The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Tower” is a lyric of 195 lines, divided into three parts. The title refers to an ancient stone tower in western Ireland, called Thoor Ballylee, which William Butler Yeats purchased in 1915. It provides the setting for the speaker, the poet, who refers to his movements through the tower to its top, whence he looks across the landscape to contemplate life and history.

Section 1 begins with the poet asking how to deal with old age. Perhaps he will give up poetry and turn to Platonic philosophy to tame his imagination of its wild desire for sensation. If he does not do something, imagination will mock his helpless old age.

In Section 2, the poet has climbed to the top of his tower, where he views the landscape. In evening twilight, he ponders the history and folklore of this region. He imagines the life of Mrs. French, who once lived nearby, whose servant brought her the ears of a farmer who had insulted her. More remarkable is the story of a beautiful woman who also lived nearby, and whose beauty was the subject of a popular song. Some men went looking for the woman of the song and one of them drowned in a bog. The man who made that song was blind, like Homer; neither saw the women whose beauty they celebrated. The poet wishes he could make poems with the power to drive men mad.

The poet recalls a figure of his own creation, Hanrahan, the hero of stories Yeats published in earlier years. Hanrahan was tricked into giving up his search for his fiancée; while playing cards, Hanrahan thought the cards turned into hounds chasing a rabbit. He pursued the hounds toward something the poet cannot remember. Instead, the poet thinks of the bankrupt man who once owned...

(The entire section is 696 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Tower” is a medley of tones played through a variety of rhythms. The first section is an arrangement of quatrains, so well made that the rhymes are barely noticeable. This creates a tone of controlled anxiety: The speaker worries about growing old, but the rhyming verse suggests the worry is under control. The second section is more formal, using a stanza (like ottava rima) borrowed from Abraham Cowley (1618-1667). Here the tone is solemn and meditative, searching history, folklore, and personal experience.

Section 3 drops the discipline of the middle and turns with abandonment to shorter verse with irregular rhyme, tending toward regularity as the poem draws to its conclusion. Here the tone is quietly firm, personally declarative; it balances the anxious interrogative tone that opens the poem, and it overrides the hesitant solemnity of the middle section with confident singularity.

The tower itself, sun and moon, and animals (especially birds) are major sources of imagery. Climbing the tower, pacing back and forth on its battlements, and pausing to notice birds are rhetorical moves governed by the speaker’s relationship to the tower. Climbing mountains, recalled from the poet’s youth, is paralleled with climbing Thoor Ballylee, both images suggesting the “climbing” of life itself.

The landscape around the tower lends images of streams and trees, but more important, it is the poem’s setting of evening twilight, when sun yields to moon. From this, the poet draws metaphors of light, which he develops to describe the effects of imagination on perception. This leads him to hope that mixing sun and moon will be the effect of his own poetry. This same metaphorical mix of lights, possible in evening as well as through art, provides symbolic functions of bird images in the poem.

First is the conventional notion that a swan sings once only, just before it dies. Evening twilight is a traditional emblem for old age, both for swan and human being. This identifies poet with swan, poem with swan’s song. “The Tower” modifies this conventional emblem, however, with a more personal and more delicate one in describing daws building their nest. The poet compares the process of his own life’s work to the birds building their nest, a domain for new life. Thus the poem concludes affirmatively, reversing bird images in the last section.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Byzantium. Capital city of the Byzantine Empire and Holy City of Eastern Christianity; renamed Constantinople in the fourth century and now called Istanbul. For William Butler Yeats, Byzantium represents the origins of artistic endeavor and functions as a link to the great achievements of classical civilizations. Yeats presents it as a symbolic home for the creative imagination and as a refuge from the responsibilities of his public persona.

Conversely, without naming it as Ireland, Yeats sets “Byzantium” in contrast to a land he calls “no country for old men.” This version of the contemporary world is marked by its teeming fertility, populated by “fish, flesh, or fowl” driven by “sensual music,” and is an uncomfortable domain for “an aged man,” as the poet characterizes himself.

*Ben Bulben (Benbulbin)

*Ben Bulben (Benbulbin). Mountain rising above Yeats’s home in County Sligo, where, in “Under Ben Bulben,” from his Last Poems, he depicted the setting of his gravestone. Within “The Tower” it is Yeats’s figure for the natural world in the larger sense and also the specific region that encompasses his local community.

Ancestral houses

Ancestral houses. The term Yeats employs in the first section of “Meditations in Time of Civil War” to describe the gracious, affluent lifestyles of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, which represented for him a standard of cultural accomplishment. In accordance with his amalgam of actual and imagined locations in The Tower, these “flowering lawns,” where “life overflows without ambitious pains,” were cast at a remove from his depiction in later sections (“My House,” “My Table”) of the stone structures and wood furnishings that formed the literal and symbolic elements of his home.


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Adams, Hazard. The Book of Yeats’s Poems. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1990. A poem-by-poem reading that takes into consideration the order Yeats intended for the poems. Chapter 5 discusses The Tower as a series of returns.

Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Macmillan, 1948. An excellent introductory work that melds poetic interpretation into biographical context. Brief but insightful chapter on The Tower.

Jeffares, A. Norman. A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1984. Indispensable companion to Yeats’s poems. All proper names, place names, and autobiographical references are explicated. Prose passages included.

Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. A reading of the first chapter, which discusses Yeats’s major themes, and the chapter on The Tower offers a strategy for interpreting Yeats’s poems.

Yeats, William Butler. The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. New York: Collier Books, 1965. Yeats’s own commentary on the major influences on his life and poetry remains one of the best complements to his poetry.