‘In the Reading-Room of the British Museum‘ by Louise Imogen Guiney is a short two stanza poem that succinctly describes humankind’s need for learning. The stanzas each have their own distinct rhyme scheme. The first following the pattern of ABBACDDC and the second, EFEFEF.
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Summary of In the Reading-Room of the British Museum
The poem begins with the speaker praising the beautiful architecture of the reading-room at the British Museum. This room contains a huge domed ceiling that lets in light, giving it the appearance of the moon. It dwarfs everything below it, but also provides a light, and strength, to the men and women reading. As they become progressively more well-read and enlightened by what they have read, the moon’s appreciation for the scene below grows.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker describes how the men and women who have devoted themselves to higher pursuits sometimes fail in their attempts. They are not deterred though, as they know that they always have the knowledge and reading to fall back on for strength. The room, and the light of it’s “moon” provides them with the needed fortitude.
Analysis of In the Reading-Room of the British Museum
Praised be the moon of books! that doth above
A world of men, the fallen Past behold,
And fill the spaces else so void and cold
To make a very heaven again thereof;
As when the sun is set behind a grove,
And faintly unto nether ether rolled,
All night his whiter image and his mould
Grows beautiful with looking on her love.
While one reads this piece it is important to keep the setting in mind. While it is not stated in the poem, the title informs the reader that the speaker is within the reading-room of the British Museum. The setting becomes particularly important as the speaker crafts the starting metaphor.
She speaks of the “moon of books” that is “above / A world of men.” This “moon” is a reference to the large domed ceiling that seems to incase the space above the reading room. The ceiling is ringed with windows and embellished with gold, giving a viewer the distinctive feeling that it is glowing.
It is this “moon,” that is lording over the “world of men” beneath it. Arranged in a circle around the floor of the room are the desks, shelves, and people that are completely dwarfed by the monumental architecture of the room.
The next lines speak to the abilities that books, and especially history, have to “fill the spaces” that are normally “void and cold.” This could refer to the physical filling of the room, as well as the enrichment of one’s soul. The speaker is praising the ability of stories to enhance one’s life and “make a very heaven,” inside of oneself “again.”
This experience of being improved by the books one reads, especially when read in this particular room, is like “when the sun is set behind a grove.” At this moment, when the light is sinking “nether” or lower, into the “ether,” or the parts of the sky out of one’s view, is similar to the feeling of being absorbed in one’s reading. This emotion, experienced within the reading-room of the British Museum, that is compared to the sun, is being observed by the “moon” or ceiling of the room.
It is as if when this feeling grows, so too does the light coming through the windows. The ceiling and the atmosphere in the room are only improved in their beauty.
Thou therefore, moon of so divine a ray,
Lend to our steps both fortitude and light!
Feebly along a venerable way
They climb the infinite, or perish quite;
Nothing are days and deeds to such as they,
While in this liberal house thy face is bright.
In the second stanza, which only lasts for six lines, the speaker continues with her metaphor comparing the ceiling of the reading-room to the moon.
She is asking that the “moon of so divine a ray” be willing to “lend” to human beings some amount of it’s “fortitude and light.” The moon, and therefore the building itself, seem to the speaker to contain unlimited power. This is what she is hoping will be passed down to those on the floor.
Humankind is “Feebly” traveling “along a venerable,” or honorable, “way.” There are times in which society might succeed in its attempts to surpass great obstacles, and times when it fails. All of these attempts she sees as being “venerable,” they are made for the greater good. There are some that are able to “climb the infinite,” but many more who “perish” as they attempt to reach greater heights.
In the final lines of this piece the speaker attributes the strength of these people to the “fortitude” passed on from the room, and the books it contains. The days of failure and struggle are “Nothing…to such as they” while this mass of books and history are available to them. As long as “thy face is bright,” (a reference to the light shining through the ceiling/“moon”) these brave explorers of modern society will go on.
About Louise Imogen Guiney
Louise Imogen Guiney was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1861. She was the daughter of an Irish-Catholic immigrant who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Her father is now considered as an important part of her development as a poet, installing in her an appreciation for heroism.
Guiney graduated from Elmhurst Academy in Providence, Rhode Island in 1879. She had spent her time there pursing a liberal arts education. For many of the years that followed she lived in Boston and Auburndale with her mother and aunt.
Her first noteworthy work was produced in the early 1880s. These pieces were published in various New England periodicals and were followed in 1884 by her first volume, Songs at the Start, and her first book of essays, Goose-Quill Papers. For the remaining years of the decade she produced a second volume of poetry, The White Sail, and Other Poems, as well as a number of short stories. Then, in the early 1890s, wrote her first biography detailing the life of Henri du Vergier, a French military figure.
The volume of poetry for which she is best known, A Roadside Harp, was released in 1893 to rave reviews. In 1901, after moving to England, she spent the majority of her time writing essays and works of criticism. Over the next 20 plus years, she wrote a number of other biographies as well as worked as an editor for other authors.
Her final collection published just over ten years before her death, Happy Endings: The Collected Lyrics of Louise Imogen Guiney, was released in 1909. She would suffer from varied health problems for the rest of her life until she died of arteriosclerosis, (or a thickening of the arteries brought on by old age) in 1920.