Crane’s “The Broken Tower”

I find it somewhat unsettling that, despite the fact that I love Hart Crane's poetic style that I seldom like his longer poems where the full expression of this style comes into play.

As noted earlier, it seems to me that his shorter poems written in the style of Emily Dickinson are more moving, less pretentious, and ultimately more believable, than those poems written in a Whitmanesque style. Once again, for me, at least, content outweighs style. What the poem says is more important than how it is said. And, most important of all is that air of "truth," the same truth that Emily Dickinson equates with "beauty" in "I died for beauty," that finally determines my reaction to a poem.

"The Broken Tower" is one of a few poems where style and content seemed to work for me. Ironically, perhaps, it is listed in The Complete Poems of Hart Crane as the last poem published by Hart Crane.

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 thighs 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 eyes"
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.


Though I'm not entirely sure I completely understand the poem, like a blues song it carries a sense of sorrow and transcendence that is impossible to miss. Reminding me at once of the Metaphysical Poets, i.e. "Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you" and of Gerard Manly Hopkins, the poem still manages to be uniquely Hart Crane.

Perhaps it is the power of the image of the the Broken Tower, recalling Yeats' use of the tower, that draws me to this poem for the Tower seems to symbolize a distant past or a strength long forgotten. As used here, it seems a powerful symbol of a lost God, a God the narrator desperately seeks but is unable to find. Instead of inspiring him to come to God, the bell tower "dispatches" him to wander from "pit to crucifix" exploring the "broken world" trying to "trace the visionary company of love," sensing it for "an instant in the wind" but ultimately unable to find it.

The narrator seems unsure whether it his words, his crystal Word, his poetry, that could help him attain love or "she/ Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power." Still, something, at least for the moment, helps him to build a tower, "not stone," but a tower of "pebbles" that "lifts love in its shower."

This fragile love is what most rings true in the poem, for love always seems tenuous, fleeting, threatening to destroy us, to leave us, or, perhaps worst of all, to silently erode to "habit."

8 thoughts on “Crane’s “The Broken Tower”

  1. Loren

    Thank you for posting the Broken Tower poem of Hart Crane, which interested me. I think the feminine pronoun that appears, to which you draw attention, is some sort of experiment with heterosexual love, don’t you think?

    Kind regards

    MT

  2. Considering his sexual orientation and the ambivalent placement of the pronoun at the end of the line, it certainly seems that it could be interpreted that way.

    At the very least it makes the reader wonder if it isn’t a man, not a woman that he’s referring to in the poem as a whole.

  3. Interesting that you love this poem for its content, since it also strikes a strong chord in me. As a composer, I seek and love the style, lyricism, and rhythm of a poem over and before its content, and “The Broken Tower” has a heartbreaking sense of falling and reaching to it, as does much of Crane’s poetry. Naturally, though, the best art excels in both areas.

    The female appearing in the seventh stanza seems a reference to the Virgin Mary. Crane writes:

    My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
    Of that tribunal monarch of the air…

    … or is it she
    Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?

    In my reading, the “tribunal monarch” evokes an ethereal, possibly Christian God (especially given the capitalized “crystal Word” the monarch “strikes”), and “she” is Mary, as well as Peggy Baird, Crane’s only heterosexual love, and his partner around the time he wrote this poem.

    The poem also seems rife with heterosexual sex imagery, in which Crane’s tower “swells,” and after she “Unseals her earth,” it “lifts love in its shower.” However, while the language of these images is certainly happy, content, and satisfied, there is an edge of cynicism…

    Perhaps Crane feels his homosexual nature a bit debased by “The commodious, tall decorum of that sky.” Her sky toward which his tower swells is comfortable and appropriate, following decorum. It is easy to imagine Crane with a little smirk reading that line. Adding to that reading is the male monarch, who seems stronger, greater, more powerful a force, than this “sweet” woman.

  4. I agree that the best poems are those where content and style excell.

    Mike, who’s a much better poet than I, and I often disagree on poems because I favor content over style, but quite often we both love the same poems because great style and original content meet in our best poets.

  5. Hey everybody!
    i am actually an AFRIKAANS speaking girl. acting is my big passion and I have DRAMA as a subject at school. I’m busy studying the play A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE by Tennessee Williams. this poem is used as an epigraph to the play. i think it is beautiful. although ill have to take out my dictionary now and look up every word i don’t understand. hahaha

  6. Earlier someone said that the “she” could be a reference to the Virgin Mary. It’s more likely that it is a reference to Peggy Cowley–Crane’s companion in Mexico and on

  7. I once had it observed to me that Crane’s final stanza here marries the masculine image of the tower and the feminine image of the lake, giving the conclusion of the poem a sort of wholeness. The doubt of the questions earlier in the poem dissolves in this final image.

    I also suggest that the male god figure Crane describes (“that tribunal monarch of the air /
    Whose thighs embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word”) may be Apollo, the god of music and poetry. I believe the duties Crane assigns this god fit Apollo well. Crane makes not a few references to Greek figures in his other poems (“For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”, for instance). Apollo may also represent a figure of order and masculine reason, which contrasts to that feminine figure who “stirs latent power”. Crane may be showing confusion–does his gift come from reason or from divine inspiration?

    Crane used a female figure in his long poems (particularly “The Bridge” and “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”) to represent some embodiment of love or redemption. This person could be the Virgin, or love, or inspiration–she may even be a Muse, if Crane is indeed talking about Apollo. I’m not sure her specific identity matters so much as what Crane sees in her.

What do you think?