The poet spun out his images in a quiet, intimate voice as the iron-gray light streamed from tall windows into the Long Room at the Boston Athenaeum. Between poems, the silence was complete – except for the rustling sound of a reporter turning the pages of his notebook.
Robert Farnsworth, a rumpled professor from Bates College, was the featured poet at a lunchtime reading today, holding forth to about 20 people from a lectern under a 20-odd-foot-high wall adorned with seven paintings, the largest a picture – probably larger than Farnsworth – of the 19th-century Boston philanthropist Thomas Handasyd Perkins, one of the earliest "proprietors" of the library.
Outside, people were walking in the chill, wearing headphones blasting tunes, cellphones pressed to their ears. In the Old Granary Burying Ground, visible from the windows, leaves danced in the wind around the ancient headstones.
Inside, behind the scarlet leather doors of the more 161-year-old neo-Palladian building, all was quiet, and the smell of books permeated the air. Giant statues of Demosthenes and Sophocles guarded the entrance to the Bayard Henry Long Room as Farnsworth read.
What better place to hear the poet speak of things like "that heartening, creaturely belief that the soul won't someday lose but escape the body"?
"Brother, this works. It's such a great place," said Jay Reeg, 57, of Newton, a poetry fan who said he read about the event in the Globe and "threw on my hat and coat and took the T to Boston and here I am."
"I've always known they did it. I'm going to come back," he said.
"I feel, I don't know, a sense of continuity with readings past," said Jack Carroll, 60, of Cambridge, who came because he knew Farnsworth from graduate school.
The Athenaeum, founded in 1807 and housed in the 10½ Beacon St. building since 1849, has a collection of more than 500,000 volumes. It once was the province of the city's elite families. "Any barriers that surround it have been high enough to keep out the nuisances," a library director once said. But recently, with membership declining and the endowment shrinking, trustees have started a membership drive, the Globe reported in November.
The campaign continues, said library director Paula Matthews, who, when she introduced Farnsworth, invited everyone in the audience to become members.
After the reading, people lined up to get Farnsworth's signature on his slim volume of poems, "From Rumored Islands."
Howard Martin, 28, who had Farnsworth as a professor at Bates, and Deirdre Costello, 27, of Brighton took a long lunch break from their jobs at university libraries to come.
"What a cool thing to do to come to the center of Boston in the middle of the hectic week and see something like this," said Costello.
"You really kind of get transported by it," said Martin.
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