Analysis of Poem "The Broken Tower" by Hart Crane
Hart Crane and The Broken Tower
The Broken Tower is full of vivid imagery, symbolism and various layers of meaning. It is a challenging yet lyrical poem which builds its content on intriguing cadence, the speaker using vision and personal involvement to maintain what seems at first to be a kind of religious commentary.
As the poem progresses the reader is taken deeper into the psyche of the speaker, (the poet himself?) seeking love, inspiration and release or redemption.
Over the years since it was first written, in 1932, various critics and literary figures have offered their constructive opinions on the basic theme of this poem. They posit:
- creativity and inspiration, life and death, sexuality and love, the religious impulse in the poet, the modern world, the future world, the struggle between poetry and life.
And all of these fundamental subjects are subsumed into the personal and spiritual worlds of Hart Crane himself.
The only thing the critics and commentators do agree on is that Hart Crane wrote this poem when he was living in Mexico, after receiving a Guggenheim scholarship. He had also embarked on what was for him a first serious heterosexual relationship, with artist Peggy Baird.
In his many letters to friends, colleagues and family it's clear that on January 27th 1932 he began this new poem. Come April of the same year it was done and dusted and sent off to an American magazine.
His time in Mexico was traumatic to say the least. He spent time in a jail, drank and danced for much of the time, became exasperated with his Mexican domestic staff, took part in archaeological digs, and got to hear old Mexican men ring the bells in the ancient church overlooking the valley at Tepotzlan, as part of the festival for the Aztec god Tepoztecatl.
This latter experience directly inspired part of the poem. He wrote in a letter:
'Can you imagine the strange, strange mixture, the musicians standing with their faces towards the dark high cliff surmounted by the temple of the old barbaric god that they were propitiating, and stopping every 15 minutes while the sextons rang out the call of the Cross over the same dark valley! Sitting there on top of that church with the lightning playing on one horizon, a new moon sinking on the opposite and with millions of stars overhead and between and with that strange old music beating in one's blood - '
Hart Crane's life up to that point had been disjointed and controversial. Precocious and impulsive as a teenager he had moved to New York city when just seventeen, to avoid a bitter family atmosphere.
He developed a taste for alcohol, and was known to have a casual approach to his sexual relations. He had a zest for the wild side of life which stayed with him right up to the day of his death, when he jumped off a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, en route for New York, disappearing under the waves on April 27th 1932.
Yet, despite his inner restlessness and hectic social life, he managed to produce some noteworthy poems, developing a uniquely romantic voice, lyrically astute and sometimes visionary in its scope and style.
His first book came out in 1926, White Buildings, and was critically praised. But his epic poem, The Bridge, 1930, an attempt to sum up contemporary life, a planned 'mystical synthesis of America', with Brooklyn Bridge as iconic symbol, didn't quite win over critics and friends.
Nevertheless his name and reputation grew, especially following his untimely demise at sea. Over the decades his work has gone in and out of fashion but generally he is seen as a one-off innovator who reached for the stars as a roving, quirky romantic.
Suffice to say he never quite made it but had a heck of a time trying to get there. And it shouldn't be forgotten that he excelled in both style and content, structure and musicality. Hart Crane worked hard at his craft, his better poems full of 'tangential slants, inter-woven symbolisms.'
The one major criticism of his work overall was that it lacked the sustained clarity to be considered a major contribution to the body of modern poetry. Too obscure in places some still complain. It should be noted however that White Buildings, his first book, is considered one of the all-time original debut publications.
- The Broken Tower is ambiguous poetry at its most musical, various erratic rhythms carrying the packed narrative along.
- Religious symbolism meets vivid image; spiritual and mythological elements combine to produce an allegory of the soul as it competes for love in an exotic, perhaps erotically charged, landscape.
- The ringing bells, the most important trope, sound throughout the poem.
The Broken Tower
The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day - to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.
Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun's ray?
The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!
Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope - cleft to despair?
The steep encroachments of my blood left me
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower
As flings the question true?) -or is it she
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?-
And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes
My veins recall and add, revived and sure
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:
What I hold healed, original now, and pure…
And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) - but slip
Of pebbles, - visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip
The matrix of the heart, lift down the eye
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.
Analysis of The Broken Tower - Summary
The Broken Tower reflects the inner struggle of a poet as he attempts to reconcile his experiences - religious, sexual and spiritual - with a romantic, poetic vision. The ringing of bells, the destruction and rebuilding of a tower, are major tropes.
Throughout the poem there are hints of psychic and creative trauma, whilst biblical and mythological elements enter the scene alongside metaphor, symbol and dynamic imagery.
There is much for the reader to take in. Varied meter and rhythm, together with challenging diction and syntax mean that each stanza may not be fully 'digested' - nor sense taken on board - without several readings.
For some, it is the poem's musicality and magical quality that prevails. In addition, all lines come with full end rhyme, which is deceptively encouraging.
- The three key 'players' in The Broken Tower are the speaker (first person I), the symbolic tower and bells. The whole poem revolves around the speaker's attempts to control the bells (his poetic impulse) whilst trying to rebuild the broken tower (his whole life) before returning to a new found love.
- Basically, the speaker has been struggling to create the divine in his poetic work; he's been a slave to it. He's self-destructive, sacrificing, questing, yet he feels his poetry holds a revelatory vision, if only he were certain of its worth. Perhaps the Muse will help restore the true, pure vision? She is real enough, his heart knows; she is of the earth, feminine, as opposed to of the air and masculine. But, ultimately, the two must work together.
- Out of the ten stanzas, three are complete questions, seeking answers from the reader or the poem itself. Or both.
- In the seventh stanza a female is introduced - she, of sweet mortality - to contrast with the tribunal monarch of the air, the male (Christ?), of stanza six.
Further Analysis of The Broken Tower - Stanza by Stanza
The Broken Tower, much more than the sum of its parts, starts off with a simple image of a bell-rope and ends in a shower of love, both perhaps metaphors or symbols, the former connected to the divine music of poetry, the latter to a final release.
It's early morning, a bell is ringing, sending the speaker down onto a cathedral lawn. The day is spent - lacking energy, already wasted? If the reader takes this literally, it is no more than a scene from someone's religious life.
But this is figurative language, the speaker has dropped down the knell (the sound of a bell, rung on solemn occasions) and the steps are from hell. This speaker is losing grip and feels low. He flees the bell tower, his own consciousness.
He needs to be sure that there really is a corps / Of shadows in that same tower. Have you the reader (have you my other self) seen them, heard them? It's a puzzling double question, one that relates to the speaker's earlier artistic works, which he's now uncertain about.
The religious language continues with Antiphonal, a type of church music, a call and respond ritual. And carillon is a melody played on a set of bells using a keyboard.
So music, divinely inspired, is what the speaker is uncertain about. Did the music - the poetry - he create find a listener? Time is getting short, and will blot out the beautiful stars, the romance.
With repetition, alliteration and slanted internal rhyme this stanza concentrates on the destructive effect of the poetry the speaker has been a sexton slave to. Again, the word sexton is associated with an office of the church, so the religious undertone persists.
It's as if the poetic impulse is too strong to control and causes dissipation - the poet's responsibility is to sacrifice himself on the altar of his art. This commitment to the romantic spirit parallels Shelley's vow to the unseen Power in Hymn To Intellectual Beauty.
Again, a mix of trochee, iamb and pyrrhic feet combine with religious language to produce a kind of stop-go musical crescendo in a dynamic architectural landscape. There is competition, there is destruction, there is a struggle between form and content. As ever there is ambiguity.
The poet is trying hard to get his poetical messages out (encyclicals) so that others might understand the nature of the romantic wake-up call.
The first person I returns into a broken world and, like a new born seeks to find transcendent love with its ethereal voice - transcendent love or physical love, or a combination of both?
A stanza that is especially tricky to get hold of - just like the element of air itself. Perhaps the theme of destruction/creation is carried on the wind, that classic symbol in romantic poetry.
Also, the unease and uncertainty continues in such words as broken, instant and desperate; and in the phrase I know not whither hurled there is an echo of the 19th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
More Analysis of The Broken Tower - Stanza by Stanza
The speaker asks another question, to do with writing (the word) and music (to score) and whether that writing was divinely inspired or not. Again, the imagery is mythological in its scope, the allusion to the biblical Word, found in the opening lines of the gospel of John.
The Word became flesh, taking the form of Jesus Christ, the tribunal monarch of the air, who brings hope through despair.
Hart Crane's mother was a keen Christian Science follower and certainly influenced her son when he was young. Perhaps some of those biblical stories and images are breaking through here ( in other parts of the poem too). Crane coated them in his unique romantic language and re-invented them in the content.
Question follows question, and still no definitive answer. Iambic beats and trochaic and spondaic abruptions challenge the reader, as do dashes the syntax.
But was the poetry a true creative act? If the Word was made flesh in the previous stanza, then the blood mentioned twice here - the life energy of the speaker/poet - is the human endeavor put in, the risky acts experienced, to maintain an idealistic, romantic being capable of good creative work.
And the speaker acknowledges that it is right to question this premise.
- What makes this stanza special is the introduction of the female entity - the speaker's muse made flesh (lover?). Is it she who holds the key to more creativity?
The tone of the poem changes in this stanza, from one of anxiety and near despair, to that of calm and regeneration. It is close to intimacy - pulse, veins, chest....with a nod back to the ringing of bells in the word angelus - a prayer recalling the visit of the angel to Mary, and the incarnation of Christ - often recited whilst a bell is rung.
The speaker has control of something original now, and pure ....a fresh spiritual rebirth.
The first line is mostly iambic, like a heart beat, and the next line is almost an echo of the first, whilst lines three and four progressively alter in meter and rhythm.
The Broken Tower - Analysis Stanza by Stanza
A different tower is to be built, a spiritual edifice, dressed differently for sure. Gone is the stone jacket, the masculine heavy, in comes the pebble slip, feminine. The positive tone is reinforced as a new tower begins construction, thanks to the input of the mysterious she.
The visible wings of silence sown/In azure circles,widening as they dip.....is a puzzle which conjures up images of a winged being or even a butterfly sowing or sewing in ever growing spirals into the bright blue.
Enjambment takes the reader straight into the final stanza.
From the initial dawn and steps from hell we reach the quiet lake and a heavenly shower. The heart (Hart) and the eye (I) unite. So the broken world has been put back together again. Peace and love prevail and a holy alliance of masculine with feminine takes place.
- Overall, a poem that takes the reader out of the dark and into the light, following the struggle of an artist as he tries to make sense of the battle between destructive and creative forces within his psyche.
- The Broken Tower is so full of juxtaposed imagery, musical and religious language, it is at times difficult to digest. It relies on unusual rhythms and sounds within its rather challenging lines to take the reader into wondrously puzzling realms, until, finally, a kind of marriage of opposites brings closure.
Further Analysis of The Broken Tower
The Broken Tower has 10 stanzas, all rhyming quatrains. The rhyme scheme is abab. All the end rhymes are full except in stanzas 3 and 6 where there are slant rhymes: tower/score and scored/Word.
- The quatrains and rhymes give the poem a formal look, yet the content with its unusual language, symbolism and imagery, is somewhat unconventional. Some think the poem obscure, with little solid meaning, others praise it for the rhythms, sounds and transcendent quality.
When words rhyme, full or slant, within the poem, phonetic connections are made as the reader progresses, which helps bond lines and stanzas, or create interesting echos and resonance. Look out for the following:
There is alliteration in nearly every stanza, adding textures to the sound:
gathers God.....dropped down.....bells break....Membrane through marrow....sexton slave....prostrate on the plain.....embronzes earth.....sweet mortality stirs....recall and add,revived.....hold healed.....silence sown......lifts love.
Meter (metre in British English)
The bell- / rope that / gathers / God at / dawn
Dispatch / es me / as though I / dropped down / the knell
Of a / spent day / - to wan /der the / cathe / dral lawn
From pit / to cru / cifix, / feet chill / on steps / from hell.
Have you / not heard, / have you / not seen / that corps
Of sha / dows in / the tower, / whose shoul / ders sway
Anti / phonal / carill / ons launched / before
The stars / are caught / and hived / in the / sun's ray?
- Here, the first two stanzas reveal a mixed bag of metric feet. Iambic pentameters precede hexameters. The contrasts are stark.
- For example, the softer pyrrhic with no stressed syllables sits next to a louder spondee with two stressed, in lines three and four of the first stanza. This could be an attempt to echo the ringing of bells, first soft (silence), then loud (ringing).
- The more common iambic foot dominates line eight, bringing a sense of familiarity until the soft pyrrhic and loud spondee end it with a whisper and a shout.
Later on, anapaests (da-da-DUM beat) appear in certain stanzas, their rhythm further adding to the sometimes syncopated beat.
Overall, a complex metric pattern emerges, with no one regular dominating beat.
The Broken Tower - Possible Influences
- Edmund Spenser's The Fairy-Queen, First Book, Canto 2, XX, in 1590:
The Lady, when she saw her Champion fall,
Like the old Ruins of a broken Tower..
- Leonie Adams wrote The Bell Tower in 1926:
I have seen, O desolate one, the voice has its tower,
Till rarer than ice, purer than a bubble of gold,
It fill the sky, to beat on an airy shell.
- Lionel Johnson, The Age of a Dream, 1895:
Now from the broken tower, what solemn bell still tolls,
Mourning what piteous death? Answer, O saddened souls!
- Stephen Mallarme, The Bell-Ringer, 1862.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey