The Tower Themes (William Butler Yeats)

William Butler Yeats

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.