(Crowd awaiting news of signing of the Armistice in Paris, 11 November 1918.)
Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 69705)
Sitting reading in an upstairs room, I’m hardly conscious of the quiet. Most of the time, I would have to strain my ears to hear the noise of traffic on the main road at the far end of our street. At the nearer end, there’s a park, popular and well-used but not generating the kind of noise that carries very far. Some people, I know, are made uncomfortable by a complete absence of sound—if such a thing exists in a twenty-first-century city. I lean the other way and think myself lucky not to have to shut out extraneous noise. Silence is not a neutral quality, any more than sound: we bring to it our personality, our training, our conditioning, our education, our predilections, our choices. The things we like or admire are often most clearly defined by contrast with the things that we don’t like or admire. Note that the louder the music playing in the car that just passed you, the worse it was. Quite unlike the music you play when you’re driving in your car.
Alex Ross’s book on twentieth-century music—‘Listening to the Twentieth Century’— was published ten years ago and entitled The Rest is Noise; while Hamlet’s last words, if not sounds, are ‘The rest is silence’. ‘Speech is silver, silence is golden’, an old proverb says, urging the wisdom of biting your tongue and keeping your own counsel. And silence has traditionally been seen, certain among British men of a certain class, as a sign of strength of character. No doubt it enhances our ability to hear, sometimes others, sometimes ourselves. William Least Heat-Moon recalled the words of Brother Patrick Duffy, whom he met in Georgia: ‘When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great.’ And an inner silence, or calm, can surely be a source of strength, as Robert Louis Stevenson remarked: ‘Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.’
To the east of Avesnes on the morning of 11th November 1918, the noise was deafening. Then, at 11:00 A.M., it stopped and ‘the sudden quietness made us all feel dazed—almost stunned—and it was some time before anyone spoke. We who were left just stood gazing into space. It was rather like one feels in regaining consciousness after an anaesthetic.’
This is Gunner James Davidson of the 50th Divisional Trench Mortar Battery: his 1978 letter to the BBC is being quoted by Stanley Weintraub in his fine account of the end of the Great War.
Such noise—in volume, in intensity, in duration—as that inflicted by the Great War had not previously been known. In 1900, Ford Madox Ford had written, at the end of his large volume on The Cinque Ports: ‘But I have sometimes thought that, in the end, a time will come, when the brain of man—of humanity all the world over—will suddenly grow unable to bear with the hurry and turmoil that itself has created.’ Sixteen years later, as he would subsequently recall, during the Battle of the Somme, ‘in pitch blackness, in the midst of gunfire that shook the earth I did once pray to the major Heavenly powers that my reason might be preserved.…’
(Anne Bradstreet, 1612(?)–1672)
All of us, or most of us, begin with a cry—
‘drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!’ John Berryman has Anne Bradstreet say. And, a little later: ‘Blossomed Sarah, and I/ blossom. Is that thing alive? I hear a famisht howl.’
and end in silence.
Into our earlier silences, noise comes, must be accommodated, incorporated, used. Henry David Thoreau, ‘self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms’, marvellously sets against one another the penetrating sound of the locomotive whistle and the solitude and stillness in which, for the most part, he sits. Thoreau is indeed a noted connoisseur of both sound and soundlessness. There are, as he says, ‘many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.’
The sound of the railway would become background noise; as would the noise of the car and, eventually, the noise of the aeroplane. Now we move through walls of sound, seas of sound, and are largely unaware of them. In the early years of the twentieth century, Don Gifford remarks, ‘most people regarded the telephone as a medium for messages that were rather more urgent than casual talk.’ Now the loudness of a mobile telephone call in a public place is generally an index of its triviality, its banality.
Just as darkness is no longer darkness as our grandparents knew it, so silence is rarely noiseless now. In his splendid novel, The Broken Lands, based on the tragic Franklin expedition of 1845-8, Robert Edric writes at one point: ‘They passed into a stillness and an emptiness that even the flocks of following birds seemed to acknowledge in their silence.’ A hundred and forty years later, on a hill above Bristol, I thought that I was surrounded by silence until I concentrated on what was not and eventually compiled a list of nineteen separate and identifiable sounds.
(Not Ambrose but Fra Angelico’s S. Dominic. Still, a saint reading.)
I still read poetry aloud—but tend to ensure that I’m on my own when I do so. It helps both remembering and understanding and, of course, used to be simply how it was done. Alberto Manguel discusses Saint Augustine’s account of St Ambrose reading—remarkably—to himself and in silence. ‘Augustine’s description of Ambrose’s silent reading (including the remark that he never read aloud) is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature.’
Looking almost as far back into (literary) history—and in another country—Arthur Cooper, writing of the 8th-century poet Li Po, notes that poems were always sung or chanted: there was ‘no notion of reading poems silently till perhaps a thousand years later’. This was the poet whom Ezra Pound called Rihaku, following the Japanese form of the name in the notebooks of Ernest Fenollosa, original source of the poems in Cathay and the Noh plays which so enthused W. B. Yeats and led to his writing At the Hawk’s Well. A few years later, Pound would write in Canto 21 of ‘Another war without glory, and another peace without quiet.’
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, V, ii, l.363; edited by Harold Jenkins (London: Routledge, 1989), 416. The First Folio had, after ‘silence’, ‘O, o, o, o, o.’
 William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America (London: Picador, 1984), 88.
 Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 71.
 Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Around the World: The End of the Great War, November 1918 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 223.
 Ford, The Cinque Ports (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1900), 372.
 Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 100.
 Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Other Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 17.
 Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974), 18, 141.
 Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 61.
 Robert Edric, The Broken Lands (London: Jonathan Cape 1992), 41.
 Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (London: Flamingo, 1997), 42-43; and see Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 92-93.
 Arthur Cooper, Li Po and Tu Fu (Penguin, 1973), 32.
 The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 98.