The Tower


(Poem as it appeared in The Tower, 1928)

What shall I do with this absurdity—
Oh heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible—
No, not in boyhood when with rod and fly,
Or the humbler worm, I climbed Ben Bulben’s back
And had the livelongs summer day to spend.
It seems that I must bid the Muse go pack,
Choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend
Until imagination, ear and eye,
Can be content with argument and deal
In abstract things; or be derided by
A sort of battered kettle at the hell
I pace upon the battlements and stare
On the foundations of a house, or where
Tree, like a sooty finger, starts from the earth;
And send imagination forth
Under the day’s declining beam, and call
Images and memories
From ruin or from ancient trees,
For I would ask a question of them all.

Beyond that ridge lived Mrs. French, and once
When every silver candlestick or sconce
Lit up the dark mahogany and the wine,
A serving-man, that could divine
That most respected lady’s every wish,
Ran and with the garden shears
Clipped an insolent farmer’s ears
And brought them in a little covered dish

Some few remembered still when I was young
A peasant girl commended by a song,
Who’d lived somewhere upon that rocky place,
And praised the color of her face,
And had the greater joy in praising her,
Remembering that, if walked she there,
Farmers jostled at the fair
So great a glory did the song confer.

And certain men, being maddened by those rhymes,
Or else by toasting her a score of times,
Rose from the table and declared it right
To test their fancy by their sight;
But they mistook the brightness of the moon
For the prosaic light of day—
Music had driven their wits astray—
And one was drowned in the great bog of Cloone.

Strange, but the man who made the song was blind;
Yet, now I have considered it, I find
That nothing strange; the tragedy began
With Homer that was a blind man,
And Helen has all living hearts betrayed.
O may the moon and sunlight seem
One inextricable beam,
For if I triumph I must make men mad.

And I myself created Hanrahan
And drove him drunk or sober through the dawn
From somewhere in the neighbouring cottages.
Caught by an old man’s juggleries
He stumbled, tumbled, fumbled to and fro
And had but broken knees for hire
And horrible splendour of desire;
I thought it all out twenty years ago:

Good fellows shuffled cards in an old bawn;
And when that ancient ruffian’s turn was on
He so bewitched the cards under his thumb
That all but the one card became
A pack of hounds and not a pack of cards,
And that he changed into a hare.
Hanrahan rose in frenzy there
And followed up those baying creatures towards—

O towards I have forgotten what—enough!
I must recall a man that neither love
Nor music nor an enemy’s clipped ear
Could, he was so harried, cheer;
A figure that has grown so fabulous
There’s not a neighbour left to say
When he finished his dog’s day:
An ancient bankrupt master of this house.

Before that ruin came, for centuries,
Rough men-at-arms, cross-gartered to the knees
Or shod in iron, climbed the narrow stairs,
And certain men-at-arms there were
Whose images, in the Great Memory stored,
Come with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon a sleeper’s rest
While their great wooden dice beat on the board.

As I would question all, come all who can;
Come old, necessitous, half-mounted man;
And bring beauty’s blind rambling celebrant;
The red man the juggler sent
Through God-forsaken meadows; Mrs. French,
Gifted with so fine an ear;
The man drowned in a bog’s mire,
When mocking Muses chose the country wench.

Did all old men and women, rich and poor,
Who trod upon these rocks or passed this door,
Whether in public or in secret rage
As I do now against old age?
But I have found an answer in those eyes
That are impatient to be gone;
Go therefore; but leave Hanrahan,
For I need all his mighty memories.

Old lecher with a love on every wind,
Bring up out of that deep considering mind
All that you have discovered in the grave,
For it is certain that you have
Reckoned up every unforeknown, unseeing
Plunge, lured by a softening eye,
Or by a touch or a sigh,
Into the labyrinth of another’s being;

Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?
If on the lost, admit you turned aside
From a great labyrinth out of pride,
Cowardice, some silly over-subtle thought
Or anything called conscience once;
And that if memory recur, the sun’s
Under eclipse and the day blotted out.


It is time that I wrote my will;
I chose upstanding men
That climb the streams until
The fountain leap, and at dawn
Drop their cast at the side
Of dripping stone; I declare
They shall inherit my pride,
The pride of people that were
Bound neither to Cause nor to State,
Neither to slaves that were spat on,
Nor to the tyrants that spat,
The people of Burke and of Grattan
That gave, though free to refuse—
Pride, like that of the morn,
When the headlong light is loose,
Or that of the fabulous horn,
Or that of the sudden shower
When all streams are dry,
Or that of the hour
When the swan must fix his eye
Upon a fading gleam,
Float out upon a long
Last reach of glittering stream
And there sing his last song.
And I declare my faith:
I mock Plotinus’ thought
And cry in Plato’s teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul,
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
Translunar Paradise.
I have prepared my peace
With learned Italian things
And the proud stones of Greece,
Poet’s imaginings
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman
Mirror-resembling dream

As at the loophole there
The daws chatter and scream,
And drop twigs layer upon layer.
When they have mounted up,
The mother bird will rest
On their hollow top,
And so warm her wild nest
I leave both faith and pride
To young upstanding men
Climbing the mountain-side,
That under bursting dawn
There may drop a fly;
Being of that metal made
Till it was broken by
This sedentary trade.

Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium,
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come—
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath—
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades,
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

Written in 1925, “The Tower” was first published in The New Republic and The Monthly Criterion in June of 1927. Yeats published it next in in 1927 in October Blast as the publication’s second poem. He maintained this order in The Tower, with the title poem as the second poem in the volume.

In “The Tower” Yeats expresses anxiety and absurdity over his aging body, which has begun to fail him, even as his mind and poetic talent has never been sharper. The poem’s speaker paces the battlements of the tower as he elaborates on a conflict between body and mind, between imagination and reason. The poem ends with a triumphant and then a quieter, more certain rejection of death as the speaker resolves to school his mind in beauty until death seems like nothing but a fleeting invention of man’s rational mind.

A Closer Look: The New Republic (July 1927)

“The Tower” was published in the American journal The New Republic in 1927. In this initial publication, the poem was not dated, as it would be in later versions. In the version of “The Tower” published in The New Republic, line 117 reads: “Cowardice, over some silly subtle overthought” This line is altered in later versions to read, “Cowardice, some silly over-subtle thought.”

The New Republic was considered to be a politically progressive magazine. In the July 1927 issue in which “The Tower” appeared, the poem followed a column which expressed anxiety over American investment in international affairs. Following this article, “The Tower” takes on new political coding and loses the explicitly Irish identity which Yeats is able to secure in his Cuala Press publications. “The Tower” seems to comment on the wider context of international politics, rather than on Ireland specifically.

A Closer Look: The Monthly Criterion (June 1927)

“The Tower” was published in the British journal The Monthly Criterion in 1927. In this publication, the poem was not dated, as it was in later versions.

The Monthly Criterion was edited by T.S. Eliot, who intended the journal to be a voice for international modernism and a callback to Victorian journalism, unlike the avant garde extremists of the time. Criterion had a reputation for being somewhat conservative; the June 1927 issue in which Yeats’s “The Tower” was published also featured an editorial from Eliot in which he lamented, “It is a trait of the present time that every ‘literary’ review worth its salt has a political interest.” Without the nationalist, feminist coding which accompanied the poem in Cuala Press’s October Blast, the poem seemed to take on a more international and conservative perspective, in which the tower functions as the artist’s escape from the obligation of politics.

A Closer Look: October Blast (1927)

“The Tower” was first dated 1925 when it appeared in October Blast. Here, the poem largely resembles its later publication in Yeats’ The Tower. The only major alteration occurs in line 39.  In the version of “The Tower” which appears in October Blast, this line reads: “Crowds jostled at the fair.” In The Tower, this line is altered to read, “Farmers jostled at the fair.”