Tags

, , , , , ,

The British Museum Reading Room

The British Museum Reading Room

Try not to drool. How lucky the people of London are to have a place like this in their neighborhood. I love the Park Library here in Mount Pleasant, Mich., but you can’t compare its high ceiling and open space to a fricking dome. I’d love to visit the reading room one day and browse the shelves or settle down with Sylvia Plath and a cup of coffee. Do they allow drinks in there?

This place poem by Louis MacNeice preaches the choir. It paints a picture beautifully as well as build in a sense of awe. I wonder how I would feel reading this after having visited the reading room myself. Maybe I’d love it even more. Today I had a lovely conversation with a grad school recruiter named Rob who loves reading and who thinks it’s “so cool talking with people who are passionate about writing.” He told me a couple neat stories, one in which he went to Africa on a business trip and he was in the area that appears in Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa. When Rob came back to the States and read that book, everything came alive to him more than ever before. He felt such a love for the landscape, because he’d been there and seen it with his own eyes.

“The British Museum Reading Room” by Louis MacNeice

Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge--
    Honey and wax, the accumulation of years--

Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
    The drumming of the demon in their ears.

Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards
    And cherishing their hobby or their doom
Some are too much alive and some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent:
    This is the British Museum Reading Room.

Out of the steps in the sun the pigeons are courting,
Puffing their ruffs and sweeping their tails or taking
    A sun-bath at their ease
And under the totem poles--the ancient terror--
Between the enormous fluted lonic columns
There seeps from heavily jowled or hawk-like foreign faces
    The guttural sorrow of the refugees.

reading room

I’m not going to analyze this as much as I’ve done with other poems, but I’d like to point out a few things:

* MacNeice uses exaggeration in order to make an ordinary, calm scene epic: for example, “haunted readers,” “cells of knowledge,” “these walls of books will deaden the drumming of the demon in their ears,” and “under the totem poles–the ancient terror.”

* The portrayal moves like a film. We get snapshots of the visitors in the reading room, the people who authored the books, even though they’re not physically present, but you can still see them through their printed words –

Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards

– and you gotta appreciate that MacNeice brings in the pigeons. They’re part of the urban landscape; they also contrast well with the historical building and the high value she puts on it.

* Then there’s my favorite part:

Some are too much alive and some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent

The books aren’t just books; they’re objects of mystery, waiting on a shelf for someone to rattle them awake and bring them back to the living world.

* It’s interesting that he chose to entice the audience by beginning inside the reading room and then leading us outside. It may be a way to suggest that we need to actually walk through those doors to see the magic for ourselves.

Advertisements