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.”