ II repos,” says Balzac, “ est le silence du corps ” ; and it may subserve to brain and nerves, to sense and sensibility, the same benign purpose that sleep does to the whole organization. In society, says Foscolo, “ we observe much, we do not meditate, but imitate ; and, through much discourse, exhale the generous elements whereby we feel, think, and write with vigor.”

Between the divine miracle of Pentecost and the bewildering penance of Babel there is an auspicious sphere, hallowed by religion, consecrated by art, and endeared to consciousness,— silence. Herein the complex arrangements of the Romanist and the serene simplicity of the Quaker coalesce in recognizing a spiritual agency,

“ An inward stillness, —
That perfect silence where the lips and heart
Are still, and we no longer entertain
Our own imperfect thoughts and vain opinions,
But God alone speaks in us, and we wait
In singleness of heart that we may know
His will, and in the silence of our spirits
That we may do his will and do that only.”

Poets and philosophers equally attest its creative power ; Keats calls a Grecian urn “ the foster-child of Silence and slow Time.” And Heber describes the noiseless architect, —

“ No hammer fell, no ponderous axes swung:
Like some tall palm the mystic fabric sprung.
Majestic silence ! ”

While improvident and tender Steele breaks off his ardent apostrophes to Prue with the declaration that “all great emotions are dumb.”

There are crises of life when silence is the forerunner of destiny ; when the heart seems to cease its pulsations in the eager, breathless grasp of hope or fear ; before the word is uttered that condemns or acquits the prisoner, before the shot is fired in a duel or execution, before the evidence is uttered that clears or condemns the accused, before the whisper is breathed that bids the lover hope or despair, and before the tidings awaited in agonized suspense are borne to the ear of the fond and fearful. Silence has an emphasis far beyond speech, for it is broken only to enrapture or dismay. I once saw a picture representing the “ Woman taken In Adultery, and it brought home to my imagination the overwhelming eloquence of silence. The holy figure of Jesus, stooping to write on the ground ; the repentant anguish of the woman at his reticence of rebuke, as he looks abstractedly down rather than reproachfully at her, in divine compassion ; the shrinking away of the conscience - stricken accusers, — all suggested a depth of sorrow, a lesson of love and law, beyond the most ingenious homily ; and if thus expressive in wisdom, silence is none the less so in courage. “ Molti detti ha il codardo, pochi I’ eroe,” says the Italian tragic poet. “And smote him thus,” is all Othello’s prelude to suicide. There is a magnetism which speech exhausts and silence hoards. Madame de Kalb said of Richter, that “ there was a tone that his mind gave out, without words, sweeter than the sounds of the harmonica.” It is related of Fontenelle, whose organization was as delicate as his temperament was sensitive, that he was conscious of the loss of nervous fluid through the voice ; and therefore laughed inwardly, never talked in a carriage or argued, but kept a reserved force by virtue of frequent and restful silence, whereby he gained not only in enjoyment but in verbal tact and felicity.

“ There’s a minute
When a man’s presence speaks in his own cause
More than the tongues of advocates,”

finely says Massinger ; and emotion itself, in proportion to its delicacy and depth, seeks refuge in silence. “ There is a gloom in deep love,” says Lander, “ as in deep water; there is a silence in it that suspends the foot: no voice shakes its surface.” Cowper’s ideal courtier is he

“ Who comes when called and at a word withdraw,
Speaks with reserve, and listens with applause,”—

a worldly type which is paralleled by the Italian maxim describing the true lover as one who brama assai, poco spera e nulla chiede; and Dante’s proverbial phrase applied to all hopeless infamy, “ Non ragionam di lor, ma guarda e passa.” Every poet in.stinctively pays tribute to silence. “How sweetly did they float upon the wings of silence,” is Milton’s apostrophe to musical strains. Thomson, in his sense of the inadequacy of language, exclaims, “ Expressive silence, muse his praise.” To Coleridge gazing at Mont Blanc, it is the silent cataracts and pines that awe ; and another is won by the spires whose “silent fingers point to heaven.”

There is the Roman silence of the stoic, the non-committal silence of the diplomat, the magnanimous silence of the chivalric, the brooding silence of camp, cemetery, and cathedral, of cities at midnight, of deserted shrines, and there is the silence of prayer, of sleep, of death, — always and everywhere an oracle of humanity, a mystery of life, a revelation, an appeal, an episode marking the transitions, hallowing the experience, or signalizing the interludes of time, and giving fresh emphasis to the voices of nature.

Our pioneer author, who shrank from public speech, both from innate modesty and refined taste, having been persuaded to utter a brief prefatory discourse in elegiac honor of a brother in letters, naively expressed his surprise, when the painful ordeal was over, at the ease of its accomplishment. “ I have found out the secret,” he said ; “ you have only to become accustomed to the sound of your own voice, to be fearless and fluent.” So many have, in this age, reached this requisite condition of elocutionary success, that the confusion of tongues and the din of words often make inaudible the eloquence of nature. A sensitive lover of books, devoted to a few and intolerant of the passing tide thereof, that bore him from his favorite moorings, was accustomed to say, when pestered by the constant mention of a new work that everybody was supposed to be reading, “ O, it will blow over,” — as if it were a disagreeable state of the weather instead of a literary nuisance. But few have the resolution to ignore what is talked about, and so acquire the habit of superficially reading what has no interest for them ; overmuch speech in literature as in life is the bane of their culture, the chaos of their consciousness ; and it would prove a benign event if the pens and presses of the world were to stop for a decade, so that such victims might sit beside the river of truth, instead of being swept on a flood, not of knowledge, but of words, “far inland” and away “from that immortal sea that brought us hither,” away from the deep fountain of silence.

The old cherished Anglo-Saxon idea of domestic retiracy, of the inviolable refuge which makes every man’s house his castle, the sanctity of the individual, — a sentiment which is, so to speak, a radical element of high civilization, — no longer covers, as with the ægis of traditional instinct, the privacy of society. Personal revelations are the staple of daily news; the whereabouts, costume, income, journeys, benefactions, quarrels, and opinions of all are regarded as public property; even engagements of marriage are proclaimed, and for this infringement of what was once understood to be a social law there is no legal remedy. Reiteration makes hackneyed the most fresh and sequestered name ; the number of those who “mistake notoriety for fame” is countless ; money is deemed equivalent for any liberty of the press. A recent comic journal in France thus humorously states this compromise between scurrility and cash : —

“ Monsieur, je brûle de désir de vous appeler en public goitreux, hydrocéphale et même veau a deux têtes. Combicn ces épithets réunies me coûterent-elles ? ”

“ Monsieur, vous en auriez eu I’annèe dernière pour trente francs par jour. Mais j’ai baissé un peu mes prix ; ce ne sera plus que vingt-cinq francs.”

“Tres-bien, monsieur ; voici les vingt-cinq francs demandés ; je cours vous trainer dans la boue.”

The ancient excuse for ostracism, that the opponents of Aristides were tired of hearing him called the just, is, by the increase of public mediums, grown to be universal instead of exceptional, for never before was it more emphatically demonstrated that “Folly loves the martyrdom of Fame.” Complacency and complaint are, where wisdom prevails, mute.

“ Le bruit est pour le fat,
Le plainte est pour le sot,
L’honnête homme toumpé,
S’eloigne et ne dit mot.”

An old French writer composed an epilogue called L' Académie Silencieuse, wherein little writing, much thinking, and no speech was the rule. In our day the satire has renewed significance. Even wit loses its salt by repetition. Tel mot qui le lundi a paru spirituel en diable, est devenu à force d' avoir été répété, insupportable le samedi d' après. Among the platitudes of after-dinner speakers, when a new means or method of intercommunication is inaugurated, be it a journal or submarine telegraph, is the complacent declaration that “ peace on earth and good-will to men ” is the inevitable result of such increased facilities of human intercourse ; whereas the truth is, that celerity of expression, whether by tongue, type, or electricity, is often the cause of misunderstanding, simply on account of the absence of those long intervals wherein passion once had time to cool and the sober second thought to triumph.

There is a certain truth, despite the apparent contradiction and the candid subtlety implied in the maxim of the veteran diplomatist, that speech was bestowed on man to hide his thoughts ; for when it is the unguarded medium and the careless utterance it is so apt to be with the shallow and the vain, no more treacherous element of character exists. To the limitless mischief of the tattler and the degrading babble of the coxcomb is added the serious risks of the statesman, the soldier, and the publicist. The biography of prominent officials of every class and rank evidences the danger of imprudent speech ; words uttered or written in passion or thoughtlessness have sealed the doom of many an aspirant, and compromised the welfare of a people or a cause ; and the men whose record is the most clear and authoritative are those of the greatest reserve and deliberation, to whom words have been the dictate of reflection, conscientiousness, and foresight. In no one tiling was the rectitude and wisdom of Washington more apparent than in his extreme care to proportion his statement to fact rather than feeling in his correspondence, the rough draft of which shows a frequent modification of the original phrase, chiefly in the adjectives, so as to give, as near as possible, the exact degree of meaning. How many a candidate for high office in our country, by an unlucky expression, which passed at once into a verbal exponent of the man, has lost his political prestige or his partisan support, until “ masterly inactivity ” of tongue and pen have come to be regarded as consummate tact! It is said of an eminent American jurist, that he refused to contribute to the funds of a college society, because it fostered the “gift of the gab,” which he deemed the curse of the land; and, within the personal knowledge of us all, how often is this opinion justified by the example of him who with vain words wages a disgraceful strife,

“ That leads no whither, till forgotten death
Seizes the babbler, choking out his breath.”

Even the present zeal for the acquisition of modern languages often tends to a like perverse estimate of the means, as distinguished from the end, of expression. Polyglot is no synonyme for power, except when associated with superior acumen and broad culture ; and the educational system as well as the political and social ideals of the age are tainted with the pharisaic defect, — we are too apt to think we shall be heard for our much speaking.

On the other hand, what range for expectancy, what infinite possibilities in silence, when observed by a man of recognized ability ! Its latent power is incalculable ; it gives new emphasis to speech ; it implies a reserved force of character, and suggests original results of thought. We soon learn to distrust the fluent, and to confide in deeds, in the self-control and the selfknowledge implied in silence ; what influence it lends to authority, and how much of the awe that kingship and priestcraft have inspired springs from its mysterious sway! It is true, indeed, that mediocrity is sheltered as well as dignity preserved by silence ; that cunning lurks therein not less than conscience ; and that there is nothing to choose, in point of worth, between the stolid reticence of a Bunsby and the inconsequent prolixity of a Mrs. Nickleby; that conceit has its silence as well as modesty; and that it is equally a resource to the stupid and the soulful; yet none the less is silence the benign provision of nature whereby the elements of character are deepened, its manifestation made beautiful, and its influence hallowed. Exquisite as is the more delicate adaptation of language to thought, elevating to consciousness as are its purely poetic marvels, and refreshing to mind and heart as is its honest and sympathetic interchange, it is none the less a truth that these and all other triumphs of speech are exalted and prolonged by the spell of silence, when we feel what love, wisdom, and faith " lie sepulchred in monumental thought.” Many a reign has been less auspicious than that of William the Silent, and the last choice of the American people indicates that they have learned to confide in a Chief Magistrate who does not make speeches.

The Tower of Babel is as significant an emblem of our heritage of woe as the lost Paradise ; in the masterful dominion of one, as well as in the confusion of many tongues, individuality, freedom, and progress are overlaid or thwarted ; speech becomes an echo, a wearisome refrain, instead of an original utterance ; glib expression is mistaken for personal thought, and life in the less highly endowed instead of being an intellectual experience is reduced to a mechanical exchange of words. “ A man full of words,” says the Psalmist, “ shall not prosper upon the earth ” ; and it is by musing, and not talking, that the heart is kindled into worship, and the mind illuminated by truth. Sydney Smith enjoyed even Macaulay’s “ flashes of silence.” I remember one of those placid women, neat, calm, and kindly of mien, whose expression as well as garb denotes a member of the Society of Friends, who came into the apartment of a neighbor, seated herself, smoothed the white kerchief over her gentle bosom, and, with a deep sigh of relief, exclaimed, “What safety there is in silence ! ” She then related, with a kind of plaintive indignation, the experiments of a trader in whom she confided, and with whom she had long had transactions, to defraud her. When the intention became apparent, her wrath rose, but, in accordance with the principles of her sect, she restrained its utterance, and left his presence. “It was hard,” she confessed, " to keep the old Adam down,” but it appeared the doing so was a rebuke keenly felt. Indeed, no protest is so effective as silence. We felt this on one occasion when, at a table encircled by courteous gentlemen, an underbred man made an inquiry which all present but the interlocutor felt to be indelicate and presuming. The person addressed made no reply ; the query was repeated, and one of the guests asked if it was heard. “ I never answer impertinent questions,” said the insulted gentleman, quietly. The aggressor quailed as no reproaches could have made him. How effective, in certain cases, is what has been aptly called “the conspiracy of silence” ! it is the most eloquent form of remonstrance and contempt. Calumny is thus deprived of its sting; injustice is lived down. Even will is weakened by over-expression. " I have always found,” says Ruskin, " that the less we speak of our intentions the more chance there is of our realizing them.” If any living writer of the English tongue owes his influence and fame to an eloquent and audacious fluency, whereby the reader is carried away on a glowing sea of words, it is John Ruskin ; and yet note his recent protest and confession : “ I have had what, in many respects, I boldly call the misfortune to set my words somewhat prettily together; not without a foolish vanity in the poor knack that I had of doing so, until I was heavily punished for this pride by finding that many people thought of the words only, and not of their meaning.” And elsewhere in the same treatise he remarks : “ No true painter ever speaks or ever has spoken much of his art: the greatest speak nothing. The moment a man can really do his work, he becomes speechless about it. All words become idle to him.” 1 In the same spirit Matthew Arnold recognizes the purity and power of expression in Hellenism as the height of culture. And is it not a fatal error in our much-vaunted system of education, that the so - called clever man, in academic phrase, is he who by patient and judicious “cramming” obtains the material whence, by rhetorical elaboration, he complacently utters himself in well-timed phrases from pulpit, rostrum, or legislative halls, in a glib, gracious, but wholly conventional way, having no vital relation either to character or conviction ? The historian, Finlay, pleading for Greece, says there is danger that her advanced civilization will relapse to the level of Oriental standards, except in rhetoric: how much of our own has no more substantial basis !

It has been said that silence has as many meanings as words, and to realize this we have but to consult the great dramatic and psychological interpreter of human life. Shakespeare tells us that silence “ is the perfectest herald of joy ” ; that “ the silence often of pure innocence persuades when speaking fails ” ; and that the “ best part of wit will shortly turn into silence ” ; he recognizes the “silence of envious tongues ” ; now it flouts, now freezes, here welcomes, there disdains ; and, in all great crises of grief or passion, usurps and transcends the office of speech. “ O Imogen, I ’ll speak to thee in silence,” — “ let it be tenable in your silence still.” “What shall Cordelia do ? love and be silent ” ; and what touching significance in Lear’s salutation, “ My gracious silence, hail ! ” and again in the Midsummer Night’s Dream, —

“Trust me, sweet,
Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome,
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongues
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.”

Dante, arguing against the perversion of natural gifts, ascribes the incessant civic troubles of his factious countrymen to making a priest of the warrior, and preferring the man of words to the man of action : — 2

“ But ye perversely to religion strain
Him who was born to gird on him the sword,
A nd of the fluent phrase-man make your king.”

“ Scripture,” said Boyle, “ teaches us like the sundial, not only by its light, but by its shadows.” Theologians seem but recently to have discovered the significance of silence in Holy Writ, the suggestiveness of what is hinted rather than revealed ; but many and memorable are the tributes to silence in the Gospel narrative, the Proverbial wisdom, and the earnest Psalms. The silence of the persecuted is compared to a sheep that is dumb before his shearers ; divine wisdom silences sophistry, “they answered him not a word ” ; and in the remorseless faces of mendacious accusers the meek and martyred One was mute. “ I will keep my mouth with a bridle,” says the singer of Israel, “when the wicked are before me.” “Who is this,” asks Job, “that darkeneth knowledge with words?” And the wisest of kings declares that “ a fool’s mouth is his destruction ” ; and that he who “hath knowledge spareth his words.”

Enforced silence is indeed a penance, as may be seen in the sad countenances of captives and the restrained eagerness of school-boys. It is a curious subject of speculation to ascertain the effect of vocation upon speech. Why is the barber loquacious and the tailor silent ? To the climate and domestic habits of the English their reserved speech is attributed not less than to their temperament; while the out-ofdoor Continental life favors intercourse and begets an abundance of greetings and casual discussions ; a Parisian café is the reverse of a London club in respect of talk, and the high-pitched tones of street colloquies in Naples form a wonderful contrast to the silence inside a British railroadcar : indices these of national character wherein redundant expression and its opposite evidence an essential diversity in the normal traits both as to principle and practice. When the poet of Eden describes the coming on of “twilight gray,” her “sober livery” is rendered doubly impressive because “silence accompanied”; and one of our own bards has indicated as a chief attraction of night that, she

“ Lays her finger on the lips of care.
And they complain no more.”

What a beautiful hint of visual expression is that in Tennyson when he says, “her eyes are homes of silent prayer”; and of sorrow in Goldsmith where he speaks of “ the silent manliness of grief”; and of the wonder of discovery in Keats, where he tells how the followers of Cortez

“Looked at each other with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak of Darien ! ”

The effect of silence in art has scarcely been appreciated even by æsthetic analysts. The appeal to the eye alone gives to architecture and painting an impressiveness which is enhanced by the quietude that so often reigns in gallery and temple. In contemplating these, when no audible interruption mars the spell, a serene eloquence so fills the mind that we sometimes feel conscious of a living presence. Dante has a bold image of darkness when he alludes to the sphere dove il sol lace; and there seems to the fancy such a thing as speaking forms and hues where no vital animation exists. How much is the appeal of sculpture to the imagination deepened by its absolute calm, and what a sense of awe is inspired by lofty arch, vast dome, massive pillar, and spacious aisle, by the dream-like lull of earth’s myriad voices that seem to have died away on the threshold. The scene in the Winter’s Tale, when the living statue of Hermione is apostrophized, hints the mute eloquence that haunts us in the Vatican by torchlight; and the figure of the brooding Lorenzo in the Medici Chapel not merely looks but seems to breathe unutterable pathos. In the deserted cathedral there is a mysterious hush, in the masterly portrait a latent language; and every genuine work of plastic or pictorial art, when gazed upon by meditative and sympathetic eyes, fills the void of silence with ethereal tones born of beautiful tranquillity or frozen passion ; it is as if the music of love, fame, or wisdom had become suddenly transfixed in eternal grace.

There is a great secret of literary art in silence ; the emphatic pause in description, the sudden collapse of utterance implying more than details can reveal, and a depth of feeling or a range of imagination too deep and vast for words, is often the most rare and memorable inspiration of the poet. Alfieri renewed the intensity of his beautiful native tongue by this terse expression, this concentrated speech, leaving to the heart and imagination to complete what is so eloquently hinted ; from the infinitely suggestive line with which the grim Tuscan abruptly closes Francesca’s story, “that day we read no more,” an English poet has elaborated a long, sweet, sad tale of love and despair. Terseness of statement is the best eloquence of judicial minds.

It is highly probable that, with the advance of physiological science, what may be called the hygiene of silence will reveal unimagined laws. The connection between the integrity of the nervous system and the use and abuse of speech, and the relation of the latter to character and culture, are as yet but vaguely defined. Dr. Trousseau of Paris has lectured on a disease called Aphasia, which indicates how much is to be learned before the philosophy of speech and silence is understood. We are told that “ in this malady there remains an integrity of the understanding and a normal condition of the vocal chords. Thus, while preserving all his mental aptitudes and all his intellectual wants, a man may be sequestered for weeks from his fellow-creatures, although living in the midst of them, and remaining in everything their equal, with the exception of the use of his tongue. Dr. Lordat, Professor at Montpellier, describes his own case. After a period of mental agitation and of strange nervous symptoms, accompanied by an access of tonsilitis (to which he was subject), he suddenly, although convalescing from his indisposition, found himself deprived of the power of speech. During the first weeks of the malady the patient had only lost the external part of the function of speech ; the internal part, the thought and understanding, remained intact. He was capable of performing the same amount of mental labor as before his illness ; in fact, the mental and physical condition was completely restored, only he could not talk. But gradually in losing the recollection of the signification of words pronounced, he lost also the recollection of their visible signs. Finally, syntax disappeared from the words ; the alphabet remained, but the junction of letters for the formation of words had to be restudied. He was in despair at not being able to read the titles of his most familiar books, without spelling them out. His despair, however, did not prevent him from smiling over the absurdity of French orthography. After a few weeks of profound melancholy he perceived one day, to his great joy, that he could read at a distance the titles of the books in his library. From this time forward memory and speech returned, but only fast enough to enable him to notice a change every fortnight. As in other cases, when he first commenced to speak he confounded words, and for a while said invariably ‘handkerchief’ for ‘book.’ ”

It is noteworthy that those who have the greatest sensibility to the delicate and forcible in language as an instrument of thought, who are eminent for the gift of verbal expression, are the most earnest in their protest against its excess, shrink the most from the senseless overflow of speech, and plead most emphatically for the conservation of silence. Foremost among English popular writers in this crusade is Thomas Carlyle, who, despite his extravagance in opinion and his paradox in speculation, has, in attacking shams and advocating character, will, and individuality, impressed the readers of our vernacular with salubrious powers. “ The finest nations in the world, the English and American,” he declares, “are going all away into wind and tongue.” “ Silence,” he pronounces, “ the eternal duty of man. He won’t get any real understanding of what is complex and what is more than any other pertinent to his interests, without maintaining silence.” And elsewhere : “All virtue and belief and courage seem to have run to tongue, and he is the most man and the most valiant who is the greatest talker.” He seems to think a difficulty in expressing one’s self a positive intellectual or moral excellence, as in Cromwell ; he praises Johnson for his silence about himself, as contrasted with the egotistical utterance of Byron and Lamartine; “the silence,” he observes, “ which is said to be golden is not the silence of stupidity, but of self-restraint ” ; and it is his conviction that “the noble, silent men, scattered here and there, silently thinking, silently working, whom no morning newspaper makes mention of, are the salt of the earth.” After more than fifty years had elapsed since he was a student at the University of Edinburgh, he told the young men in his inaugural speech as rector there, that he would give them the benefit of his experience. “ The great qualities they should all aspire to,” he said, “were strict obedience, humility, and moral conduct, but more especially, as above all, silence. What has been done,” he asked, “ by rushing after fine speech ? There is a very great necessity, indeed, of getting a little more silent than we are; rarely should men speak at all, unless it is to say that thing that is to be done, and let him go and do his part in it and say no more about it.” Probably Elia’s impediment of speech refined and concentrated his style, made him unconsciously more of an artist in written expression. Procter says : “ Lamb knew the worth of silence ; he knew that even truth may be damaged by too many words. When he did speak, his words had a flavor in them beyond any that I have heard elsewhere.” And who, in our day, has more vitalized that form of speech which has become almost identified with dulness ? who has made the sermon so fresh with new significance, an interest transcending sectarian limits, and glowing with reflective humanity, as Frederick Robertson ?. And yet he says, in one of his letters, '" If you knew how sick at heart I am with the whole work of Parliament, ' talkee,’ ‘ palaver ’ or whatever it is called ; how lightly I hold the ‘gift of gab,’ how grand and divine the realm of silence appears to me in comparison ! ”

As the earth is enriched by lying fallow, as the clouds gather electricity through the calm summer day, as the dew is distilled in the hush of night, so is the soul fed and strengthened by voiceless aspiration and invisible worship. Upon the clearest perceptions and the freshest sensibility there is a pitiless pressure of words, invading the hours of his renewed consciousness with that “ map of busy life,” the morning journal, encroaching upon his mental self-possession with the perpetual proclamation of news from everywhere and about everything, claiming his attention now in the report of an African traveller and now in the details of a scientific discovery, here in a new novel and there in a political speech, to-morrow in the tragic rehearsals of a catastrophe, and to-day in the record of a revolution or the platitudes of a charlatan. To announce, describe, discuss, and criticise every event in politics, science, literature, art, and society has become the business of so many tongues and pens, that wise men are fain to seek the woods and the desert, in order to collect their thoughts, to recover their equanimity, and to escape the din of eternal communication. All kinds of rights are advocated but that of silence, all kinds of wrong assailed but that of gabble. Utterance is the ideal of the day ; to express a thought is considered the only way to possess it; to disintegrate private intelligence by fusing it in public assimilation, to emasculate convictions by diffusive reiteration, to pervert sentiment by rhetoric, and sense by garrulity, may fill up the vacant hours of those destitute of intellectual resources, or gratify the vanity of shallow minds, but the virile in thought and the profound in feeling are sacrificed in the process.

H. T. Tuckerman.

  1. Ruskin’s Mystery of Life and its Arts.