The Poem

“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.

“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/...

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Forms and Devices

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...

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