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Faire silence


Laurent Curelly
p. 13-21

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1This is the last paper issue of the Revue de la société d’études anglo-américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles before the journal goes online. While the Société XVII-XVIII has chosen a new publication medium for its journal, one made necessary by the expansion of the Digital Humanities in our global world, it is not quite coincidental that this issue should include a collection of essays on silence. However, the Revue will not fall silent; it will be given a new lease of life and a fresh voice.

  • 1  Such studies, which sometimes combine an autobiographical approach with philosophical and/or socio (...)

2This issue explores the way silence was perceived and articulated in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English-speaking world, especially where and when it interacted with speech. Over the past decade silence has become a fertile subject of investigation, often studied from a transdisciplinary perspective.1 It is hoped that this issue will reflect the variety of scientific approaches associated with this topic.

3Defining silence is no easy task. Dictionaries will refer to it as a complete absence of sound or speech. Edward Phillips’s 1696 New World of Words: Or, A Universal English Dictionary suggests that silence is “oppos’d to noise, crys and tumult,” as if silence could only be understood negatively in its relation to sounds or speech. In his Histoire du silence, Alain Corbin argues that “le silence n’est pas seulement absence de bruit [mais] le lieu intérieur d’où la parole émerge” (Corbin 1). Silence is ineffable; it imposes itself on us. It describes on the one hand a state of inchoateness, preceding noise, sounds or words and, on the other, a state of completion that runs parallel to the hustle and bustle of our lives or prevails after the “tale […] full of sound and fury” of human destiny has been told” (Macbeth, 5.5.29-30). The way we envisage silence has much to do with our metaphysical apprehension of Man. While silence is traditionally valued as a form of meditation that allows those who practise it to grasp the essence of things, the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas glorifies speech as giving access to the Other and making it possible to engage with him / her as a fellow human being (65-104). Apart from the practical issue of silence impairing the communication process, it would be virtually impossible for individuals to establish an intellectual and social bond between them, should they elect to remain silent.

Ars meditandi: silence and religion in early modern England

4Silence offers a frame to human life and brings out its finiteness, its transitional and transient character. When the seventeenth-century English poet Henry Vaughan states in his Flores Solitudinis that human life begins with wailing (227), his intention is to highlight the tragic dimension of man’s fate, before which and at the end of which silence prevails. Vaughan’s teleological perspective clearly follows a Christian pattern.

5The Bible presents silence in an ambiguous fashion: the Psalmist orders liars and slanderers of all stripes to be silent but begs God not to hold his peace. For the believer meditative silence is a prelude to the reception of the Word of God, either unmediated or mediated by those in the congregation or the church who have been entrusted with conducting the gathering. Ecclesiastes says that there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (King James Bible 3:7). It is common knowledge that monastic silence was a rule of thumb as well as a living ideal, allowing meditation – oratio interior – to emerge from the exertions of an active life (Corbin 66). Muta eloquentia – silent eloquence – was a founding principle of the art of meditation in the early modern Christian world, whereby inner vision and imagination gave access to the Word of God. Ignatian meditation, for example, drew upon silent prayer and the ekphrastic power of mental images to foster communion with the divine (Fumaroli 235-36). In his Silence: A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch stresses the positive value of silence as shaping the apophatic approach to the divine, whereby God is portrayed as what He is not, rather than as what He is (234-35). Silent contemplation as in the medieval mystical tradition was appropriated both by such Counter-Reformation mystics as Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross and by radical Protestant communities, such as Anabaptists and Quakers. Silence allows divine revelation to operate and the Word of God to express itself. It builds a bridge between the profane and the sacred, the material and the spiritual.

The ethics of silence

6Even when they deal with the material world, early modern writers often praise silence rather than speaking. So does the seventeenth-century English Jesuit Thomas Wright, for example, who, in his treatise on the passions, cautions his readers that “many words almost euer offend, but silence very rarely: and therefore the Philosophers say that hee which will learne to speake, ought first to learne to hold his peace” (108). Like many scholars of his time, Wright valued the ethics of silence: virtuous men know how to keep silent whereas vain wits engage in endless prattling, like the pedant Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost, whose copious language and bombastic rhetoric Shakespeare ridicules. In an emblem borrowed from Alciati, the English emblem-writer Geffrey Whitney shows a scholar in his study with a finger held to his lips and in the accompanying poem lists the names of philosophers who revered silence, thus conjuring up a centuries-old tradition stretching back to Pythagoras and, beyond that, to the Egyptian god Harpocrates. The lesson for scholars was that “silence they should keepe” and that they should “speake, no more then that suffis’de” (60-61). Some early modern courtesy book authors commended silence as a significant aspect of social behaviour, such as Baltasar Gracían’s The Courtiers Manual Oracle, or the Art of Prudence. Gracían’s treatise was first translated into English in 1685; in his preface the translator summarised the book as well as the author’s intentions as “an art of short speaking,” praising his aphorisms as encapsulations of decorous laconic conversation. If, to Shakespeare’s Polonius, “brevity [was] the soul of wit” (Hamlet, 2.2.97), silence may have been the soul of social interaction in early modern Europe, as it was associated with prudence and modesty. Political strategy and social respectability shaped attitudes towards silence.

The politics of silence

  • 2  Important studies have built upon Annabel Patterson’s ground-breaking Censorship and Interpretatio (...)

7Not holding one’s peace, however, is sometimes a moral or political necessity, especially when it comes to thwarting conspiracies or denouncing misdeeds. In that case, silence is more dangerous or more reprehensible than speech. When speech becomes subversive and threatens institutional order and existing hierarchies, silencing political or religious opposition as well as dissenting voices becomes a priority for established authorities, even to the point of obsession. In the early modern world, the repression of political and religious dissent was carried out in a number of ways, not least through censorship. Censorship was sometimes successful in imposing silence and in other cases led writers to try and elude or circumvent the censors. A number of recent studies have charted the dynamics of seditious speech and censorship in early modern England, mostly form a historical perspective, and discussed the effectiveness of censorship as well as its impact on publication.2 What is still missing, arguably, is a study, combining literary and historical analysis, of how much the prospect of being silenced affected and shaped textual strategies. John Crouch, the author of the Civil War royalist newspaper Man in the Moon, for example, delighted in playing cat-and-mouse with state censors and constantly mocked them for not being able to gag him. After the Rump Parliament had passed a stringent licensing law in September 1649, he enthused over parliamentary news publications, those “Weekly Legends of Lies,” being silenced forever, “all quash’d on the sudden; lost in a mist” (no. 26, 17-24 October 1649, 217). Crouch’s awareness that his newspaper, being an underground publication, could only be suppressed if he was arrested certainly led him to sharpen his pen immoderately, for he did not have much to lose in the post-regicide world.

Silence in fiction

8Resorting to silence may be a choice for fiction writers who wish to express a reality that is beyond the reach of human language, an inherently flawed medium bounded by rules and conventions. But representing silence is a formidable task, which can only be achieved through the use of linguistic devices: tropes, like ellipsis or aposiopesis, or typography, such as punctuation or a blank page, may help to suggest silence but will never quite capture its essence. The sound and silence dialectics can best operate in music, but early modern music is a far cry from John Cage’s radical experimentation with silence. In some of his poems, George Herbert vowed to renounce poetry in order to express his sinful self before God as he urged his lines to “be dumb, and mute” (“Grief”, l. 14). He turned to visual poems and musical metaphors but ultimately acknowledged that “for thy passion – I will do for that – / Alas, my God, I know not what” (“The Thanksgiving,” l. 49-50). Uttering the unutterable, expressing the inexpressible left Herbert in a dilemma, that of a Christian poet eager to express his faith in silence but unable to do so.

The essays

9This collection of essays begins with Jean-Pierre Vander Motten’s study of the Restoration playwright Thomas Killigrew’s loquaciousness, which ran counter to Renaissance ideas on speech and silence. J.-P. Vander Motten argues that the stylistic affectation that characterises the dramatist’s comedies reflects his exuberant wit and his talent as a conversationalist, one of his distinguishing personality traits, while satisfying his need for self-advertisement and compensating for his lack of education. He analyses the various forms of Killigrew’s wit in his comedies as fictional reconstructions of the Cavaliers’ experience of exile.

10The next two essays consider religious aspects of silence. Cyril Selzner discusses early modern Quakers’ silent meetings, whose purpose was to allow the “light within” as a sign of the Word of God to reveal itself to the believer. He shows that the Quakers’ contemporary critics blamed this practice, on the one hand, for fostering religious enthusiasm and, on the other, for causing a form of quietist lethargy. A common accusation was that the Quakers were Papists – “the spawn of Romish frogs” – who were reviving monastic silence and had a particular fondness for mystical communion with God. C. Selzner then identifies the meanings of Quaker silence – moving away from the world, waiting for the Word of God and, significantly, meditating collectively, as a community, not as individuals engaged in solipsistic pursuits.

11Jean-Jacques Chardin’s contribution is a study of the representation of silence in early modern Christian emblems, in particular those of Geffrey Whitney, Henry Peacham and Francis Quarles. These emblems are fine examples of an ethics of silence based on moderation and right reason, as commended by Stoic writers. Images speak for themselves, as J.-J. Chardin argues, by staging eloquent bodies endowed with a language of their own. Ironically, silence is all the more persuasive as it interacts with speech but, rather than copia and ornamental language, Christian emblems favoured rhetorical restraint and a stylistic economy of means that gave rise to meditation.

  • 3  The adjective “iconic” is used here in its literal meaning, to refer to Charles’s holiness, as evo (...)

12In her contribution on Charles I’s voice in Eikon Basilike, thanks to which the defunct King achieved the posthumous glory of a Christian martyr, Vanessa Chaise likewise insists on the virtue of silence as a paradoxical form of speech. It is no coincidence that the late King’s collection of thoughts and meditations opened with an emblem likening Charles to Christ. V. Chaise argues that, while the Stuart King’s voice was simply not heard during negotiations with his Civil War opponents or at his trial, his printed words as silent expressions of his tongue were far more efficacious and valuable. Eikon Basilike made it possible for readers to share the King’s meditations in silence, thus giving Charles’s iconic voice3 more clout than it had ever had and serving propagandistic purposes in support of English royalism.

13The next three essays discuss the issue of women and silence in early modern England. Michèle Lardy addresses this topic from a chronological perspective as she examines seventeenth-century treatises and conduct-books, and argues that “if at the beginning of the century, pamphlets had ridiculed women’s speech while treatises tried to police it, at the end of the century, conduct-books rather endeavoured to polish and refine gentlewomen’s conversation while expressing serious warnings.”

14Cornelia Dahmer explores prescriptions regarding silence in eighteenth-century conduct books for women. These commonly recommended taciturnity rather than loquaciousness and praised female silence as an expression of virtuous behaviour. They paradoxically presented silence as a non-verbal means of communication that allowed women to show off their femininity, as a strategy to conceal their faults as well as an alternative to open disagreement. C. Dahmer traces a development over the century from an unconditional appeal to be silent to a more complex system of rules mirroring a change in mentality. Conduct-books recommended specific varieties of silence in conversation, thus making the encoding and decoding of silent messages a challenging task.

15Pierre Dubois studies the representation of silence in Frances Burney’s The Wanderer. In line with conduct-books of the time, the novel presents women’s silence as part and parcel of female identity and a sign of good education. However, as P. Dubois argues, the fact that the heroine, Juliet, chooses to hold her tongue is revealing of her ability to use silence to her own advantage. Juliet is an accomplished musician; her music contrasts with her noisy environment and allows her to access her inner world. Thus, music may be perceived as a mode of silence, which is itself much more than a mere absence of noise. As does her music, the main character’s silence makes it possible for her to challenge norms and authority.

16The last two essays discuss two literary tropes that express silence: aposiopesis and apophasis. Barbara Muller studies the connection between silence and chastity in Shakespeare’s romances. She looks at what ancient as well as early modern rhetorical treatises have to say about aposiopesis as a figure of silence; their authors recommended the use of aposiopesis as an expression of decency and restraint. However, there is more to this trope than meets the eye: it can produce the paradoxical effect of making the unutterable audible. B. Muller argues that Shakespeare makes good use of this paradox to subvert literary conventions about chaste language. In his romances, the Bard sometimes establishes a personal connection with his audience by having aposiopesis suggest obscenity rather than chastity.

17Apophasis – when a speaker tells what he/she ostensibly refuses to tell – is also a figure that expresses reticence. Anne Toner explores Jane Austen’s use of this figure of irony. Her study is a survey of the novelist’s usage of the trope from her early writings to her mature fiction. A. Toner shows that through apophasis Austen investigates the validity of statements of inexpressibility and provides a window on her characters’ unspoken selves.

18All these contributions bring out what could be called the “paradox of silence,” silence being just as meaningful as speech, perhaps even more eloquent than speech, and, far from signifying emptiness and nothingness, having a metaphysical quality as well as an aesthetic value of its own. We hope that they will further enrich the analysis of this topic.

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Primary sources

Crouch, John. The Man in the Moon. 57 no. London, 1649-50.

Gracían y Morales, Baltasar. The Courtiers Manual Oracle, or the Art of Prudence. London, 1685.

Herbert, George. The Temple. Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations. London, 1633.

Milton, John. Eikonoklastes, In Answer to a Book Intitl’d Eikon Basilike, the Portrature of his Sacred Majesty in his Solitudes and Sufferings. London, 1649.

Phillips, Edward. The New World of Words: Or, A Universal English Dictionary. 5th ed. London, 1696.

Vaughan, Henry. Flores Solitudinis (1654). The Works of Henry Vaughan. Ed. L. C. Martin. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1957.

Whitney, Geffrey. A Choice of Emblemes, and Other Devises, For the moste parte gathered out of sundrie writers, Englished and Moralized. Leyden, 1586.

Wright, Thomas. The Passion of the Minde in Generall. 2nd ed. London, 1604.

Secondary sources

Corbin, Alain. Une Histoire du silence: de la Renaissance à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 2016.

Dutton, Richard. Licensing, Censorship and Authorship in Early Modern England: Buggeswords. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000.

Fumaroli, Marc. L’École du Silence : Le sentiment des images au XVIIe siècle. Paris: Flammarion, 1998.

Hadfield, Andrew, ed. Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “Parole et silence.” Œuvres complètes. Vol. 2. Eds. Rodolphe Calin & Catherine Chalier. Paris: Grasset, 2011.

Mac Culloch, Diarmaid. Silence: A Christian History. London: Penguin, 2014.

Maitland, Sara. A Book of Silence. London: Granta, 2008.

McElligott, Jason. Royalism, Print and Censorship in Revolutionary England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007.

Patterson, Annabel. Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England. Madison: U. of Wisconsin P., 1984.

Prochnik, George. In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

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1  Such studies, which sometimes combine an autobiographical approach with philosophical and/or sociological reflections, include for example Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence and George Prochnik, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence – A Christian History is an engaging survey of Christian silence. Alain Corbin’s Une histoire du silence: de la Renaissance à nos jours is a learned compendium of quotes and remarks about silence.

2  Important studies have built upon Annabel Patterson’s ground-breaking Censorship and Interpretation, such as Richard Dutton’s Licensing, Censorship and Authorship in Early Modern England, Andrew Hadfield’s collection of essays Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England and Jason McElligott’s Royalism, Print and Censorship in Revolutionary England.

3  The adjective “iconic” is used here in its literal meaning, to refer to Charles’s holiness, as evoked notably by the opening emblem of Eikon Basilike. In the preface to his Eikonoklastes, written in response to the King’s book, John Milton criticises the emblem as a visual means of sanctification, an icon contributing to Charles I’s posthumous glory.

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Laurent Curelly, « Foreword »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 73 | 2016, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2016, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Curelly

Université de Haute-Alsace,ILLE EA 4363
Laurent Curelly is Senior Lecturer in British Studies at Université de Haute Alsace in Mulhouse, member of the research group ILLE (Institut de recherche en langues et cultures européennes). He specialises in seventeenth-century English history, politics and literature. His interests include Civil War radicalism and early modern English journalism, on which he has written widely. In addition to articles in academic journals and essays in edited volumes, he has published a translation into French of the editorials of the radical newsbook The Moderate and co-edited a volume with Nigel Smith, Radical Voices, Radical Ways - Articulating and Disseminating Radicalism in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain, published by Manchester UP (Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies series commissioned by SEAA XVII-XVIII; General Editor: Anne Dunan-Page).

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