‘The Silent One’

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two–
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes– and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line– to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice– a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied–
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole no way to be seen,
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing–
And thought of music– and swore deep heart’s deep oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated– and a second time faced the screen.

In this poem a soldier takes cover while facing a barrier of uncut barbed wire in No-Man’s land. Two men lie dead on the wire, one of whom the soldier knows. A commanding officer points a possible way through the wire, one that would mean certain death to the soldier; the soldier refuses to take it.

The Silent One: The title refers first to the man dead lying on the wires— his silence obviously indicating his death. This is an example of metonymy— where one word is substituted for another that it suggests. It is perhaps unsurprising that Gurney, a composer, associates silence with death. Without wanting to see Gurney and his poetry simply through his other career as a musician, ‘The Silent One’ is very aware of what can (or can’t) be heard: of sounds, of speaking, and of silence.

STRUCTURE: The structure of ‘The Silent One’ is only partly organized according to rhyme: it begins with two rhyming couplets, but the end-rhyme thereafter is deliberately imperfect and sporadic. “Unbroken” and “unshaken” near-rhyme. ‘Seen’ weakly rhymes with the second unaccented syllable of “whizzing”, but does rhyme with ‘screen’ in the last line. In the midst of these half-rhymes “clothes” and “oaths”, either rhyme or half-rhyme, depending on how you read the poem.

The reason for the weakness of the end-rhyming in ‘The Silent One’ is, I think, because so much is going on within the lines themselves: you can find words and phrases repeated throughout the poem in quite a complicated way. We find “wires” and “unbroken wires” (twice), “chatter” and “chattered”; “accent”, “darkness”, “line”, “no”, “retreated” and “again” repeated likewise. Why does Gurney do this?  Perhaps because this poem is written in a colloquial style and, in the manner of everyday speech, parenthetical. What I mean by ‘parenthetical’ is to say that the poem contains lots of little asides, just as everyday speech has: and the extensive use of punctuation within the line (dashes, colons, semi-colons and brackets) designates the speaker’s leaps to other thoughts or linked observations. This creates a confidential and intimate air to the poem— which contains, suitably enough, a startling and frank admission— an informality perhaps at odds with a strong use of end-rhyme.

“Who died on the wires…”: The poem begins, unusually, as if running on from the title. The wire, of course, is barbed wire, used massively across Europe during the Great War as a defence on the Western Front (for illustration, see the thickets of barbed wire which I use as the banner for this site). The use of barbed wire is representative of the fact that for much of the First World War, armies were defending territory in a static manner. Barbed wire impeded the approach of attackers; many of the soldiers of both sides died collapsed and died on the wires (read more about the use of barbed wire in the Great War, here).

“Who… had chattered through / infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:”: the speaker, a soldier, knows the dead man facing him on the wires. The intimacy of his observation— referring to the man’s “hours of life” and “infinite lovely chatter”— contrasts powerfully with the directness of Gurney’s description of his comrade’s fate. Note the reference to the man’s Buckinghamshire accent as a kind of symbol of his humanity: there is again a strong contrast to be made here between the musicality of his voice and his silence in death.

“Yet faced unbroken wires;”: Before an attack, a major purpose of shelling was to break up the barbed wire defences of the enemy, and so clear the way for an assault. Teams of men would also be sent into No-Man’s Land to clear the wire. These attempts were often unsuccessful and to be entangled in or slowed by barbed wire in No-Man’s land was to be a sitting duck for enemy gunfire. The use of colons and semi-colons here draw the poem back to this fateful moment for the dead officer: leaping backward in time within a sentence like this is called analepsis.

“stepped over, and went  / A noble fool, faithful to his stripes— ”: continuing his description of the man’s journey into no-man’s land, we find that he is an officer (“his stripes” refers to the number of chevrons on his uniform, showing his rank). He was, the speaker says, a “noble fool” for following the order to attack, which meant his death: the odds were clearly against his survival.

“and ended.”: The conclusion of this sentence, Bernard Bergonzi writes, “matches anything in Sassoon and Owen in its terrible directness”. The terseness of this ending is indeed shocking— though it is the rather indirect nature of the sentence that leads up to the conclusion (encompassing observations about the man’s dead body, a reference to his “lovely chatter” and accent, and his part in the action before his death) that disarms the reader before this “direct” conclusion.

“But I weak, hungry and willing only for the chance of line— to fight in the line,”: the exhaustion of the speaker is admitted. This documentary honesty is a feature of the poem. The soldier is “willing”, despite his exhaustion, only because of the chance to fight. Again, the punctuation here is subtle: the dash seems to precede a necessary clarification or explanation that the soldier did indeed want to fight.

“But I… lay down under unbroken / Wires, and saw flashes and kept unshaken”: the soldier lies down before the wire, out of enemy gunfire. Here we find another mention of the wires, and the fact that they are unbroken— this fact, and the different responses of soldiers to this fact, dominates the poem. The soldier manages to keep control of himself as the bombs explode nearby.

“Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:”: this voice— the soldier’s commanding officer’s voice— contrasts strongly with that of the ‘silent one’. The officer is detached, particular, and his accent is overly refined (“finicking”) where the Bucks man’s was expressive of his humanity.

“‘Do you think you might crawl through there— there’s a hole.’”: the phrasing of the officer’s observation— a direction offered in the form of a question— betrays hesitation. Nonetheless disobeying a lawful command from a superior officer could result in imprisonment.

“Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied— ‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’”: the soldier’s refusal to follow the officer’s direction here is the dramatic heart of the poem. While this describes a grim scene, it is also possible to detect some of Gurney’s ironic humour here: as soon as the officer points a way through, the crack of a rifle in the dark is heard. This irony is clearly felt by the soldier (“I smiled”) who answers the officer in the same polite manner with which he was directed. There is something heroic about the soldier’s rational anti-heroism: indeed, ‘The Silent One’ is one of the few great poems of the First World War that courts the same grim, fatalistic humour that is found in many of the common soldiers’ songs (like ‘The Old Barbed Wire’: “If you want to find the old battalion / They’re hanging on the old barbed wire”).

“There was no hole… after tearing of clothes…”: the soldier’s observation regarding the impossibility of attacking through the ‘hole’ that the officer points to can be read here in a number of ways. Earnestly, as if in self-justification? With muted anger? Wearily, in disbelief at the uselessness of the order? With wry amusement as the situation is recalled? It is a mark of the clever balance of the poem that all these complex responses are plausible. In a sense, the soldier is responding to what would be, outside of war, an insane situation; to be directed towards what could almost certainly be a useless death. Gurney here humanely dramatises the fine line between the noble and foolish gesture.

“Kept flat, and watched the darkness…”: Gurney describes the soldier’s consequent actions in defiantly non-heroic terms: he lies prone, out of the line of fire.

“hearing bullets whizzing— / And thought of music— ”: the soldier listens in the darkness. This acuteness of hearing, and the ability to listen to others and judge accurately what precisely is being suggested or said, is important in the poem. The reference to thoughts of music imply that this is a poem composed by Gurney from personal experience.

“swore deep heart’s deep oaths / (Polite to God)”: the confidential yet frank tone of the poem comes through strongly here. The little aside here, in parenthesis, reads here like a joke after a heartfelt confession of fear (I didn’t blaspheme as I swore, he bluffly reassures the reader).

“…retreated and came on again, / Again retreated— and a second time faced the screen.”: the vacillation here— the quite open use of the word ‘retreated’ here, and the return again and again to the wire— effectively describes the actions of a man facing an insurmountable object (“the screen” of wire). On this inconclusive and definitely non-heroic note— the wire halting forward movement— the poem appropriately ends.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Silent One’ can be compared to any other poem that depicts or lauds heroism (or indeed condemns or describes cowardice) as it usefully injects a powerful and documentary sense of realism to the momentary dilemmas of the front line.]