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A last-minute shopper entering a London bookstore on Valentine's Day in 1928 with six shillings to spend on a gift for his or her beloved could hardly have made a better investment -- either poetically or financially -- than one of the 2,000 copies of a volume Macmillan & Co. had published that morning: The Tower by W. B. Yeats. Twenty-one poems in 104 pages; six pages of notes; olive green cloth with a design by T. Sturge Moore stamped in gold on front and spine, also reproduced on the dust jacket. No illustrations, no book club dividends: simply one of the seminal volumes of Modern Poetry, indeed of poetry in English as we know it. Doubtless not every lyric is a masterpiece, but how often have we been given between two covers such "monuments of magnificence" as "Sailing to Byzantium," "Leda and the Swan," and "Among School Children" -- not to mention "The Tower," "Meditations in Time of Civil War," "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen," or "Two Songs from a Play"? "A thing never known again," indeed.
The gestation of The Tower was a long process. A draft of "The New Faces" was sent to Lady Gregory on 7 December 1912; a draft of "From 'Oedipus at Colonus'" was sent to Olivia Shakespear on 13 March 1927. Yeats began to publish the poems that would form The Tower in journals as early as March 1921 and in book form the following year: Seven Poems and a Fragment, an edition of only 500 copies by the Cuala Press, the private press run by his sisters. Two more Cuala Press volumes would follow -- The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems (1924), again in a printing of only 500 copies; and October Blast (1927), one of the rarest of all Cuala publications, only 350 copies. The single poem in The Tower not previously published would be "Colonus' Praise." Finally, on 16 September 1927, Yeats submitted copy for the volume to Macmillan:
I send you...the manuscript of 'The Tower.' Feeling that it was exaggerated in certain directions I continually put off sending it, but I cannot delay any longer. If, when you have received the Manuscript, you think the book too small, or have any fault to find, please delay it for a few months.
Yeats went on to explain that he was writing a series of poems for a limited American edition (The Winding Stair, 1929) and that these could be added to The Tower in a year. Seldom has a Nobel Laureate been quite so diffident about his latest work.
Although the Cuala Press Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) had been included in Later Poems (1922), Macmillan had not published a major new volume of Yeats's poetry since The Wild Swans at Coole (1919). It is thus not surprising that the publisher gave little heed to Yeats's reservations about The Tower and instead put the book into production, with publication on 14 February 1928. The volume quickly sold out, and a second impression was issued in March. In July 1929 Macmillan published a third impression with some corrections. An edition by Macmillan, New York, appeared on 22 May 1928, with a second impression in January 1929.
As usual, Yeats treated The Tower as a unique work, not simply a collection of poems. The order of the poems was anything but chronological, either in terms of composition or of the events depicted. For instance, the second poem written and the first published, "All Souls' Night," was placed last. "Meditations in Time of Civil War," describing the violence in Ireland of 1922-23, precedes "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen." A poem that concludes with the story of Christ, "Two Songs from a Play," is followed by one that describes the union of Leda and Zeus.
Yeats's interest in The Tower as a separate work of art extended to the physical book itself. Once the arrangements for the volume had been made with Macmillan, he enlisted his friend T. Sturge Moore, a writer and artist, to undertake the design, writing him on 23 May 1927:
I want you to design the cover -- design in gold -- and a frontispiece. The book is to be called The Tower, as a number of the poems were written at and about Ballylee Castle. The frontispiece I want is a drawing of the castle, something of the nature of a woodcut. If you consent I will send you a bundle of photographs. It is a most impressive building and what I want is an imaginative impression. Do what you like with cloud and bird, day and night, but leave the great walls as they are.
Moore immediately agreed. Yeats sent him some poems and photographs and made the further suggestion that "the Tower should not be too unlike the real object, or rather that it should suggest the real object. I like to think of that building as a permanent symbol of my work plainly visible to the passer-by. As you know, all my art theories depend upon just this -- rooting of mythology in the earth" (LTSM 114). Yeats approved of Moore's design of the Tower reflected in the adjacent stream, telling him, "It is interesting that you should have completed Tower symbolism by surrounding it with water" (LTSM 111). Unfortunately, because of some lost or misdirected correspondence, Moore failed to produce a frontispiece. But when Yeats received a copy of the volume, he wrote Moore from Rapallo on 23 February 1928, "Your cover for The Tower is a most rich, grave and beautiful design, admirably like the place..." (LTSM 123).
Yeats's earliest recorded comment on the book as a whole was made in a letter to Lady Gregory on 24 March 1928: "The Tower astonishes me by its bitterness." On 25 April 1928 he told Olivia Shakespear, "Re-reading The Tower I was astonished at its bitterness, and long to live out of Ireland that I may find some new vintage. Yet that bitterness gave the book its power and it is the best book I have written."
Although there was the odd dissenting voice, by and large the reviewers were in accord with Yeats's judgment on his achievement. Writing to Yeats less than two weeks after publication, Lennox Robinson commented that "'The Tower' seems to be getting wonderful notices, the Observer has it as a 'best seller'....and the Independent this morning is extraordinarily intelligent." Yeats himself told Lady Gregory on 1 April 1928 that "Tower is receiving great favour. Perhaps the reviewers know that I am so ill that I can be commended without future inconvenience....Even the Catholic Press is enthusiastic" (L 740). Likewise, he wrote Olivia Shakespear on 25 April 1928, "The Tower is a great success, two thousand copies in the first month, much the largest sale I have ever had..." (L 742). In an unsigned review in The Times Literary Supplement for 1 March 1928, for example, Austin Clarke found in The Tower "a freedom of the poetic elements, an imaginative and prosodic beauty that brings one the pure and impersonal joy of art"; he also praised "the delightful cover design of this book." Writing in The Criterion for September 1928, John Gould Fletcher offered The Tower as evidence that Yeats "corresponds, or will correspond, when the true literary history of our epoch is written, to what we moderns mean by a great poet." In The New Republic for 10 October 1928 Theodore Spencer noted that "on the whole, the poems in this book are among the finest Mr. Yeats has written" and that "many...will remain a permanent part of English poetry." In sum, the consensus of both the reviewers and most later critics and readers of Yeats's poetry is well represented by Virginia Woolf's judgment in an unsigned review in The Nation & Athenaeum for 21 April 1928: "Mr. Yeats has never written more exactly and more passionately."
Most other poets would have been more than content with such acclaim, and the story of The Tower would have ended. But Yeats as usual was not content, and over the next five years he would make significant changes to the volume, so much so that readers who know The Tower only from its final version will find this facsimile edition more than a little surprising.
For the 1929 third impression Yeats made only minor changes, some as small -- but telling -- as the addition of a hyphen in "moon-luminous" ("Meditations in Time of Civil War," III.10), some more significant, such as that to lines 5-6 of "Sailing to Byzantium." The text in 1928 is virtually unpronounceable:
Fish flesh or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten born and dies.
One is tempted to think that both Yeats and the proofreader at Macmillan had nodded off, but in fact the exact same version had appeared a year earlier in October Blast, and on the proofs of that volume Yeats made a correction elsewhere in the first stanza of the poem but left these lines untouched. A second version appeared when the poem was used as the epigraph in Stories of Red Hanrahan and The Secret Rose (1927):
Fish, flesh or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten born and dies.
This is arguably worse, and one is again tempted to assume somnolence. However, on 10 September 1927 Yeats had written Macmillan, "I return the proof of the poem, which is now correct. Through vacillation over the punctuation of the first stanza I have made a blotted proof but I think it is clear." So it was not until the 1929 version of The Tower that we are offered what surely seems the inevitable version (even if grammarians would protest the comma after "fowl"):
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Yeats's next opportunity to revise The Tower occurred in connection with the volume of Poems in the Edition de Luxe, a project that in the event would never see the light of day. Either when he submitted copy on 1 June 1931 or when he corrected two sets of proofs from June through September 1932, Yeats made only one change of note, but it is an important one: "From 'Oedipus at Colonus'" was removed from its placement after "The Three Monuments" and was now included as section XI of "A Man Young and Old." As the new conclusion to the sequence, the choral ode, with its celebration of "the silent kiss that ends short life or long" and its invocation of "a gay goodnight," ameliorates, or at least puts into a changed perspective, the "bitterness" of the original ending, in which the speaker lamented that "Being all alone I'd nurse a stone / And sing it lullaby."
With the Edition de Luxe in limbo, Yeats suggested to his publishers that they should bring out a regular edition of a Collected Poems, and they agreed. This provided another opportunity to revise The Tower, and Yeats did not fail to seize it. The most visible change of all was the removal of "The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid" to the "Narrative and Dramatic" section at the end of the book, where it became the final poem in the volume. In a letter of 30 March 1933, Macmillan had suggested such a two-part division for the new collection and had listed five candidates for the second section. Yeats quickly indicated that he was "delighted" with the proposal. "The Gift of Harun-Al-Rashid" had not been on Macmillan's list, but it was nevertheless absent from The Tower when the Collected Poems was published in London on 28 November 1933, in an edition of 2,040 copies. Whether this was based on a later suggestion by Macmillan or was Yeats's own idea is unknown. (My guess is the latter.) In any case, Yeats in effect replaced "The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid" with the inclusion of an entirely new poem, "Fragments": part I had been published in an essay in the Dublin Magazine for October-December 1931; part II was taken from a draft of the Introduction to The Resurrection. From a biographical perspective, "The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid" is a veiled tribute to the automatic writing and other activities by Mrs. W. B. Yeats that produced the materials for A Vision (1925). Its placement at the end of the Collected Poems was thus altogether appropriate. "Fragments" is a fanciful epitome of the longer poem, with Mrs. Yeats quite literally the "medium" who provided Yeats with the "truth" that A Vision would present:
Locke sank into a swoon;
The Garden died;
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.
Where got I that truth?
Out of a medium's mouth,
Out of nothing it came,
Out of the forest loam,
Out of dark night where lay
The crowns of Nineveh. (P 217-18)
Yeats situated "Fragments" in a rather important position, between "Two Songs from a Play" and "Leda and the Swan," displacing "Wisdom" to follow "Colonus' Praise." He made two other major changes to The Tower: he added to "Two Songs from a Play" a fourth stanza, first published in Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends (1932); and he deleted the first seventeen lines of "The Hero, the Girl, and the Fool," printing the final ten lines as "The Fool by the Roadside," the form used in A Vision (1925).
Yeats had one more opportunity to revise The Tower, in June 1937 when he submitted copy for another never-to-be-published project, the Scribner Edition; but for once he restrained himself. Thus from 1933 onward, The Tower was understood to be the form included in the Collected Poems. It is a fundamentally different volume from that first published. This present edition allows readers access to the original version, with unadorned texts and only the handful of Notes provided by Yeats. Perhaps it will also enable us to imagine how someone opening the pages of The Tower for the first time on Valentine's Day in 1928 would have received the masterful poems therein.
Copyright © 2004 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.