Last Updated September 5, 2023.
While the poem lacks characters in a traditional sense, it does feature several categories or groups whose ideologies or perspectives influence or inform the poem’s message.
The speaker is an author and a reader who guides the narrative shape and only appears in the final couplet. Although the poem rails against poorly written and meaningless literature and wishes for writers to complete the works they ruminate on, he reveals that he is equally complicit in the decline of literature. The speaker is embittered, driven to burn books by his vitriol for works he deems unworthy.
Though it may seem odd to count inanimate objects as characters, the poem hinges on the categorization of books as meritorious or not. The speaker's idea of what makes a book valuable and worthy of being saved from the cleansing erasure of the flames is fascinating and gives the poem shape. In the first stanza, the speaker explains that truth burns just as hot as lies do, which means that, in the process of burning books, valuable books burn just as hot and quick as less valuable books do. In short, some books are burned to censor their contents and erase their dangerous truths. However, other books are burned because they lack content that is in any way meaningful or important. Indeed, Stafford was inspired to write this poem after burning a book he found shallow and meaningless.
In this sense, there are several categories of books that the speaker recalls: one, the valuable book burned for its seditious, dangerous, or otherwise censorship-worthy content; two, the books burned because they are not valuable enough for preservation, and their loss does not matter; and three, the books that remain unwritten. It is this third category that the speaker mourns, suggesting that leaving stories unspoken and tales unwritten is just as much a form of censorship as burning books. While these categories do not make books into characters, the distinctions between books mark an important line that distinguishes the levels of the speaker’s argument.
When analyzing poetry, readers must always be careful to avoid conflating the speaker of a poem with its author. While the speaker presents an argument or makes a point, their claim is often a creative manifestation contrived by the author’s guiding hand. Essentially, the two narrators are not always in alignment, and it is important to bear that disconnect in mind. In this case, however, the line between author and speaker is blurred. The speaker, also a writer who is dissatisfied with his creative output or, more accurately, his lack thereof, writes of modern literature much as Stafford himself did: derisively and pessimistically. At the end of the poem, the author himself is the writer who fails to write a book. Indeed, Stafford makes himself culpable, guilty of the phenomenon he condemns.
In some ways, one might argue that the reader is also a character in the poem. Though the speaker does not explicitly say it, it is implied that books are also censored if they remain unread. Even if those unwritten books are written, if there is no one to read them, they remain in obscurity, no more relevant than if they had been written.