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Ivory tower

Q From Cecil A Oberbeck, New York: Why is the tower in ivory tower ivory? What are the origins of this expression?

A Usually I can explain the meaning of an expression well enough, but have a lot of trouble finding out where it came from. In this instance, I can give you literal chapter and verse on its origin, but the first half of your question is still causing me to scratch my head a bit.

The origin is the Bible, specifically Chapter 7, Verse 4 of the Song of Solomon, in which Solomon is extolling the beauty of his beloved: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus”. Not quite the thing today — few young women would want their eyes compared with fishponds (or their noses with towers) — but it struck a chord with Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve.

He was a French literary critic and poet of the early part of the nineteenth century. He wrote a poem in October 1837 called Pensés d’Août (Thoughts of August) in which he refers to two fellow poets, Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny. I’ll spare you the whole thing, but in English the third stanza goes roughly like this:

Hugo, strong partisan ... fought in armour,
And held high his banner in the middle of the tumult;
He still holds it; and Vigny, more discreet,
As if in his ivory tower, retired before noon.

He was suggesting that Alfred de Vigny was aloof from the cares and practicalities of daily life. That’s how we use the idiom today: someone living in an ivory tower is — by accident or design — sheltered from the realities of existence, out of touch with the real world.

Saint-Beuve’s allusion was picked up by Henry James, who used it as the title of a book in 1916. It became very popular and was used in the next two decades by H G Wells, Hart Crane, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound and others, ensuring it a lasting place in the language.

But why ivory? I’m far from sure that I’ve got to the bottom of Saint-Beuve’s allusion. The Song of Solomon was obviously referring to the whiteness of ivory. That’s the colour also of purity and chastity, perhaps suggesting an innocence and lack of exposure to worldly cares. Ivory has also been a symbol for hardness: unbreakable and incorruptible. Saint-Beuve may also have had in mind a famous sentence from the Greek epic The Odyssey: “Those that come through the gate of ivory are fatuous, but those from the gate of horn mean something to those that see them”. So ivory may also have suggested foolishness or naivety.

All these ideas together suggest a tower of adamantine unworldliness, against whose base the waves of the world may break without effect.

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Page created 13 Jan 2001