A commentary of the poem "The Broken Tower" by Hart Crane

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A Broken Tower, by Hart Crane, is a metaphor-rich poem that is very ambiguous but seems to describe the difficulties of the creative process and the way in which the artist is bound and compelled by it. Crane uses many religious metaphors and references, directly mentioning God and also bells, which are associated with churches. It is possible to interpret the poem in a religious sense, but it could be argued that religion and art are similar metaphors; that, for the poet, his writings are both a method of spiritual expression and a search for truth. The title, A Broken Tower, refers to a continuing metaphor in the poem and suggests the deconstruction of established paradigms which is necessary for artistic progress. Throughout the poem, Crane speaks of destroying a stone tower and building a new one from within himself; and as the poem progresses, the tone shifts from negative to positive. The poem is simple stylistically and consists of ten quatrains with an abab rhyming pattern.

Crane begins the poem with one of the predominant metaphors, the bell. This also has religious significance, as it is associated with the call to prayer in the morning. However, Cranes bell does not call people to God but rather gathers God. Also strange is the fact that the tone of the first stanza, though regarding dawn and God (traditionally positive), is quite negative. The poet is dropped down the knell of a spent day and his feet chill on steps from hell. This curious negativity shows Cranes rejection of the traditional, symbolised by established religion. Normally, to go from pit to crucifix would be positive as it symbolises moving towards God, but the poets disdain for the traditional manifests itself in the decidedly negative tone of the first stanza.

He then speaks of the belltower, which is a mighty stone structure. In it is a corps of shadows whose shoulders sway, representing the bells. The bells, described as shadows, are contrasted with the implied concreteness of the tower. Also, their antiphonal ringing creates chaos within the poet. Traditional concepts of positive and negative are reversed, with the Sun presented as an overpowering force that captures the stars, rather than a bringer of light and hope. In the second stanza Crane describes both the visual and auditory aspect of the bells. Sound is manifested in voices, singing or the pealing of bells; and Crane asks: Have you not heard, have you not seen the bells.

Interestingly, the bells then break down their tower. Although this is the first mention of the tower in the body of the poem, it is already associated with traditional religion and because of the bells. This breaking of the tower symbolises the destruction of accepted norms and paradigms, a deconstruction in fact, but the poet is not in control of this-- the bells swing [he] know[s] not where and he is their sexton slave. However, it is he who has written their music, his long-scattered score of broken intervals. This implies that although he is the instigator of the breaking of the tower, this is a process which is not completely known or controlled by him; and that he is somehow compelled. This is probably a reference to the artistic process of writing poetry, where he must abandon the ideas of the past in order to create that which is new-- a process that is somewhat mysterious to him, but nonetheless compelling and necessary. It is also deeply powerful: the bells tongues engrave membrane through marrow, or right through to the bone, affecting everything.

The religious imagery is then resumed, with mention of encyclicals, a choir, pagodas and campaniles. This coincides with negative imagery and, interestingly, an inversion of the tower in the form of canyons. The use of the word oval with encyclicals implies a distortion or imperfection, as an oval is an imperfect circle. Another imperfection is implied in the way that the encyclicals are not being sent around as they should be, but in canyons...
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