The Tower: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza I

      O, heart, O troubled heart of mind, I am greatly puzzled as to what I should do with this paradox or absurdity which has been tied to me in the front of this decrepit (decaying) age. My aging is a kind of caricature or mockery because it looks as odd or as absurd to me as something tied on to a dog’s tail.

Stanza II

      In spite of this decrepit age, my imagination had never been so excited, was never so passionate and so much capable of thinking up fantastic things as it now is. My senses (ear and eye) has never been so much ready for impossible things. My senses and my imagination were not so active even in my boyhood when I used to climb the back of Ben Bulben with fishing material (rod and fly the humble worm to attract fish) and had the whole long summer day to myself.

      It is in the fitness of things that I should ask my poetic imagination (the Muse) to pack up. I should rather go in for philosophy by making Plato and Plotinus’s works my companions. I should, go in for philosophy in such a big way that my imagination and my senses which just now are excited, and passionate should cool down and be satisfied with argument (i.e., abstract thought). If I do not do all this, I will be putting myself in an absurd situation in which old age will be mocking at me and making me look ridiculous just as a battered kettle tied at the heels of a person makes him look ridiculous.


Stanza III

      In this state of dilemma, I keep walking with quick steps on the battlements of the Tower and while doing so I stare on the foundations of a house or at a place where a tree conies out from the earth like a dark finger pointed towards the sky. My imagination makes a flight as the day is declining. I call forth images and memories from the ruins of houses and from ancient trees. I do so because I badly need to ask of them a question.

Stanza IV

      (Yeats now talks of the. images and memories he would call forth). Mrs. French used to live beyond that ridge. Once a very devious thing happened at her place. Once when her dining table made of dark mahogany wood and the wine she had served had been lighted up by the silvery candlesticks and scones, one of her servants who thought he could guess (devise) her lady’s every wish, went and clipped, the ears of a poor farmer with the garden shears and brought them to his lady in a little covered dish. All this was done because the servant thought that the farmer had committed some act of insolence.

Stanza V

      When I was young there were still a few people alive who remembered a song which praised the beauty of a peasant girl who had lived somewhere upon that rocky place. They used to praise the color of her face and do so with relish. If that girl ever existed at all, the very remembrance of that girl through the song which was written to praise her, made the farmer overjoyed. All this glory was conferred on the girl by the song.

Stanza VI

      The song had the power to make people very excited. So much so that some people rose from the table where they had been drinking to her health and said, under the influence of the potent lines of the song or the drink, that there was nothing wrong in checking up for themselves whether the girl actually existed or not. They wanted to test their fancy by their sight, i.e., wished to see for themselves what they had been imagining merely.

Stanza VII

      All this sounds strange but the most interesting thing is that the writer of this song was a blind man. On further consideration, moreover, the whole thing does not look all that strange even after all, Homer was a blind man too. He created Helen who was responsible for betraying so many living hearts (just like the peasant girl in the song). In the light of all this I only wish in my personality there should be a proper balance between subjectivity (moon) and objectivity (sun), otherwise my triumphs in poetry (subjective thoughts) will also drive people mad in the same way as the poetry of Homer about Helen and the blind writer’s song about that peasant girl did.

Stanza VIII

      Moreover, I am myself the creator of the figure Hanrahan. He is a figure who keeps moving around from somewhere in the neighboring cottages. I sometimes saw him drunk and sometimes sober. As many as twenty years ago I was able to see him in various situations. These situations included his being caught by some old man’s juggleries and his stumbling, foiling down and groping about here and there. All that he goes about his horrible splendor of sexual desire was his broken knees (due to having stumbled and fallen down).

Stanza IX

      Another story I remember is that some good fellows were playing cards in an old bam. When it was the turn of that ancient ruffian (not Hanrahan but the man who was a juggler) he did something to the cards as a result of which all the cards (except one) changed into a pack of hounds. Then this juggler turned the remaining one card into a hare. Seeing all this Hanrahan rose from the place where they were playing cards and started pursuing those hounds towards some destination.

Stanza X

      The only trouble is that I (Yeats) have forgotten where Hanrahan had gone pursuing those creatures. Well, enough of that. Now I am going to recall another man who was so harried (troubled) that he was not at all moved by anything whether it was love or music or the clipped ear of an enemy. He was old bankrupt master of this house and now there is not one left to tell when his dog-days came to an end.

Stanza XI

       In this same house a great deal had been happening for centuries even before that ruin came. There used to be rough men-at-arms here. They used to wear cross garters coming upto their knees or were well-covered with steel all over. They used to climb the narrow stairs of this house. The images of some other of these men-at-arms which are stored in the collective unconscious memory still come back to disturb the rest of the sleeper. The sleeper’s rest is disturbed when the big wooden dice with which these soldiers used to play, start beating once again in the great memory of their loud cries and panting breath (‘breast heaving due to exhaustions’) re-echoes in the memory.

Stanza XII

      As I am going to question all the figures I can summon from my memory I invite all those who can come. These will include the blind poet who kept roaming and celebrated the peasant girl’s beauty. These will also include Hanrahan whom the juggler through his spells made to wander through God’s forsaken meadows. These will also include Mrs. French who was gifted with such a fine ear. These will also include the man who got drowned at the hog at Cloone after being reminded of the peasant girl’s beauty through the blind poet’s song. This man was one of those who, after drinking health to the girl, quite a number of times, had started out to verify things for themselves.

Stanza XIII

      (Now Yeats formulates the question he wants to ask them all). The question is as to whether my rage against old age is not something new and whether it is something common to all old men and women rich as well as poor, who have walked upon these rocks or passed this door. Have these people also been raging against old age (in public or secretly) as I am doing now? All the eyes I have summoned are impatient to leave but I have already found my answer. All right, you are all permitted to leave except Hanrahan whose powerful memories are badly needed by me.

Stanza XIV

      You (Hanrahan) are more suitable for my purposes because you are an old lecherous fellow who has had innumerable love affairs. I want you to bring out of your deep considering in mind all the things that you have discovered in your grave. I am very sure that you are a person who has by now weighed the true significance of all the sexual plunges which were occasioned by the invitation of a softening eye or by a touch or a sigh. These plunges into another being were in most cases unforeknown and unseeing (without previous calculation).

Stanza XV

      My question is as to whether the imagination of man dwells more upon a woman he has been able to get or upon one he has not been able to get. If the answer is that the imagination lingers more on the lost woman then one also has to admit that the loss of a woman is mostly due to things like pride, cowardice, silly over subtle thoughts and conscience. All these things prevent one from taking a plunge into the labyrinth of another person. This brings the loss, and the memory of this loss, whenever it comes, does away with all objectivity (the sun) and the day is blotted out.


Stanza XVI

      It is now time for me to write my will. My will is for those upstanding men who will keep climbing the stream till the time the fountain from where the stream originates is before them. They are people who are capable of dropping all they have caught in the river at the side of the dripping stone. I leave my pride for them to inherit. This pride I am leaving for them is a special kind of pride. It is the pride of those people who were not bound down by considerations of a cause or by the call of the state. They were tied down by loyalty neither to slave upon which tyrants spat nor to the tyrants themselves. My inheritors are people of the race of Burke and of Gratton who as a matter of habit gave things away even when they could easily have refused. Their pride is of a special kind because it is like the pride of the morning at the time there is a flood of light like that of the Hom of Plenty, or like that of the sudden shower at the time when all streams are dry or like that of that moment when the swan is about to sing its last song. The swan when it sings its last songs fixes its eyes upon a fading light and floats upon a long last reach of the shining stream. Now I declare my faith. I do not care for Plato and Plotinus. My faith is in man who made all the things that go into the making of life and death. The sun, the moon and all other things have been created by man out of his bitter soul. It is only through death that we rise. It is we only who create a translunar paradise out of our dreams. Due to having arrived at these beliefs I have prepared peace with learned Italian things and the proud stones of Greece. The imaginings of a poet, memories of love and of the words of women are the things from which man is capable of making a superhuman dream which can resemble and serve as a mirror.

Stanza XVII

      The daws (a kind of bird) are chattering and screaming at a loophole there and they are dropping layers of twigs upon other layers of twigs. The mother bird will rest on top of these layers when these layers have been gathered. This done, she will warm her wild nest.

Stanza XVIII

      (In my will) I leave not only pride but also faith for young upright men who climb the mountain only in order to drop a fly at a time when the dawn bursts. These people are made of a special metal though this metal later got broken by this sedentary preoccupation.

Stanza XIX

      Now is the time for me to make my soul or give it a shape. I am going to compel my soul to study in a learned school. I am going to educate my soul to that extent where things like physical decay, touchiness decrepitude and even worse things cannot affect it. I want my soul to reach a stage where things like the death of friends or the death of all the beautiful people whose eyes capable of making one’s breath stop for a while do not affect it. The soul should reach a stage where all these things are either like the clouds of the sky at the time the horizon fades or like a bird’s sleepy cry among the shades that are deepening around it (the time near death).

Explanation: L. 5-8

      Never had I more .....expected the impossible. These lines are from the poem The Tower by W.B. Yeats, The Tower is one of Yeats’s most powerful personal poems and it is concerned, among other things, with questions of old age and failure in love. Yeats begins the poem by saying that the coming of old age is proving an absurdity in his case. In these lines, Yeats says that the absurdity of the situation consists of the fact that as he is growing old in body his imagination and other senses are becoming much more powerful instead of declining. He says that he never had a more excited, passionate, and fantastical imagination. His imagination stretched to more and more fantastic things as his body grew older. At the same time his ears and eyes (i.e., his senses) also were going in for more and more impossible areas of experience. All this was creating an absurd situation and the poet is in a fix as to what he should do in such a situation where his powers of poetry (the imagination and the senses) are becoming much more vigorous and active as he grows old.

Critical Comments

      The Tower is one of the most effective and powerful poems written by Yeats on the question of old age and the lines in question capture Yeats’s dilemma very well. At the same time these lines are remarkable for the way they handle speech rhythms for great dramatic and poetic effect.

Explanation: L. 114-121

      Does the imagination dwell the most....under the eclipse and the day blotted out. The Tower is easily the best personal poem written by W.B. Yeats and the line in question are among the most powerful and poignant questions he poses. The line also express his sense of loss at not being able to win over Maud Gonne. Yeats summons many figures from the surrounding areas but the only figure he ask to stay on is Hanrahan’s. Yeats says: “Is it upon a woman won or upon a woman lost that one’s imagination lingers the most? If it lingers most on the woman one has lost in life (as is the case in most cases) then the main reason for his loss is either pride or cowardice or some silly thoughts or conscience. All these things prevent one from taking a plunge into the labyrinth or maze of love. The result is that due to pride or cowardice or conscience one is unable to take risk and this failure keeps on haunting one throughout the lifetime. This haunting at times becomes so powerful that the very memory of this loss eclipses i.e, blots out the sunny or the objective side of one’s nature and thus utter darkness prevails all around.

Critical Comment

      The lines in question which begin with a powerful and carefully worded question, are a power expression of Yeats’s agony at very thought of his loss of Maud Gonne. At the same time these lines indirectly hint at the desirability of going in for life fully instead of being hampered by things like cowardice, pride or conscience.

Critical Analysis


      The collection of poems captioned The Tower (1927) includes poems of the same title, namely The Tower. This poem was published in October 7, 1925. Yeats was sixty years old and was becoming blind in one eye and even a little deaf. The Norman Tower, Thoor Ballylee (Ballylee Castle) in Galway (Coole Park) had been bought by Yeats in 1915. He wanted to make the Tower into “a setting for my old age, a place to influence lawless youth with its severity and antiquity.”

      Among Yeats’s personal poems, The Tower is easily the most powerful and impressive poem. It is a poem which reflects the ' conscious and deliberate effort of will and intelligence that went into Yeats’s ordering of his experience. At the same time, the poem is a passionately honest statement of Yeats’s frustration at the approach of old age. But old age is not the only theme of the poem. Another major theme is failure in love. He feels how it affects the future course of a man’s life. Yet another theme is the rejection of abstract thought represented by Plato and Plotinus in favor of more concrete things. All these themes are admirably brought out and yet made an integral part of the texture of the poem.

      The leading motif of this poem is the feeling that the poet is becoming physically weak every day. But though he is becoming physically weak, his passions (both political and personal) are getting stronger every day. In his youth, Yeats had read Blake and in one of the letters of Blake there was a reference to old age. “I have been very near the gates of death; and have returned very weak, and an old man feeble and tattering, but not in spirits and life, not in the real man, the imagination which live forever, in what I am stronger and stronger as this foolish body decays.”

      This description was equally true of Yeats as well. He sat in his Tower, brooding over his old age and surveyed the entire scene about him.

Development of Thought

      The poem has three sections. The first section gives expression to Yeats’s realization that according to social convention at least he ought to be giving up poetry and other activities of the emotions. In view of the arrival of old age a better, thing for him will be to start dealing in abstract things i.e., philosophies of Plato and Plotinus. But what is troubling Yeats is that he does not feel old. As such his ageing body seems a cruel joke, an insult.

      In the second section, Yeats calls to mind different types of people who are associated with the neighborhood of Thoor Ballylee. He intends asking them (and they include his own fictional creation Hanrahan) how they dealt with the problem of old age. Hanrahan’s eyes offer a kind of answer. Hanrahan’s answer seems to be that this can be done by remembering the passionate loves of younger days. At the same time lack of courage in matters of love leads to its own regret and they are regrets for a whole lifetime.

      The third section shows Yeats issuing a last statement, a kind of will. The dominant note here is that of defiant humanism: man—energetic, passionate man—is the essence of creation, and can dream up his own immortality. Having made his will Yeats prepares for death, not poignantly but with equanimity and poise.

‘The Tower Poems’

      In the poem of The Tower Yeats has finally managed to achieve great authority and self-possession. There is a certain magniloquence in these poems. The tower is one of Yeats’s key symbols. It is symbolical of solicitude, asceticism, the solitary intellect and darkness.

      Most of the earlier poetry of Yeats is an escape to a dreamland from the real world. It is also a summon to that flight. However, it is not the poetry of insight, it is the poetry of longing and complaint. The Tower is very much a contrast to Yeats’s earlier phase of poetry.


      In terms of style and mastery over passionate rhetoric, The Tower remains one of the most memorable and forceful of Yeats’s poems. Yeats’s mastery of the various kinds of verse forms he uses in the poem is simply dazzling. The first section uses pentameters with great skill and the verse has a springing movement. The stanza form of the second section has a personal touch about it and the lines are even more in length and effect. In the third section, lines again became shorter but there is a special clarity and speed about them which is quite in keeping with the content of the section. In this way, what makes The Tower technically a very complex and satisfying poem is that inspite of its great variety of tones and moods, the verse is always able to do justice to them. At the same time The Tower is a fine illustration of Yeats’s control of pace which has subtle and many variations here.

Critical Opinions

      According to Dr. B. Rajan, “The Tower etches, new lines into the mask of age. The ‘tattered coat upon a stick’ becomes ‘a sort of battered kettle at the heels’, and the singing soul which one studied its own magnificence, must now bid the ‘Muse go park’, deal ‘in abstract things’ and choose ‘Plato and Plotinus for a friend.’ Once again the movement is qualified by the undertone; the ‘excited, passionate fantastical’ imagination is still capable of writing poetry, and exhibits that power in the off-hand diction and in the exuberant energy which overflows the quatrains.”

      Thus, Graham Hugh rightly observes: “The conflict between an acceptance of the natural world and the denial of it involved in an assumption of the mask is the theme of his greater verse—The Tower and the two Byzantium poems.”

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