The speaker decries the absurdity of the contrast between his old body and his young spirit. He feels more passionate and inspired than ever - even more so than when he was a boy and went fishing in the mountains of Western Ireland. Nevertheless, he feels he must say goodbye to poetry and choose reason instead: it is more becoming to his age. He walks to and fro atop a castle and looks out over the countryside. He sees where the wealthy Mrs. French once lived. Her servant, who knew her wishes well, once cut off the ears of a rude farmer and brought them to her on a covered dish.
When the speaker was young, some men spoke of a legendary peasant girl, who was the most beautiful in the area. One drunk man talked of her often, and in the middle of a drinking session got up to seek her out. He mistook the moon for her lovely face, and drowned in a lake. The man who told the speaker these songs was blind, like Homer.
The girl may well be mistaken for the sun or moon, because, says the speaker, she has betrayed all living men. The speaker himself created Hanrahan twenty years ago. The character was destined to stumble through villages, lamed. When it was the speaker’s turn at cards, he shuffled the pack into a pack of hounds, which then turned into a hare. Hanrahan followed these creatures—
The speaker interrupts his own story, crying “enough!” He must remember a man so distraught that neither love nor music nor clipped ears could make him feel better. This man is a ruined master of the house. Before the house went to ruin, servants dressed for war came to the house. The speaker questioned them all, wondering whether they raged against age as he now does. They give no satisfactory answer. The speaker is happy to be left with Hanrahan. He calls up Hanrahan, from the knowledgeable dead, to tell him whether one thinks more often of a woman won or lost. A woman, once lost, is an irretrievable mistake.
The speaker draws up his will, leaving men who fish tirelessly his pride. His pride is not political, or tied up with slaves or tyrants, but that of Grattan and Burke. His pride is as refreshing as an unexpected shower, as poignant as a swansong. He mocks Plato and Plotinus. He is prepared to die with a combination of ancient poetry and of the love of women, both of which make man a superhuman. He leaves his faith and pride to these young fishermen. He will now prepare his body and his mind for death, or, worse, the death of those whom he has loved.
In one of the most complicated poems of his career, Yeats tries to come to terms with his age and with the changes his country is undergoing. “The Tower” is presented in a fragmented style, a proto-modernist device that shows Yeats’ move away from romantic Irish mythology toward a sparser approach. This change was partially affected by his friendship with Ezra Pound, who encouraged Yeats to seek out alternatives to the flowery language that characterized his earlier collections.
The ideal of manhood and youth is introduced in the first stanza through the representation of the speaker: a young man. This image is pastoral, with the young man fishing in the fertile streams of Ireland. The iconic mountain of Ben Bulben tells the reader that this is western Ireland, where Yeats used to vacation during summers away from London. The speaker’s turn to Plato and reason seems forced. Put together with the narrative element of cutting off the farmer’s ears, the implication is that the speaker’s decision is unnatural and made in a top-down fashion. The poet can impose rules on himself, just as the rich can on the poor.
The lovely peasant girl, whom the speaker also refers to as Helen (as in Helen of Troy), is undoubtedly Maude Gonne. Gonne, a revolutionary who was the great love of Yeats’ life, did not return his love. She appears often in Yeats’ poetry, often symbolized by or associated with a moon: something lovely, feminine, untouchable, and capable of causing madness. The peasant who drowns in pursuit of her is proof of her power.
The speaker breaks away from the narrative of the girl to present a new character who meets a similarly grim fate. This is yet another modernist device. The speaker breaks down the illusion that the poem is or could be truthful, and displays his ability to create characters at will. Hanrahan is an intertextual character, appearing in other Yeats works. He is an Irish peasant everyman, suffering the afflictions of lameness (whether physical or moral) and alcoholism that were rampant in early 20th-century Ireland. Hanrahan shows a flash of glory, however, in the transfiguration of cards into a pack of hounds. This is an allusion to Cuchulain’s (a famous hero of Irish mythology) hounds, which were part of his army. These are quickly turned into a hare, an object of English-style hunting, so the peasant’s empowerment is all too brief.
The hare symbol transitions into a description of a great house. In Ireland, a large ruined or empty house always refers to the Protestant Ascendancy: English families that lived in Ireland and formed a ruling elite. Most of these manors were destroyed by the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921. In “The Tower,” ghosts of warlike men haunt the house, and it is these ghosts, as well as other people who were old in the speaker’s childhood, that he queries about age. They do not wish to answer, so he dismisses their memory, saying he needs only Hanrahan to answer. The poem finishes with the question of Maude Gonne again. Even a reader who does not know the biographical details can read in the title of the poem that Yeats is in mourning over a lost woman. The phallic image is as lonely as can be.