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'The Broken Tower' of Hart Crane's World

The fifth stanza of this poem appears as the epigraph to Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, which I have recently read, and so I decided to follow up with the quoted poem and try my hand at understanding it.

Opening Playbill for A Streetcar Named Desire

In the context of the play that is A Streetcar Named Desire, the epigraph presents the reader (quite oddly, as plays would not seem to be aimed at readers, as such, but at an audience - so how would an epigraph be relayed across to them?) with the 'broken world' of Stella's and Blanche's lives, setting the expectation of tragedy to come. The tone is hopeless: though love is described as visionary, an adjective that is optimistic and hints at a bright future, its existence is fleeting, lasting only An instant in the wind. The act of love is hurled about with no sense of direction or purpose, perhaps reflective the portrayal of love in Williams's play, and even the act of hurling recalls the virulent manner by which love shows itself in the play. And so the indication is clear: this is no tale of lost loves being found again, of reconciliation, even of permanency. The quotation aptly defines the world presented by Williams in his tragedy.

However, the conclusion of the poem lends itself to a less pessimistic outlook, and it is presented below in full:

The Broken Tower [1932]

'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.'

So now we may continue with looking at this poem as a whole.

The Structure

Despite having a rhyme scheme, the lack of a rhythmic structure and the extensive use of enjambment and caesura causes the poem to resemble the rhythm of everyday speech. The alternating rhyme scheme remains the same throughout the poem, yet the rhymed words are not emphasised and could almost be ignored, and this resemblance to normal speech helps to build an image of a figure seemingly talking to the reader through the poem: the poetic voice addresses the reader directly, asking questions and using the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘I’ as in normal conversation.

Creation's Rubble

Little makes up the physical backdrop, but the focus starts with the cathedral via which the poetic figure enters this broken world. However, he remains exterior to the building, forced to wander the cathedral lawn/ From pit to crucifix. The aimlessness associated with the verb to wander adds to the sense of purposelessness and lifelessness of this world, but the image of the figure, outside the cathedral walls, also highlights the foreign and perhaps unfitting nature of the poetic figure: he is dispatch[ed], as if from another world, and kept from entering the cathedral itself, forced to roam its gardens.

The figure also moves from the pit to the crucifix, as if from a hellish dimension to the place of redemption, and these references are perhaps even heroicomical, increasing the importance and distance his movement, resulting in a seemingly larger space. The bell-tower, in the same manner, also has the capacity to hold a corps of souls.

The dimensions of these monuments are enlarged, even comparable to the canyons filled with oval encyclicals. By expanding these locations mentioned, Crane develops a sense of desolation that is not limited to these particular places, but stretches and seeps through, as if covering the world. The reader is presented with an inverted image of Eden, whose creator’s presence is tied to the darkness that provides the setting of the poem.

The Word

The poetic voice draws upon the link between creation and language, invoking the Biblical image of the birth of the world: the bells' tongues engrave/ Membrane through marrow. Not only are the bells personified, in their anthropomorphised forms, but like deities they also possess the power to create life.

However, the entire process of life, along with the positive connotations that accompany images of growth, is offset by the image of a crumbling world, where the bells break down their tower even at the very moment during which they piece together living flesh. Even the membrane through marrow, through its violent and unsettling description, recalls only physical components of the human form and its living totality. Furthermore, the tribunal monarch of the air, though clearly powerful, produces despair in wounds pledged once to hope. As the poem progresses, the reader enters further into what seems to be a failing world of bell carillons and campaniles that are devoid of their vibrant musicality, beside the terraced echoes prostrate on the plain.

Hope Rebuilt

Despite the world of the poem, the fifth stanza marks a shift in the landscape described thus far. The passive poetic figure, having been dispatched, dropped and even engraved - essentially a slave to the chaotic world around him - becomes his own agent: My word I poured. The inverted grammatical order of the sentence highlights the importance of the object, rather than the subject, which is not only the focus of the sentence but then the core of the entire second half of the poem. This word builds in potency as it then becomes compared to the divine Word that has created the backdrop of 'The Broken Tower'.

The poet offers hope to the reader, focusing on the inner creative power of what initially was an insignificant, both in terms of physical presence as well as role, figure in the world built by a divine creator. For the poetic voice builds, within, a tower that is not stone: again, the interior birth is reflected by the word order, in which within is ensconced in the line to mirror the creation of the tower; and the resultant tower then emerges, healed, original now, and pure. The tower rises from the matrix of the heart in the midst of visible wings of silence, untouched by the fatal sound of the earlier bells.

The final image is then filled with hope: The commodious, tall decorum of that sky/ Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower. By referring to the sky's decorum, Crane suggests a correction, an aptness in the change brought about by the poetic figure. After all, the resultant uplifted love stands in stark contrast to its previous form of being a mere instant in the broken wind.

Concluding Notes

These ten stanzas were difficult to read, due to the manner by which Hart Crane ties his images together, confusing and rather thick at times, which in turn makes it hard to envisage the world that he depicts. However, the shadowiness/ brokenness (if I can be permitted to use those words) is unmistakeable, and hangs over the entirety of the poem. In spite of the decrepit, inverted Eden that we are greeted with, though, the poetic figure emerges as his own creator, replacing at the very least the broken tower that represents the failed world in which it crumbles. Thus the reader also becomes exposed to the power of an individual poet, able to shape a world to his own will. Is that not, after all, within the ability of a poet when faced with a world he finds little hope in?


Have I glossed over any important points? There is no doubt about that, and it is altogether certain that I have to return to Crane in the future, for I've forgotten to provide a biographical overview of this poet.

As always, thoughts and ideas are highly appreciated, since this is based solely on my very first reading of Crane's work. Feel free to add and bring up anything you've noticed when dealing with 'The Broken Tower'.

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