4 Aug




Unterecker, John. “The Tower” A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. Irish Literature Series. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1996


               Published in 1928 “The Tower” contains some of the most powerful work produced during Yeats’ life time. The conspicuous title of the book – taken from “Thoor Ballylee Castle” the sometimes home of Yeats and his family – is representative of the blasted, impotent, isolationism incorporated throughout the work. Encompassing much of his poetry from the early 1920’s there are prevailing allusions to the Irish struggle, the repudiation of civil conflict and the First World War. Artistic maturity and the influence of Ezra Pound’s modernist approach detract from his earlier romantic influences and represent a new invigorated style. Given that Ireland was in turmoil and his own theosophical crisis, it’s understandable that outside forces helped to shape this later work. Although extremely bitter in context, it represents a poetical deviation in both pace and style, exhibiting as it does a defined shift in subjectivity. Rather than continuing in the vein of Irish cultural nationalism, Yeats instead concentrates on the existentialist nature of growing old and everything that represents. Aware of his own mortality, Yeats confronts the paradox of creative abundance and physical decrepitude in the poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “A man Young and Old.” Like much of the poetry contained within the volume, they provide a framework that allowed Yeats to express a new personal vision in “an architectonic response to human life.” Unterecker cites the “Winding Stair” – Yeats next collection of poems – as a natural balance to “The Tower”: a body of work espousing an opposing view. In referring to the “Winding Stair,” Yeats informs his readership that he will, “ put off the bitterness of Irish quarrels and write my most amiable verse,” which intuitively presents the reader of this chapter with the defined imagery of a scaffold on which the crumbling tower was built and its obvious allusions to sterility and decay. Although not the easiest of chapters to comprehend, given Unterecker’s pathological desire to dissect each mote of minutia, “The Tower” is an important mile stone in Yeats poetical development. No longer symbolic of a nation wrapped in the mists of mythology and draped in Celtic connotation but instead of a fledgling Ireland immerging from the brick dust of communal struggle, clothed in the garb of the poet’s own mortality.


The associations to the “The Winding Stair” are useful as they at least demonstrate the duality of Yeats in this later period of his life.


Unterecker is verbose to the point of incoherence, presenting the new reader with a litany of formulaic hieroglyphics. If the reader is unfamiliar with Yeats then delving into the subjectivity of the poet neither enhances of imbues the work to the would-be scholar. Rather than reflect on the minutia of Yeats, the author should perhaps broaden his scope in order to widen audience appreciation, instead of offering claustrophobic prose that do little to endear the reader to the poet. 

Interesting quotes

1. “I was astonished at its bitterness, and long to live out Ireland that I may find some new vintage.” (p.170)

2. “Perhaps if I was in better health I could be content to be bitter” (P.170)

3. [My poems] “are not philosophical but simple and passionate, a lamentation over lost peace and lost hope.” (p.177)


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