‘The Broken Tower’ by Hart Crane is a highly ambiguous and somewhat obscure poem written in January of 1932. It is known that the piece was completed by April of that same year. It was originally rejected by Poetry magazine and only printed after Crane’s suicide in the Gulf of Mexico. Crane’s time in Mexico was marked by disconcerting and dangerous experiences. He spent time in jail and took part in traditional festivals. It was also often cited that around this time he had entered into his first heterosexual relationship.
‘The Broken Tower’ contains ten stanzas which are separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a structured rhyming pattern of abab cdcd, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. The consistent pattern of rhyme is very much at odds with the text itself which is not completely clear. Three of the ten quatrains are made out of questions. This signals that the speaker does not have any more answers than the reader does. In fact, he is reaching out trying to figure out his next steps.
Additionally, the pattern of rhythm alternates throughout. A reader will find iambs and trochees in almost every stanza. There are also dashes that appear in the middle of a thought, making it difficult for a reader to connect one line to the next. These choices were all made intentionally. The speaker’s thoughts are disjointed and so are the verses.
Crane also used conceit in this work. This means that he maintained one metaphor or analogy for the entire length of ‘The Broken Tower’. All elements of the text relate back to an experience or set of emotions the speaker is describing through metaphor.
Summary of The Broken Tower
The poem begins with the speaker describing his descent from a tower. This tower immediately comes to represent his mind. It is not a pleasant place to be. He describes the tower as having bells that tell him when and where to go. It is located on the grounds of a cathedral which is hell to walk around. These first lines make it clear he is unhappy with his current situation.
The next stanzas pose a question and answer. Crane’s speaker is wondering if the work he has made up in the tower of his mind is worth anything at all. He’s afraid his art, likely writing, has no merit. As the poem progresses he questions his creativity and wonders if there is anything divine in his work.
Towards the end of ‘The Broken Tower’, the speaker introduces his muse into the poem. He has descended from the tower in an effort to find love This force, and the person with whom he finds it, inspires him. He is able to move beyond his painful doubts and construct a new tower. The speaker’s new tower is healthier, quieter, and located near a lake. The new construction is so welcome, the sky showers love down upon it. These final lines return the speaker to a better place mentally. He is able to relax into a different pattern of thought.
Analysis of 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.
In the first stanza of ‘The Broken Tower’, the speaker begins by describing a bell tower. This structure is crucial to the text as it will become part of everything the speaker is trying to achieve. He describes a “bell-rope” used to ring a church-type bell at the top of the tower. It is there so that one might climb and “gather…God at dawn.”
The bell is ringing at the moment the poem begins and it signals the speaker to go down onto the lawn of the church. Although it is early in the day it already feels as if the day is “spent.” Perhaps it has gone to waste in some way.
It is important to keep in mind the figurative language used throughout this text. While Crane’s speaker seems to be describing a bell tower, he is actually looking deeper. The tower, as will become clear, represents the speaker’s own mind. This is alluded to in the description of dropping “down the knell,” or the sound of the bell.
The speaker is describing his own emotional dropping and then abandoning of the tower. He is wandering around the lawn of the “Cathedral.” The speaker investigates everything there is to see, from the “pit to crucifix.” This is a reference to his own higher and lower impulses and experiences.
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 second stanza is one of the three that is composed entirely of a question. The speaker is asking the reader a question one cannot possibly know the answer to. He wonders if “you” have “seen that corps / Of shadows in the tower.” There are dark places in the tower, or his mind, that he is unsure of. He wants to make sure their “shoulders” which “sway” to “Antiphonal” music, played with bells, are real.
It is this music that the speaker is trying to determine the solidity of. He thinks it’s there within the tower or his mind, but needs some validation. If one considers the poet to be the speaker, this is a reference to his own written works. He is wondering if there is any skill, beauty, or music, in what he has created in the past.
It is important that he ask this question now as he senses the stars coming close to the “sun’s ray.” There is some kind of ending on the horizon.
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!
The third stanza gives the reader more details about the “music” in the speaker’s head. It is not something simple or peaceful. In fact, it seems to torment him. The “bells” or his poetic works and inspiration, often “break down their tower.” They are tearing him down from the inside and seem to have a mind of their own.
The “tongues” of his creations are so strong, impactful, and determined that they “engrave” themselves onto his bones. There is no way for him to escape their influence and constant need for attention.
The final line is used to announce that the speaker feels as if he is “their sexton slave!” The verses he writes control him completely.
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!…
This stanza of ‘The Broken Tower’ starts out with the word “encyclicals.” This is another bit of religious language as it refers to a letter sent by the pope to the bishops of the church. He is describing his own writing as being like an “Oval encyclicals.” It is his job to get it out to as many different people as possible.
At the moment his work is heaped up in canyons only accessible if one wades through mountains of “choir.” These are the voices of unsuccessful written works. They have been “slain!”
Around this area of the speaker’s mind, there are a number of different structures. The landscape is plain-like. It is covered with “Pagodas” and “campaniles,” or Italian bell towers. From these structures come a number of “reveilles” or signal sounds. They sound around the plain like a drum waking up an army.
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.
At the halfway point, the narrator returns to speaking directly about himself. He begins by stating that for all the reasons mentioned above he has “entered the broken world.” It is a combination of the painful forces of creation that drove him to “trace the visionary company of love.” He is hoping that descending from his tower will allow him to find “love” in a way he hasn’t before.
The speaker is fully aware of how difficult it is to find “love.” He has experience seeking out a muse for his own writing and knows the way the “wind” moves. It does not stay in one place and it’s impossible for someone to determine where exactly it even comes from.
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 sixth stanza of ‘The Broken Tower’ also contains one long question. In these lines, the speaker is wondering whether what he wrote previously was good enough. He wants it to be “cognate” or well-connected, and a part of the “tribunal monarch of the air.” The speaker hopes his work taps into something divine. It should have some element of God in it.
The following lines expand on the speaker’s understanding of divine forces. It is the “crystal Word” and the “despair” as well as the “wounds pledged once to hope” his work should evoke.
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?-
There is also an extended question in the seventh stanza. Here the speaker asks if “she,” a likely reference to his muse, helped his work along. She should’ve served as inspiration for work that ended up being mixed with “power.” Her own mortality, he hopes, pressed him to do good work.
He seems to require some external stimulus to make work he considers good. The “blood” he already had within him had no “answer” to his problems.
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…
Towards the end of the poem, the tone changes dramatically. There is no longer the desperation present in the first stanzas. Now the speaker has calmed down and seems to be tapping into some internal peace.
He is describing what it is like when his muse comes to him and brings him the ability to write successfully. The speaker is able to tap into the force he needs and hold onto original and pure writing.
Crane’s speaker is reinvigorated by this process. He recalls an “angelus” or a devotion telling of the angel visiting Mary before the birth of Christ.
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 internal power he receives from these moments allows him to build another tower. He is reconstructing his mind not in “stone” but in a “slip of pebbles.” It can be moved and alternated as needed. The tower has also been decorated with “visible wings” that move through their picture plane.
This very ambiguous stanza adds up to meaning that the speaker is no longer going to be held down to one particular way of working or living. He needs the freedom to evolve and seek out new things.
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.
The final quatrain fully removes the narrative from its dark original setting to one of peace and quiet. It is through the combination of his own creative forces and the inspiration he gains from his heart and muse that the speaker is improved. He relocates his mind to a place that is close to a “quiet lake.” Here he builds a tower.
The new tower is “commodious,” or comfortable, and welcome addition to the sky. The earth itself will welcome the new structure and “lift love in its shower.” There is an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction at the end of ‘The Broken Tower’.
A reader should take note of the vast difference between the first stanzas and the last. The poem began with the speaker trying to understand whether his work had any value. He was doubting his own creativity and talent. By the end, he has come to the conclusion that he doesn’t need to worry about that.
His escape from the original tower provides him with a new outlet to understand his life. The speaker is also given the opportunity to start over. The speaker reconstructs his mind in the final stanzas into a more generative form.