Commentary Samples from Exam 1, May 2001
Stephen Edgar’s “The Secret Life of Books” is about the nature of reading and the power of literature to affect the reader. The poem personifies books, imagining how they silently plot to draw in their readers, and then moves to a discussion of how the readers are changed by their reading. Edgar structures his poem to illustrate the nature of this relationship between literature and its readers. “The Secret Life of Books” is divided into five stanzas, each six lines in length. A lyric poem, it is a brief commentary revealing the speaker’s emotions on its topic. Within such a brief length, Edgar has developed a specific structure to each stanza. Of the six lines in a stanza, the first is long (10-12 syllables), the second is short (3-5 syllables), the third and fourth are long, the fifth is short, and the sixth is long. The second and sixth lines of each stanza rhyme, or come close to rhyming, as do the third and fifth. This structure is consistent throughout the entire length of the poem. The first stanza introduces the idea of books’ after-hours scheming, and describes how they influence the outside world: “they do their work through others/ . . .by the twisting of heart.” The stanza is consistent in voice and character. Each sentence has “they” referring to books as its subject: “They have... They know… they do their work... They have turned the world.” However, the stanza also employs a contradiction to illustrate its theme. On the one hand, the dominant image of books in the stanza is that produced by the simile in lines 3 and 4: “Like invalids long reconciled /To stillness.” Books are incapable of movement and seemingly inactive: “they can’t move.” On the other hand, the stanza describes their effects using language which suggests movement: “They have turned the world/ By the twisting of hearts.” This contrast between images of stasis and kinesis emphasizes the paradox of the poem’s theme:...
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