The 1920’s were years of professional and personal achievement for William Butler Yeats. His son, Michael, was born in 1921. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, enjoying the worldwide recognition of not only his own work but also the Irish Literary Revival. In 1922, he was appointed to the first senate in the Irish Free State and received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College. Yeats was approaching his sixties and beginning to wonder what would be the impetus for his poetry in old age since so much of it had always been love poetry. As the decade progressed, his health was failing, and he was convinced that his generation was no longer the moving force in Ireland.
The Tower reflects these conflicting forces in Yeats’s life. His poetic voice and technique were at the height of their mature intensity and power, and he was excited by his developing philosophical system, yet the content and tone of many of the poems suggest that Yeats was obsessed with his own aging, angry at the violence in Ireland, and desirous of a world more conducive to art. After rereading The Tower shortly after its publication, he wrote to Olivia Shakspear that he “was astonished at its bitterness,” yet he also recognized that “its bitterness gave the book its power.”
The original edition, with a beautiful cover design by T. Sturge Moore depicting Yeats’s Norman tower at Thoor Ballylee, contained twenty-one poems, including two sequences (“Meditations in Time of Civil War” and “A Man Young and Old”) with their separately numbered and titled shorter poems. “The Gift of Harun Al-Rahsid” was later removed, whereas “Fragments” was added in 1933 and “The Hero, the Girl and the Fool” was cut down to “The Fool by the Roadside.” Currently, The Tower comprises thirty-six poems in volume 1 of The Poems in The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats (1989), edited by Richard Finneran. The separately numbered and titled parts of the two sequences are listed as individual poems. Yeats added notes to six of the poems in the original edition (which are reproduced in an appendix to Finneran’s edition along with many explanatory notes provided by the editor).
In his Autobiography (1916), Yeats expressed hope that a nation could be unified by “a bundle of related images.” His own bundle of images was well established, and they appear here repeatedly in images of trees, birds (especially swans), the sun, the moon, fish, and a dancer. As usual, Maude Gonne MacBride, the woman who was his most consistent symbol of beauty and unrequited love, is alluded to often. Moreover, his obsession with his philosophical system, expressed in A Vision, published in its first version in 1925, informs these poems, as it had started to do in his previous volume, Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920).
Yeats’s poetic prowess is evident in the range of style and poetic form in this collection. The poems range from very short epigrams to some of Yeats’s longest, most obscure modernist lyrics. Concentrated, allusive, imagistically intense poems, such as “Leda and the Swan,” alternate with the more discursive and conversational mood of poems such as “All Soul’s Night.” Like most of Yeats’s poetry, the poems in this volume are written in traditional rhymed forms, ranging from many poems with six-line rhymed stanzas, to the eight-line ottava rima stanzas of “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Among School Children,” to one of his rare uses of the sonnet form in “Leda and the Swan,” to longer poems, such as “The Tower,” with different forms juxtaposed to each other in separate sections.
The first poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” suggests that the aging poet, no longer comfortable among the fertile young in Ireland, travels to Byzantium—Yeats’s symbol of the integration of aesthetic and practical life—to find “the singing masters of [his] soul” who will teach him to create “the artifice of eternity” in this less transient spiritual context. The volume reads as if Yeats is repeatedly retracing the steps that led him to leave for Byzantium. Three long poems follow in which Yeats continues to explore his fear of loss of creativity as well as his anger at the state of Ireland and the world. He explains some...
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