The British Museum Reading Room

British Museum (c) David Secombe

Photo © David Secombe 1988.

The British Museum Reading Room by Louis MacNeice, 1939:

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 prince-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 on 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 ionic columns
There seeps from heavily jowled or hawk-like foreign faces
The guttural sorrow of the refugees.

[The Reading Room is now merely an exhibit, the centre piece of Foster and Partners’ Great Court. The scholars now have to go up the Euston Road to the British Library.]