The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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/...

(The entire section is 615 words.)