What Is the Theme of the Poem "Silver"?
When you perform a close reading of a poem, you assume that the poem has meaning, but that the meaning is hidden, and that the analyst must bring that meaning to light. Poetry, in this sense, always has something to tell us, whether explicitly -- love is fleeting -- or implicitly, such as in de la Mare’s poem “Silver.” Walter de la Mare was an English writer who lived from 1873 to 1956 and was particularly interested in the imagination of children. Even though this poem may, at first glance, seem childlike, nevertheless, it does make particular assertions. The assertions that a poem makes can be viewed as the poem’s themes: Either they try to persuade the reader to the poem's way of thinking, or direct the reader toward a question that deserves careful thought. Theme in a poem is sometimes difficult to determine; however, theme does have preferred hiding places.
When looking for theme, look first for repeated words or ideas. In “Silver,” the reader follows the moon as she travels through the night sky. She is extraordinarily perceptive and “peers” out seeing various objects on the earth below: fruit, trees, a hutch, a dog, doves, a mouse, fish and the reeds that line the water’s edge. Curiously, all of these objects are -- at least in part -- silver. You might here pause to ask what, exactly, the speaker intends by the word “silver.” Does he mean the metal or the color, or does it stand for something else? The simplest answer is that the word “silver” is used as synecdoche -- in which a part represents the whole -- to refer to the reflection of the moon’s beams.
When searching for theme, you can look for it in any areas or features of the poem that are ambiguous, potentially ironic or even just plain unreliable. For example, in de la Mare’s poem, you know that the silver tree and silver fruit are not made of silver or the color silver; it is an effect caused by the reflection of the moon. This misperception brings up the potential theme of the unreliability of perception. Although this statement sounds like a fact, there is material here for you to discuss and question: Is this really a misperception? Just because, during the daytime, trees are green, does not mean that is their essential color: It is true that in the moonlight they look silver, and who is to determine which perception -- night or day -- creates the truth of the matter?
Since “silver” is such an important word in the poem, you might want to do some research on the definition of “silver” and check out whether it has particular symbolic properties. Look in a dictionary, look in an encyclopedia, look for myths involving silver. You can even look up its etymology -- the history of the word. For instance, silver -- like gold -- can be used to represent money, and money can be used to influence people. Many stories and facts surround the moon’s influence over the tides as well as people’s fortunes. Another potential theme that the poem might be asking you to think about, rather than “perception,” is “influence.” Maybe the speaker does not misperceive, but rather recognizes and pays homage to the moon’s ability to influence.
Once you have looked for incongruities and done some research on the poem, you should be ready to revisit it with fresh eyes. So far, you have only been looking at the poem from the speaker’s point of view -- after all, he is the one telling you the tale. However, you should also delve into the content or subject matter of the poem. Here, the subject is not “silver” but rather the personified moon. It could be her perception that the speaker is trying to represent: The moon perceives everything as silver and she does not realize that her own light causes the silver. Perhaps, even, she does not really desire to see the Earth and its inhabitant, but only her reflected self. In this case, another possible theme could be “We only see what we want to see.”
- A Glossary of Literary Terms, Ninth Edition; M. H. Abrams, 2009
Based in Montreal, Emily Valentine has been editing academic papers and writing short stories since 2001. She is a contributing writer to Synonym.com, and various other websites. She holds an Honors Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Toronto. Her specialties include writing fiction and nonfiction, and the history of the English language.