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A GIRL IN A LIBRARY, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography


"A Girl in a Library" by Randall Jarrell offers an intricate exploration of human interiority, contrasting the outward appearance and seeming normalcy of a girl in a library with a vast internal world that escapes easy definition. The poem oscillates between two viewpoints: that of the narrator and of the girl he observes. At first glance, this young woman appears to be a simple figure, concentrated on her studies. Yet as the poem unfolds, Jarrell wrestles with the notions of identity, potential, and the labyrinth of human consciousness.

The narrator describes the girl as an "object among dreams," encapsulating the conflict between her physical presence and the multitude of lives she could live, as evoked by the books surrounding her. While the narrator suggests that the girl is ordinary-"very human"-he cannot help but pull away, pondering the gravitas of human existence: "This is a waist the spirit breaks its arm on. / The gods themselves, against you, struggle in vain." Here, the tension is palpable; he acknowledges both her ordinariness and the extraordinary depth of her humanity.

The juxtaposition of various classical and mythical references (Brünnhilde, Salome, and Tatyana Larina) expands the scope of the poem to consider how stories both immortalize and constrain us. The narrator seems to contemplate how each woman's story has been written by someone else, often reducing her to a mere character in someone else's drama. Similarly, the girl in the library, bound by her "recipes, the Official Rulebook / Of Basketball," may have her potential confined by societal roles and expectations.

One of the most compelling aspects of the poem is its evocation of alternative worlds found in the depths of books and dreams. Jarrell poetically insists that "The books, just leafed through, whisper endlessly." Yet, there is a poignant admission that some people, like the girl, might never explore these depths: "She's not fat. She isn't dreaming. / Believe, awake, that she is beautiful; / She never dreams." This hints at the missed opportunities and unrealized potential that life often presents.

Jarrell dives into the depths of despair, suggesting that to live without exploring one's own potential is almost akin to not living at all: "The blind date that has stood you up: your life." Yet, he also captures the "ways we miss our lives are life," suggesting that even in our shortcomings and mistakes, we create the fabric of our existence.

Towards the end of the poem, the narrator assumes a consoling tone: "Don't cry, little peasant. Sit and dream." It's as if the narrator wants to tell the girl to awaken her dormant potential, to listen to "the shepherd's pipe, the watchman's rattle / Across the short dark distance of the years." In his musings, he seems to both lament the girl's unrealized potential and affirm her inherent worth.

"A Girl in a Library" is thus a complex emotional and intellectual terrain that oscillates between cynicism and hope, reality and myth, self and other. It raises unanswerable questions about human potential, forcing us to consider how many lives go unnoticed, how many stories go unwritten, and yet how each life, each story, holds an immeasurable depth that defies easy categorization. It's a soul-searching contemplation on the limits and possibilities of being human.


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