The World of Silence

Poetry and Silence

   Poetry comes out of silence and yearns for
silence. Like man himself, it travels from one silence
to another. It is like a flight, like a circling over silence.
   Just as the floor of a house is inlaid with a mosaic, so
the floor of silence is inlaid with poetry. Great poetry is
a mosaic inlaid into silence.
   This does not mean that in poetry silence is more
important than language:

          The highest and the most excellent is not what is inex-
          pressible, as if the poet in himself were of greater depth
          than his work reveals, but his works represent what is best
          in the artist...But the poet is not what merely remains
          unexpressed within him. (Hegel)

   The great poet does not completely fill out the space of
his theme with his words. He leaves a space clear, into
which another and higher poet can speak. He allows
another to take part in the subject; he makes the subject
his own but does not keep it entirely for himself. Such
poetry is therefore not rigid and fixed but has a hovering
quality ready at any moment to belong to another, to a
still higher poet.
   Consider for instance, an image Goethe uses to describe
something. It does not weigh down the object it describes;
on the contrary, it makes it light and even transparent.
  It is quite different in the work of Ernst Juenger. He
occupies the whole space of the object with his image; he
imprisons it, makes it defenseless, and not only covers the
object but crushes it to death. He invades and conquers
it, and there is no freedom in such work.

   Only where poetry is related with silence, is a mono-
logue feasible: for the individual speaking is not alone,
but stands confronting the silence, and the monologue is
in fact a dialogue with the silence.

          It would betray great ignorance to disparage the mono-
          logue and even to call it unnatural...On the stage when
          a great and moving action is passing across it, that which
          unlocks all hearts seems to be the least unnatural. (Jacob

   The space of silence in every true poem must not be
confused with the empty spaces that are also to be found
in all great poetry. This emptiness is no real emptiness,
but is like the poverty that is sometimes found in nature.
It is not a weakness or deficiency. So it is with Gotthelf,
for example: the empty places are like nature in repose,
and therefore they are in fact like places of authentic

   The poet's word not only has a natural relation with the
silence from which it comes, but it can also produce
silence through the spirit that is in it. Through the
creative act of the word the silence that is purely natural
is re-created once again by the spirit. The word can be
so powerful, so absolutely perfect a word, that its con-
trary, silence, is automatically present. It is absorbed by
the word: the perfect silence is heard as the echo of the
perfect word.
   In the "Prologue in Heaven" in Goethe's Faust a 
powerful silence is produced by the powerful word after
each verse. There is an active, audible silence after every
verse. The things that were moved into position by the
word stand motionless in the silence, as if they were
waiting to be called back into the silence and to disappear
therein. The word not only brings the things out of the
silence; it also produces the silence in which they can
disappear again. The earth is not burdened by the things:
the word brings them to the silence in which they float

   Poetry today has lost its relationship with silence. It
comes from the word, from all words, and mostly there is
not even anything to be conveyed by the word. The
word is rather searching and hunting for something to
convey. But the real poet starts in possession of the
object, and goes in search of the words, not vice versa.
   Today the poet's word goes to all words. It can com-
bine with many things, attract many things to itself;
seem more than it really is. In fact the word seems to be
as it were sent out to catch other words. And so it comes
about that the writer today presents far more than he
actually possesses himself. His person is less than what
he writes; he is not identical with his work. And he there-
fore tends to undergo frequent crises on account of this
discrepancy. It could happen in earlier times that the
poet was different from his work, but his person was not
so dependent on it, since the work belonged more to the
cosmic order of the universe than to the person of the
poet. The important thing was not the nature of the
subject who had spoken the word but the objective validity
of the word. There was no question of a confrontation, and
therefore no question of a conflict between the person of
the poet and the written word.
   We have said that poetry has lost its relationship to
silence. It is even demanded of poetry today that it
should represent the world of noise: that noise should be
audible in poetry as it is everywhere else, It is imagined
that that would be the justification of noise, and also that
the noise could be overcome by forcing it into rhymed
verse. But it is not possible to overcome the noise of
external world with the noise of poetry, for the noise of
poetry starts competing with the noise of the external
world, and the two noises rattle along beside each other.
   Noise can be overcome only by something that is
utterly different. Orpheus did not overcome the under-
world by becoming as dark as the underworld but by the
wholly different bright sound of his song.

   A word that participates in the world of silence expresses
something quite different from the same word that is far
removed from silence. That is why it is difficult to inter-
pret Hölderlin, for example, with the words of today.
But precisely because we feel that the words of today no
longer correspond to the same words of an earlier age, we
are always trying to understand the old words. We are
shut out from the language of Hölderlin and yet out-
wardly we are still near to it; and this fact stimulates us
to make attempt after attempt to penetrate it. The
words of such poets, which live on their connection with
silence, are almost unintelligible today. They are mysteri-
ous hieroglyphs, the hieroglyphs of silence.
   Hölderlin seems to stand silently today in a row with
Laotse, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, all of whom are
also silent, and standing beside each other thus, their
nature becomes visible in the silence. Their true form
becomes so visible that the original word could arise again
out of the fullness of this concretely visible nature.


                  PRIMITIVE RACES

          "But where did my soul go?
          Come home, come home.
          It traveled far South,
          South of the peoples to the South of us.
          Come home, come home.

          But where did my soul go?
          Come home, come home.
          It traveled far East,
          East of the peoples to the East of us.
          Come home, come home.

          But where did my soul go?
          Come home, come home.
          It traveled far North,
          North of the peoples to the North of us.
          Come home, come home.

          "But where did my soul go?
          Come home, come home.
          It traveled far West,
          West of the peoples to the West of us.
          Come home, come home.
                               (Eskimo song after Rasmussen)

   In this song it seems as though language hardly dares
to exist. It is already separated from silence but not yet
sure of itself. It repeats itself continuously as if it wanted
to learn how to live, and were afraid of disappearing. It
is as though the song continues to sound even when the
singer is asleep. The sounds are engraven in the air as in
a gramophone record of silence. There is great melan-
choly in the songs of primitive races, the melancholy of
the man who has a double fear: he is afraid because he is
being expelled from silence by the word, and he is afraid
of being thrown back again into the silence and losing
the word again. The melancholy of the song moves on
endlessly between these two fears, which are as endless
as silence and endless as language.
   Primitive man is greatly afraid of losing language, and
that is why he repeats it so often. The word of the song is
a watchman in the night which covers the silence. As the
fire scares away hostile animals, so the words of the song
scare away the hostile silence that is waiting to devour them.

                  THE FAIRY STORY

   The events in fairy stories are quite simple.

          The parents have no more bread and have to turn out their
          children in this extremity, or a hard stepmother lets them 
          suffer and would even like to leave them to die. Then
          brother and sister are forsaken in the solitude of the wood;
          they are frightened by the winter, but they stand by each
          other through thick and thin; the little brother knows
          how to find the way home again or the little sister is
          changed by magic into a little fawn and looks for plants
          and moss to make her brother a bed; or she sits quietly
          sewing a shirt with star-shaped flowers which destroys
          the magic spell. The whole circle of this fairy-tale world
          is definite and closed; kings, princes, faithful servants
          and honest craftsmen, above all, fishermen, millers,
          charcoal-burners and shepherds, who have remained
          close to nature, appear therein; everything outside this
          closed world is foreign to it. (Jacob Grimm) 

   The words and actions in fairy tales are so simple
that they can disappear quite easily at any moment.
They do not have to disengage first from a complicated
world. The poverty of the fairy story comes from the
fact that nothing in it is fixed: everything is ready to give
itself up and disappear again.
   Meanwhile, however, the great stars speak with little
children, horses with kings, and even trees have the power
of language and call out to men. In the fairy story it is not
yet quite certain whether the stars or the flowers and the
trees or man will receive the power of language: every-
thing is still subject to revocation, everything is merely
provisional. It is as though the silence in the depths of
the story were considering to whom it should give language
forever—to the stars, the trees, or to man. Man received
the word, but for a time the trees and the stars and animals
continued to speak, too.

          In the genuine fairy tale everything must be strange,
          mysterious, and incoherent...The whole of nature
          must be mixed up with the spirit world in a wonderful
          way; it is the age of universal anarchy, the freedom and
          natural state of nature before the foundation of the world.
          This age before the creation of the world, just as the
          state of primitive nature, is a strange image of the eternal
          kingdom. (Novalis) 

   Every event in a fairy story is like a new beginning, the
example of a new law that might form the basis of a world
different from our own. There is an abundance of
possible worlds in the fairy story, and therefore an
infinite wealth streams out from it. The mystery is that
the human world, the world in which only man has speech,
is the only possibility that has been realized. The fairy
story leads us to revere this mystery. The world of
silence becomes brighter and more radiant whilst the
colorful world of fairy tales lies over it.
   Everything in the fairy tale has really happened before
it happens. The words follow after the things rather than
precede and announce them. Everything is already at
hand before the words begin to tell the story. Everything
could happen silently, without words at all. The fact
that what could happen silently is accompanied by words
is a fairy story in itself.
   Fairy tales belong to the world of silence, just as
children belong to it. And therefore children and fairy
tales belong to each other.


   Consider for example: "The pitcher goes so often to 
the well that it comes home broken at last." Once upon
a time a sentence like that seemed to have just emerged
from the silence. It presented a concrete picture of the
pitcher, the way to the well, and the well itself. One saw
the pitcher being turned on the potter's wheel; one heard
the water fall from the well into the pitcher, and people
walking backward and forward from their home to the
well. The sentence was so stable and secure that it
seemed quite independent of man. It seemed to exist
even before it was ever spoken by man; it seemed to have
existed before the creation of man, to be more for man
than spoken by man.
   But in the modern world, which has lost the relation-
ship to silence and all coherence within itself, the pitcher,
the well, and the way to the well have been torn apart.
The pitcher really is broken. Such a proverb has to be
as it were glued together from the broken fragments, like
a broken memory of an unbroken world, excavated from
its ruins, glued together into a sentence that no one really
understands any longer.
   Once proverbs were like the beginning of a world,
tablets inscribed at the beginning of the world. But today
they are the end of a world, the last remaining sentences,
the last words gathered together into integrated sentences
in a disintegrating world.

                  CLASSICAL TRAGEDY

   It is as though the things and the events had existed
long before the words, and as though it had needed time
for the words to arrive and give names to them. This
silent time is in the drama of antiquity. It is sometimes
as if the things were going their own way silently and
menacingly, still belonging wholly to the world of silence,
followed by the words, which want to hold them fast.
   This heroic world of the drama of classical antiquity,
this "useless world, containing nothing but conflicts,
royal tragedies and gods", as Jacob Burckhardt describes
it, this world needs the background of silence, which is
itself "the greatest of all useless existences."
   The chief actors in the drama of classical antiquity
were the gods, and man played only a subsidiary role.
The gods accompanied men and things; their silence was
present in men and things. "We learn silence from the
gods, speech from man" (Plutarch). In classical tragedy
the silence of the gods is heard in the speaking of man.
Man speaks in order to hear this silence; he dies to hear it.
When the hero dies, it is as though the silence of the gods
were alive and speaking alone.
   The chorus is in the center between the word of man
and the silence of the gods. Through the chorus the word
of man is surrendered to the silence of the gods. It stops
here, in the chorus, before passing into the silence of the
gods, and it stops here, too, when it comes from the 
silence of the gods.
   The heroes of antiquity spoke to men, but there was
more silence than speech in their actions, and they were
silent as before the gods. The words they spoke merely
followed the lines of the silence already traced out by the
gods. And because the words were always vanishing over
the lines of the silence, they were repeated again and
again. "Thy fame will shine on thee in the whole world
and for ever, Achilles."

                  THE PRE-SOCRATICS

   Every sentence seems to have arisen directly from the
silence. The sentences still seem amazed to find they
exist at all. The words are still rubbing the sleep from
their eyes; they are still not fully themselves; they are
still half way between sleep and waking. They speak in
order to make certain of themselves, to hear themselves.
They can hardly believe that they are in the world of
waking and the world of words.

          Man lights a light for himself in the night, because he is
          dead and yet still alive. In sleep he touches himself as
          dead when the light of his eyes has faded but in waking
          he touches himself not dead but only asleep. (Heraclitus)

   Nothing in this sentence is there for its own sake: one
thing merges into another. Sleep is not yet a strictly
defined sleep, but it touches death and it touches life.
Everything is still a little helpless. Everything is still
holding everything else by the hand. Waking holds
sleep by the hand and sleep reaches out for death. Neither 
wants to be left entirely on its own.
   Words have not yet found a real home in the world of
words; they have not yet found any real home at all. They
are words fallen out of the dream of silence and pressing
on into the silence of the gods. But a part of them sank
down like meteor stones into the world of man, confusing
human words with their silence, with the silence that
belongs to the gods.


   The objects, the events, exist concretely, and their
concrete existence is a story in itself. It is as though the
objects and the events were telling each other rather than
man about themselves—the objects and events are so
concretely primary, and the man reporting them so
secondary. That is possible only when the word betakes
itself to the object and the event as it were for the first time,
to the object and the event to which it belongs, and to which it
therefore holds fast so that the word and the object are a unity.
   In later ages, too, in which words and objects are con-
stantly being manipulated, it is still possible for the poet
to restore the unity of word and object in such a way as
to make it seem as if word and object were meeting for
the first time and forever; as if the objects were telling 
what they are through their pure existence, without the
mediation of language.
   It is thus in the Schatzkästlein of Johann Peter Hebel.
It is as though the objects in these stories had escaped
from a noisy, disrupted and disrupting world into a
secluded valley and were there telling each other about
themselves, as if there were no men listening; passing
the time with memories and jokes and waiting here in the
secluded valley for the world to return in which that
happens in every moment which happened once to them:
that the world holds them fast against false and unnecess-
ary mobility, against being manipulated.

   There are no longer any silent men in the world
today; there is no longer even any difference between the
silent and the speaking man, only between the speaking
and the non-speaking man. And because there are no 
silent men there are also no longer any listeners. Man
today is incapable of listening; and because he is in-
capable of listening he can no longer tell a story, for
listening and true story-telling belong together: they are
a unity.
   In the stories of the Schatzkästlein one hears not only
the story-teller but also the silence of those who listen.
And one hears how, after this silence, the listener himself be-
gins to tell a story, for listening and story-telling take turns.


   The words and the scenes are as new and alive as if
they had just jumped this very moment from silence into
language. The element of language is still new to them.
They frisk about in it like young animals let out of an
enclosure for the first time. They run along in long rows.
Some face each other like hostile enemies. Some climb 
over each other exuberantly. But there are words lonely
as sentries waiting for something (Ophelia's words in
Hamlet, for example.) The most beautiful words are
formed into images, images that are like heraldic figures,
like signs proclaiming that the word not only exists here
but resides in ceremonious splendor.

                  JEAN PAUL

   Everything in Jean Paul is there at once: it does not
develop, it reveals itself. It is a poetry that moves from
word to word but is static as a totality, hovering over
silence like a gentle cloud; and the verbal images are like
visions of silence. The magic of this language consists in
the synthesis of motion from word to word and the motion-
lessness of the whole structure: movement and stillness
are one.
   The words are like the wings of a great bird rising above
the surface of silence and casting a broad shadow as it flies.


   The words come as it were out of a space that existed
before the beginning of creation. This space behind
creation echoes solemnly and almost menacingly in the
words. The unknown, the terrifying, and also the for-
saken in Hölderlin's poetry come from that. The word
calls to man through the antechamber of creation. It is
like the word that speaks before man has been created:
vibrant with yearning for man.



          When on thy pillow lying,
          Half listen, I implore,
          And at my lute's soft sighing,
          Sleep on! what wouldst thou more?

          For at my lute's soft sighing
          The stars their blessings pour
          On feelings never-dying;
          Sleep on! what wouldst thou more?

          Those feelings never-dying
          My spirit aid to soar
          From earthly conflicts trying;
          Sleep on! what wouldst thou more?

          From earthly conflicts trying
          Thou driv'st me to this shore;
          Through thee I'm thither flying,
          Sleep on! what wouldst thou more?

          Through thee I'm hither flying,
          Thou wilt not list before
          In slumbers thou art lying:
          Sleep on! what wouldst thou more?

   Just as children shout outside the house of a playmate
they are waiting for, so the words of the lover cry out here
for a word from the beloved; not noisily like the children,
but quietly, for the words of the beloved are enclosed in 
sleep. It is as though the lover were trying to entice the
words of the beloved out of dreams. Like gentle, velvet
balls the words glide over the sleeping beloved. Like the
dew of silence it falls back on the word from the beloved.