The entirety of the song is the tale of a recurring dream. One might imagine yet another occurrence of this "restless" dream-- a nightmare, truly-- shaking the speaker awake again while it is still night. Alone in bed, he has no one to tell the dream to but the "darkness" of the room itself, which he finds an "old friend," a welcome comfort from the bright but disturbing images of the dream. (In a later song, Simon will describe a couple of "Old Friends," both human.)
"Darkness," the absence of light, may be a "friend," but "silence," the absence of sound, is "like a cancer." The song as an entirety is an exhortation against the dangers of silence, so it is fitting that the song is wholly a conversation: "I've come to talk with you again." The dream is so disturbing that the only relief is speech, even if only to the darkness of the nighttime bedroom.
The dream, the "vision," describes two scenes. The first is one only of the speaker. The second is of a crowd, and the speakers attempt at interaction with it.
The first scene is very short, confined in some four lines. The speaker is "alone," in "narrow streets." The "streets" are not smoothly paved, but "cobblestone," an image both archaic and tumultuous-- anyone who has walked on cobblestones knows they are uneven and uncomfortable. The light is dim, from a lone "streetlamp," yet it is somehow authentic, even holy-- the glow is described as a "halo." The only protection from the "cold and damp" is the "collar" of his coat. The image altogether is one of isolation and discomfort. The scene is also somewhat British: narrow cobblestone streets, a gaslight shimmering in the infamous London fog, a trenchcoat's collar pulled up ever more snugly against the mist.
The second scene is its complete opposite. It is announced by rending, slashing pain, a "stab," a "split." It is a "flash" of synthetic, "neon" brightness. The speaker is suddenly in Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip.
This new light is also no holy "halo." No, it is "naked." This may be reference to the nakedness that caused the expulsion from Eden. If so, the next image is that of the shiny Golden Calf: "The people bowed and prayed/ to the neon god they'd made."
The speaker, in this new, bare light, sees an enormous crowd: "ten thousand people, maybe more" (a concert audience?). But they are even less communicative than the darkness the speaker "talk[s] with" at the beginning. They "talk" without "speaking." Worse, they "hear... without listening." And worst of all (at least, one may guess, to a songwriter), they write "songs that voices never share." Somehow, they even manage to "pray" quietly.
Why? They do not "dare/ disturb the sound of silence." Yes, but again, why? Why not interact? What is so important, or intimidating, about this "silence" that it must not be breached?
The speaker, new to this realm, finds no ready answer, and so breaks the silence with a jeremiad. He warns the assemblage against the dangers of distancing themselves from each other: "silence like a cancer grows." He tells them there is a solution in communication--"hear my words"-- and offers himself as an example, teacher, and confidant: "Take my arms, that I might reach you."
He might as well have said nothing, as all they heard from him was silence; his proffered "words" are but "silent raindrops." He might have expected as much-- he asked them to "hear" his words after he had observed them "hearing without listening." But the danger of silence forced him to try anyway.
And here is a chilling double irony-- what are these misdirected throngs worshipping? A sign that is "forming" "words". And words about what? "Words"! But as they are formed out of neon lights, they are not spoken, sung, or even heard. These words, whose light can "touch... the sounds of silence," are silent themselves.
"The sign said: 'The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls." (To find out what those words may be, we need to see a later song, "A Poem on the Underground Wall.")
Who are the "prophets"? The disenfranchised, the downtrodden of the "tenement." Here, Simon engages in a bit of inverted logic. If no one listens to prophets, and if no one listens to these people, then these people must be prophets. And, in fact, no one will listen to them, even if they did have a voice, which they do not. The speaker, addressing the oblivious crowd with prophetic, outstretched arms, is just another street urchin with nothing to his name but a threadbare coat. He is invisible beside the overwhelming flash of the neon sign, and his words merely "echo" in the bottomless "wells of silence."
The men who sleep in the alleys of Bleeker Street were truly poor. The Sparrow was a metaphor for the homeless and ignored. But this "vision" shows a new level-- depth, rather-- of alienation. But the people here could speak, listen, and sing together. They are not kept silent out of disenfranchisement or poverty.
They are kept silent by the simple fear of communicating. Of opening up, being vulnerable, possibly mishearing or mis-speaking... and then what? No, better to keep chit-chat cursory and instead focus on the "neon" of the bar sign, the Times Square advertisements, the jukebox... the television tube or movie screen (or computer monitor..?).
The streetlight's halo contrasts with the neon flash to show the difference between radiance and radiation, brilliance and mere brightness. The speaker alone in his room-- with his only "friend," the darkness-- has more company than the myriads of silent worshippers.
The song does not explicitly wrap around; the speaker, having told the darkness his dream, does not ask the darkness for an interpretation of the dream. He does not thank the darkness for its attention and companionship, then rise to greet the day's rising sunlight.
Still, there is closure. The song begins with a wakeful dreamer retelling his dream to the darkness. It continues with the dream of the loneliness of aloneness, then with the loneliness of anonymity.
But it ends by noting that the "words of the prophets" are also "whispered in the sounds of silence." A whisper is the barest hint of speaking, but also the most intimate. The wisp of a whisper might carry the messianic power of prophecy... and connection.
This was the first Simon and Garfunkel hit, and it remains one of the most popular songs in Simon's entire catalog. He still closes shows with it, to this day. For Simon, it meant the beginning of his folk songwriting career, and that Simon & Garfunkel were a hit-making duo.
It reached #1 in 1965, and stayed on the charts for 12 weeks altogether. It would go on to be one of the top-20 most performed songs of the 20th Century (as far as could be tracked for royalty purposes). Rolling Stone magazine ranked it in its top 200 songs "of all time," and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The Library of Congress (which would later bestow upon Simon its first George Gershwin Award) inducted the song to its National Recording Registry, meaning that it was to be preserved indefinitely.
Next Song: He Was My Brother