Last Reviewed on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303
While for the duration of "The Tower," Yeats's speaker is confined to a small physical space—the top of a tower—the narrative he unfolds leaps from time to time and from place to place with great agility.
Anxiety is the poem’s prevailing tone and mood. There is a sense of desperately pursuing what can never be caught. The poet longs for youth and for an unnamed woman, presumably Yeats's lifelong love interest, Maud Gonne. Both are beyond his reach. In several of the folk tales he recounts—in the men who search for the peasant girl but do not find her, in Hanrahan’s pursuit of the hounds to a location the poet does not recall, and in the inability of Homer or the unnamed bard to perceive the beauty—Yeats captures in music this sense of an ill-fated pursuit, underpinning the poem's theme of futility.
The regularity of the rhyme scheme at the beginning and the end of the poem suggests a degree of stability to the poet’s melancholy. However, the irregular rhyme scheme of the third section demonstrates a sense distress or panic born of the knowledge that he will never obtain that which he is pursuing.
Yeats's use of imagery—that of the young men climbing to fish in mountain streams or of the birds building their nest—is sporadic, giving the impression that such glimpses of beauty are distracting rather than gratifying to a mind seeking to find solutions to practical problems, in this case the poet’s old age. Such a technique mirrors one of Yeats’s key concerns in “The Tower”: the impracticality of abstract thought in comparison to the practicality of existing in the modern world and of directing one’s energies to its concerns, as the young men Yeats envisions are doing.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696
“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 this tower, and then of earlier centuries when medieval men climbed the stairs in their armor.
The poet would like to ask each of these persons, including Hanrahan and Mrs. French, whether they also complained about growing old. He sees the answer in their eyes. He dismisses all except Hanrahan, a lecher pursuing love even beyond life. Driven by passion never satisfied, Hanrahan may know secrets to help the poet deal with his own passionate imagination. The great question is whether imagination is driven more by thinking of the woman lost or by contemplating the woman finally won. The poet cries out that Hanrahan turned away from the one chance he had to win his woman; therefore, if he has been driven by the woman lost, it is his own fault.
The third section turns away from the terrible confrontation with Hanrahan. The poet writes his will, accepting mortality. His heirs are men who can climb mountains to fish at dawn. His bequest is his Anglo-Irish pride: a tradition of tolerance, moderation, and generosity, which he inherited from men such as Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Henry Grattan (1746-1829). It is also a natural pride, generous like morning light and spring showers. It is a pride of accomplishment, like the song of the dying swan.
The poet affirms his faith in life and imagination. He dismisses Platonic ideals and defies the threat of death, declaring that all reality, including death, is the product of the human power to imagine. He feels at peace with such an affirmative view, acquired through study of Italian culture and Greek art, poetry and love, history and dreams. Abruptly he turns his attention to some birds building nests in his tower. They drop twigs one at a time until a warm hollow is made for the female to brood over her eggs. To this natural process the poet compares his own life’s work of making peace.
To the young men he leaves faith as well as pride. Like them he once climbed mountains to fish in early morning dawn. Now he will discipline his soul to study, take it past the wreck of his body to recognize, in the decay of flesh and death of friends, the signs of transition. Decay and death are little more than clouds that dissipate with the fading day, cries of birds in darkening shadows of evening.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388
“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.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350
The controlling theme of “The Tower” is concern for growing old. This is complicated by the contradictory experience of imaginative vitality in a failing body. Conflict between mind and body is a contest between philosophies of idealism and materialism. It is also expressed as the humiliation of the mind, degraded by loss of control over the flesh. The poem begins with a question about managing this crisis of confidence, and moves to transcend personal anxiety to reach a realm of universal meaning in which life is affirmed in all its variety.
To reach an affirmative conclusion celebrating pride, faith, and peace, the poet draws upon history, myth, and poetic imagination. Fear of failing bodily powers is overcome through historical imagination, initiated by signs in the landscape surrounding the tower. History shows that people have always contended with physical failure by drawing upon spiritual resources. Misused, abused, and sometimes dissipated, those resources are still there for everyone to try.
Mythic imagination is so strong it can confuse the senses. Thus one may mistake moonlight for sunlight, fancy for reality, and that mistake can lead to disaster. Sensation is not master of the mind; quite the contrary. Neither is mind only abstract intellect. Full identity is mastery of matter by imagination. Thus may a blind person stimulate the vision of others, because vision is a power of imagination, not a product of sensation. Finally, beneath history and myth runs the shaping power of human vision. Pride displaces humiliation when the poet rediscovers the sources of his identity in imagination, faith overcomes anxiety when the power of imagination is found in desire, and peace settles over all as the pieces of life are made into a whole pattern by visionary imagination.
The tower is not itself a symbol of life, and neither is the labor of birds sufficient to represent the wholeness of human life. The tower as art and the birds as nature combine to express the meaning of human life in general, of creative purpose in the life of this individual speaker, a poet confronting the end and ends of being.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 275
*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. 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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 179
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.
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