Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The speaker’s love of learning and of the library is evident throughout the poem. He is curious about the ways libraries have served and continue to serve as culture. In the poem’s seventy-two lines, Steele is able to address the past, present, and future of not just the library but also intellectual life as a whole. Underlying the history of the library in the ancient world is the theme of resilience. Although countless irreplaceable literary treasures have been lost, more books have taken their places. Naturally, the speaker is worried not only about the fate of the books but also about what role the physical library will have in a virtual world.

As a poet and literary scholar, Steele is drawn to the subject of his poem as part of his own life (his wife is a librarian as well). That he is interested in the question of the library as cultural oasis raises the questions of what culture is and what people must do to preserve it. Though not personified, the library is in fact a living record of literary expression, alive with the signs of past, present, and future human creativity and intellect. Seated between nature and culture, the speaker of “The Library” ultimately asserts his faith in the enduring order of things in the world.