The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

“The Broken Tower” was the last poem that Hart Crane composed before committing suicide in 1932, and the poem does indeed have the eerie quality of a poetic last will and testament. Crane suffered from a chronic bent toward self-destructiveness, however, and much of his poetry explored the processes, purpose, and frustrations of the poetic sensibility confronting raw experience head-on in highly charged verbal arenas.

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“The Broken Tower,” whose title connotes a shattered or fractured vision, is composed in ten stanzas, each a perfect quatrain. In the very opening verse, the reader is asked to envision a bell tower and to hear the bells ringing at dawn; the speaker, however, is not in tune with these uplifting images. Rather, he has “dropped down the knell/ Of a spent day,” his feet “chill on steps from hell.”

The poem’s central idea centers on this initial contrast between the power to make sounds that bespeak the godhead and the earthbound, or worse, condition of the maker of such sounds, who feels miserable in his inadequacy to write a poetry equal to his vision (the bells) and yet equally compelled to continue: “And I, their sexton slave!” The speaker engages the reader in his travail by the use of direct address: “Have you not heard, have you not seen?” While he has toiled and has in fact heard, it has been only from this worldly and imperfect end. The bells sound, but their source eludes him; the resulting poetry has become “my long-scattered score/ Of broken intervals.”

After an intervening stanza rhapsodizing the power of that godly music that he has only imperfectly approximated in verse, the poet abandons the self-critical, confessional tone with which the poem opened in favor of an apologia. For if he entered the “broken world,” it was only in an effort to “trace the visionary company of love.” His aim was not wrong; the problem was, and is, that this sort of insubstantial vision does not linger long enough for anyone to limn its features. “Its voice/ An instant in the wind,” there is not time enough “to hold each desperate choice.” The poet questions whether the words which he “poured[were] cognate, scored” of the Word Itself or were, instead, though “pledged to hope—cleft to despair.” Was it, in other words, nothing more than self-deception?

The speaker admits that there is no answer, unless it is “she/ Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power.” The surprise introduction of a beloved this late in the poem (the seventh stanza) may seem odd unless one realizes that the speaker has taken a necessary third step in his growth away from despair and toward acceptance. He abandons the solitude of the visionary quest and of self-critical evaluation in favor of a sharing of himself through physical union with a fellow, flawed creature like himself.

The new commitment made, the two lovers’—or at least sexual partners’—fleshly mortality evokes, through their heartbeats, an “angelus of wars” in his chest. It is from a different source, but it is no less music. He no longer needs to hear the sound of the mystical bells; he accepts himself and others as a part of the sound that the godhead makes. As his sights have been lowered to a wholly earthly level, so, too, the tower is itself internalized and, realized in his flesh, healed as it transforms finally into the male erection that, in the act of coitus, “Unseals her earth”; in the rhythms of the orgasmic climax, it “lifts love in its shower.” What the speaker could not invoke, he evokes; what he could not bring down, he raises; what he could not repair, he reconstructs.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

Though it is very much a twentieth century poem composed in the spirit of literary modernism, “The Broken Tower” utilizes a complex metaphorical technique that harks back to the so-called English Metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century composed by poets such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell.

The conceit or extended metaphor is the foundation of such poetry. As the eighteenth century English critic Samuel Johnson once put it in rather disparaging terms, it is yoking two disparate things violently together; it is a farfetched comparison that, on balance and further consideration, actually does have the ring of truth. The twentieth century poet and critic T. S. Eliot was among the first to observe that Metaphysical poetry was actually a sort of precursor of the modern imagination, with its quest for up-to-date, startlingly fresh imagery within traditional themes and forms.

“The Broken Tower” is ostensibly relating a quasi-religious experience, but while biographical data suggests that the poem was inspired by Crane’s attending a religious festival in Mexico while on a Guggenheim Fellowship in that country, one does both Crane and the poem an injustice if one fails to see that, in any real terms, religion has very little to do with it. The poem is structured around an extended metaphor for the visionary quest and the perils and frustrations that generally attend such a tenuous exercise. That metaphor is so layered and textured that it becomes the visionary quest itself, the striving to give voice to the inarticulate, and the effort to find entry into the spiritual through contact with another’s flesh.

Without diminishing the validity of any of those readings, the poem ultimately comments on the creative process as an individual endeavor. The speaker/poet is first a sexton ringing bells he cannot see and can barely hear; then he is an acolyte hoping that his offerings might be found worthy by his God; and finally he is a lover who approaches the object of his passion as if she were herself a religious icon. That extended metaphor in each instance works best when its final reading is rendered wholly in terms of a poet trying to master the very substance, and duality, of his material: the word as it evokes the world.

Crane wishes to foster those other readings as well, however, so he subtly blends musical and religious terminology and references—“cathedral,” “crucifix,” “antiphonal carillons,” “sexton,” “encyclicals,” “score,” “intervals,” and “angelus”—thus making the experience of the poem a richer one than if he had spoken only in terms of poems and verses, similes and metaphors, words and images. He is also able to glide from the ideal to the real by slipping through a virtually explicit description of male sexual arousal and penetration of the female without diminishing the spiritual tone of the verse or suggesting any less profound an intention.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

Berthoff, Warner. Hart Crane: A Re-introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hart Crane: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cole, Merrill. The Other Orpheus: A Poetics of Modern Homosexuality. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Fisher, Clive. Hart Crane. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Hammer, Langdon. Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Leibowitz, Herbert A. Hart Crane: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Mariani, Paul L. The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Rehder, Robert. Stevens, Williams, Crane, and the Motive for Metaphor. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Unterecker, John. Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

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Themes