This idea is developed further in the final stanza, bringing the poem to its conclusion. When the reader comes “to think, to tell, to do,” he ends up not thinking in an original manner, but becomes a model of what he has read. “In the end they have written you”; their thoughts become yours. Structurally, this stanza connects to the first stanza. It is self-contained, neither beginning nor ending with part of a sentence. In addition, the phrasing of the first line, “They have you,” echoes the poem’s opening: “They have their stratagems too.” What exactly are the books plotting? The parallel structure at the poem’s end resolves this question. They were plotting to have their ideas become part of us.
The title of the poem is extremely significant. It is the only time in the poem that the word “books” is used, and thus the readers’ only clue to the identity of “they” used over and over in the poem. The phrase “secret life” carries the connotation of glamorous and exciting dual identities, lending the poem a touch of whimsy. It echoes sensationalist tabloid headlines, leading the reader to suspect exciting and surreptitious goings-on in the library at midnight.
Any poem that describes literature to such an extent as this one lends itself to being read as self-referential. In this case, the author seems to be acutely aware that this poem will be analyzed, and some of his lines suggest that he is directly speaking to the analyzer. The question: “What do they have to say and how do they say it?” is a classic prompt when analyzing a poem or other piece of literature. The irony in this poem is that, like the books it describes, it will become part of its readers’ mind; it will write us, so to speak. The inherent irony within the poem makes Edgar’s use of a light tone appropriate; were he to write an extremely serious piece on this topic, it would seem that he had failed to understand that his own work was part of the process he describes, instead, he is fully aware that the quotation marks we are caught between may be his own.
Although “The Secret Life of Books” has a light, or whimsical tone, it provides serious insight into the relationship between author and reader. Just as a composer needs musicians for his art to come to life, an author needs readers, or his work has no more worth than lines on a page. At the same time that the author needs the reader, the reader needs literature, needs the ideas it contains for they help him to form opinions and expose him to new ideas. We are what we read, Edgar suggests, but this is not necessarily a bad thing; this transformation must occur for authors to turn the world.
Commentary Marks from Exam 1, May 2001
This is an example of an excellent commentary. The first paragraph gives a concise introduction to the main ideas in the poem and relates the ideas to the structure of the poem. After an analysis of line lengths, which is accurate but not enlightening, the candidate proceeds to discuss the poem stanza by stanza. This works for this poem because of its logical progression which the candidate clearly understands. He does not always use the correct terms but, more importantly he can discuss effects, as he does for the enjambment between stanzas 2 and 3, and 3 and 4. He has an excellent understanding of voice, does not avoid the difficult metaphors (see comments on “dead leaf’s skeleton”) but refrains from translating the obvious. The candidate was one of the few who realized that the poem was humorous. There are plenty of detailed references to the text and the language is correct and usually concise. Score: 55555 for a total of 25.