“The Steeple-Jack” was first included in Moore's 1932 collection Poetry in 1932, where it was part of a triptych, which comprised “Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play.” “The Steeple-Jack” formed the “novel” part of the triptych and was influenced by her studies of Albrecht Dürer when she was working at the New York Public Library. She was aware of an anecdote about Dürer hearing that there was a beached whale near his house, and him desiring to see it but ultimately being unsuccessful in doing so.
Moore split the work into “The Steeple-Jack,” “The Student,” and “The Hero.” “The Steeple-Jack,” now independent, was also shorter when it appeared in 1951’s Collected Poems.
Moore was influenced not just by Dürer but also by writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and scholar Harold Donald Eberleis. Hawthorne’s short piece “Sights from a Steeple,” collected in 1837’s Twice Told Tales, begins with these lines: “SO! I HAVE climbed high, and my reward is small. Here I stand, with wearied knees, earth, indeed, at a dizzy depth below, but heaven far, far beyond me still. O that I could soar up into the very zenith, where man never breathed, nor eagle ever flew, and where the ethereal azure melts away from the: eye, and appears only a deepened shade of nothingness!” It then proceeds to narrate what the climber can see below him.
Eberleis’s work Little Known England features a quote from John Leland discussing how in 1533 the Devil climbed the spire of St. Alkmund’s and clawed up the bell and pinnacle. Moore read this work and transcribed it in her published notes to What Are Years? (1941).
"The Steeple-Jack" is known for its idiosyncratic meter, which is written neither in free verse nor in metrical feet. Each line has a specific syllabic count: eleven in the first line of every stanza, ten in the second lines, thirteen in the third lines, and eight in the fourth and fifth lines.