I. Ancestral Houses
Surely a rich man’s life, lived in sumptuous surroundings, is an easy one. It must be easy because he is at no one’s beck and call. Dreams! The glory of the rich is merely a symbol passed down from older generations. The originator of these riches, a violent, bitter man, called in artists and architects, also bitter, so that they all could express the sweetness and gentleness that they longed for in cold stone and art. But what if their creation — gardens with peacocks, vases depicting Juno, hallways lined with portraits of ancestors — means nothing?
II. My House
An ancient bridge, an ancient tower, and a farmhouse on an acre of stony ground make up the complex where the rose may flower. The wind rustles the elms and the water hens are frightened by the cows. Up the winding stairs, one finds a writer’s desk with a much-used copy of Il Penseroso’s Platonist. The speaker recalls (or imagines) that a man and his servant stayed in this castle during ancient times of war.
III. My Table
The table holds Sato’s gift (a Japanese sword) and the pen and paper that the speaker hopes will goad him out of aimlessness. Only an aching heart forges timeless art. This art is passed through generations. Men know that none who do not love great art can go to heaven.
IV. My Descendants
The speaker inherited a healthy mind, so he must think. But man can hardly make an impression on the following generations; he is like a torn petal on grass. What if his descendants lose that petal through carelessness or through intermarriage with fools? Will the tower become a ruin? The speaker knows that love and friendship will memorialize him in the form of his tower, which he bought for friendship and refurbished for love.
V. The Road at My Door
A friendly “Falstaffian” Irregular swaggers up to the tower, joking about the war. He makes it seem as though dying is no more than playing a part in a play. A lieutenant complains about the bad weather. The speaker is almost envious of these men, but turns back to his room.
VI. The Stare’s Nest by My Window
There are bees in the cracks in the tower, and birds' nests, too. The tower is self-sufficient. A man may be killed or a house burned in the surrounding countryside, but the speaker will know nothing of it. There have been fourteen days of civil war, and “we” (the speaker includes himself) have fed the heart with dreams. The heart has grown brutal as a result of this food, and “we” now hate more strongly than we love. He invites the bees to build nests in his empty house.
VII. I see Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart’s Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness
The speaker climbs to the top of his tower and looks out over the countryside, which at the very least seems unchangeable. But he sees monstrous people covering the countryside. They shout for revenge on the murderers of Jacques Molay. They plunge to embrace nothing. The speaker nearly cries out along with them for revenge. The speaker lapses into dreams. He sees long-legged, blue-eyed women riding on unicorns. Their eyes are shut, and they think of nothing. They give way to a bold mob.
He turns away and shuts the tower door. On the stairs on the way down he wonders if he could have proven himself at something that others would understand. But even had such proof granted him friends, it would have only made him want more of the same success. He will return to reading for joy, as he did in his youth.
Of all Yeats’ poetry, this is perhaps the most personal in its explanation of his Protestant Ascendancy past. Especially in the first section, the speaker seems ambivalent about his family history. There are elements of beauty in the ancestral house, including the classical sculpture that Yeats values so highly elsewhere in the collection, but the seclusion and grandeur of the house seem to stifle the speaker and increase his sense of otherness. A good guess at why the ancestor might have been embittered and looked to distance himself from the common folk with gardens full of peacocks is that, as a Protestant in a Catholic farmland, he was the hated overlord.
The speaker’s own house is a sharp contrast to that of his ancestor. Rather than referring to classical ideas of beauty, it is unkempt, wild. The tower itself, as well as the roses that grow in its garden, are powerful images of Celtic Ireland. The writer’s desk highlights the asceticism of the speaker in comparison to the luxury of his ancestor. The book over which the speaker “toils” is a nod to “The Tower,” in which the speaker attempts to replace his poetic instincts with reason. For this reason, the classical book does not quite fit in the tower scene. The further description of the speaker’s writing table in the third section seems to indicate that poetry will be his means of achieving immortality, but in “My Descendents” it seems he wants more. The last stanza indicates that the tower will be his monument, even if his writing and his progeny fail him.
In the last three sections, beginning with “The Road at My Door,” the speaker’s reverie and musings on his family, past and future, are interrupted by the intrusion of soldiers. The speaker identifies strongly with the soldiers, but also feels isolated from them. He views their casual attitudes towards death as astounding. He talks with them about the weather - a banal detail during times of civil war. He also sees how isolated his tower is from the actual suffering engendered in the war (the bees nesting in the tower a symbol for the danger taking long-term hold in Ireland). Despite this, he moves to the “we” form when describing the madness that is shaking his nation. The speaker manages to break away from this association when he climbs to the top of the tower to view the situation from above. Only then does he see the mob for what it is: a mass of wretches gripped by madness. The title of section seven defiantly reuses the “I.” This process of self-reflection on, identification with, and then distancing from the Republican movement echoes Yeats’ biography.