The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

Timothy Steele’s lyric poem “The Library” is written in eight stanzas of nine lines each employing an ababccdbd rhyme scheme. The poem describes a person coming out of a university library in Southern California at the end of the day, who is struck by a series of increasingly significant contrasts. While walking out of an air-conditioned library, the speaker is blasted by the hot, dry Santa Ana winds in the heat of the day. He seeks refuge on a bench in the sculpture garden where he begins to compare his world with ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. He thinks how times have changed from handwritten to printed books, now as often on microfilms and disks as on paper. That the wealth of ancient literature was largely lost is a point of regret for the speaker: “Thoughts of the art and science thus destroyed/ Leave me a little empty and unnerved.” Though the poem is about loss, it is not a lament.

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Pursuing the personal connection he feels to art and literature, the speaker trusts that “Technology now limits what is lost,” and, he reasons, literature exists best in the minds of living people. He thinks of “The Library as Mind,” an interesting organic concept, but abruptly shifts his attention to the more manageable details of ordinary life.

With careful attention, the sixth and seventh stanzas of the poem move through the tasks associated with closing the library for the night. The speaker pauses to think about the last checkouts from the circulation desk, the turning off of the lights on each of the aisles, and the librarians and staffers, whose days are insulated from their outside cares.

How the present is preserved for the future emerges as another theme of the poem through the last few stanzas as the speaker’s attention is attracted to a squirrel looking for a nut to bury. In the little animal’s “nosing round, compelled to hoard/ By instinct, habit, and necessity,” the speaker sees his instincts, as well as those of the librarians, as keepers of culture to save and protect books and other such artifacts out of habit and the sense that it must be done. Presumably, after putting the pieces together, the speaker goes home.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1004

The nine-line rhymed stanzas follow a nearly perfect pattern, with the exception of stanza 6. In stanza 6, the three b-line rhymes—“truer,” “viewer,” and “through a”—require the reader to slide “through” them as one word so as not to disturb the ababccdbd scheme. The lines are largely end-stopped. The first and second, and seventh and eighth lines of each stanza use enjambment, the technique of continuing an idea over two lines without pausing. The poem follows an accentual syllabic meter that creates an even flow and rhythm.

Steele mixes images of nature with those from history and culture. He also infuses the poem’s latter half with detailed descriptions of the closing of the library. Stanza 1 sets the natural scenes as the speaker leaves the library at closing time. Because of the Santa Ana winds, the “grainy sunlight pours/ Through eucalypti whose peeled bark strips beat/ The trunks to which they cling like feeble sleeves.” The simile here is clear and precise: The bark strips look like sleeves of an old shirt or jacket flapping frailly in the wind. Throughout the poem attention is paid to the sounds of the natural world as well as to its appearance, giving the poem additional texture and fullness.

The shelter the sculpture garden’s bench offers from the winds gives the speaker time to wonder if the library of today might still be called a “cultural oasis.” While it houses books, the speaker says he feels as if he is “playing Faustian video games” when using the computer to track books. At the end of the second stanza, the speaker thinks of how Plato, the Greek philosopher, spoke against the power of literature to subvert people’s reason and make them want more than they could achieve. There is a connection between scientist-magician Johann Faust, who sold his soul so he could live forever, and Plato, as technology has a way of making people think that whatever is saved on the computer will be safe forever.

In stanza 3, the speaker ponders how the ancient philosophers and scholars would react to the idea of a database. They would be amazed at “words and software joined and sync-ed.” The innovations of the technological library strike the speaker as similar to what likely happened when an unnamed early scholar decided that poems should look different from prose “And first gave lyric measures lineation.” He is not opposed to changes in the library; he simply wonders what their long-term effectiveness will mean to reading and to preserving written materials.

The flapping of a banner on the nearby art gallery and the fight of two birds over an edible carob pod do not break the speaker’s concentration, as he gets deeper into the idea of the contrasts between ancient and modern cultures. Thinking of Rome, Alexandria, and Pergamum, three ancient centers of learning, the speaker seeks to establish the importance of the library in both his life and in the society at large. The success of the allusion that ends stanza 4 depends on the recognition of three commonalities: During the Hellenistic period, poets enjoyed great freedom of expression and were supported in their writing by the royal courts, especially in Alexandria, where the Ptolemic kings were great book collectors; the ancient world’s writing gave rise to what today is thought of as literature, with the contents of the libraries being treated as war prizes by conquering armies; and the early librarians were scholars and poets who composed handbooks, glossaries, and anthologies of quotations to promote literature. These ancient libraries were eventually destroyed, and Steele, though he leaves the reader some sense of the significance of the names of the three cities, presumes the reader will be able to make the full connection between the allusions and the poem at hand.

It is also worthwhile to know that Pergamum was famous for its bronze statues celebrating the victories of Kings Attalus and Eumenes, which feature both the conquerers and their victims in dramatic poses capturing the ferocity of battle and the courage of the combatants. This image links the end of stanza 4 to the earlier reference within it to Auguste Rodin’s sculpture Walking Man, which the speaker can see from the bench. Walking Man is one of Rodin’s characteristic pieces, which like The Man with the Broken Nose reflects his notion that unfinishedness is an artistic aesthetic of its own. Such pieces have a quiet forcefulness about them, which causes the viewer to shift expectations from figural realism to the fragment of the person Rodin made his subject. As Steele moves into the fifth stanza, the issue becomes whether new technology will save learning “from any partial holocaust.”

The turning point in “The Library” comes when the speaker changes from the line of thought of “The Library as Mind” to consider how “the details of closing time” are more important. The last line of stanza 7 enjambs into the first of stanza 8 as the speaker is returned to the present moment by the squirrel and the wind blowing some leaves around. The squirrel traces his path down the sycamore tree “as though along a corkscrew’s thread,” lending a feeling of unity in natural elements. The implied comparison of the squirrel’s impulse to preserve itself and the speaker’s to preserve his love of learning despite the physical changes in the library, though not quite a metaphysical conceit, suggests humans and animals are among “the frail” who must preserve themselves against larger forces which, like the seasons, might overwhelm the unprepared.

Through carefully chosen evocative language, literary and historical allusions, and a simply understood narrative line, Steele offers a full picture of the physical landscape that constitutes the external setting of the poem and the mental landscape the first-person speaker inhabits. The attention to detail at all levels gives the poem a suitably large scope and makes the speaker a more fully drawn character within the poem. First-person address invites the reader to share the moments the poem describes.

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