What does the phrase “ivory tower” mean and Where did the term “ivory tower” come from?

When Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, French literary critic of the early nineteenth century, coined the term “ivory tower” he thought of it as applicable to the aerie of a poet, a place where he could retire from the world, a retreat.

The term occurs in his own poem, Pensies d’Aotit (Thoughts of August), written in October, 1837, and dedicated to Francois Villemain.

The third stanza, in which Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny, both poets, are mentioned, runs in part:

Hugo, dur partisan
combattit sous l’armure,
Et tint haut sa banniere ou milieu du murmure:
Il la maintient encore; et Vigny, plus secret,
Comme en sa tour d’ivoire, avant midi, rentrait.

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

Nevertheless, although Saint-Beuve may be credited as the originator of the thought, its intent is more pertinently expressed by Jules de Gaultier in La Guerre et les Destinees de l’Art, as given also in the Christopher Morley edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1948):

The poet, retired in his Tower of Ivory, isolated, according to his desire, from the world of man, resembles, whether he wishes or not, another solitary figure, the watcher enclosed for months at a time in a lighthouse at the head of a cliff.

Though long held by the poets, the “ivory tower” has been invaded by others in recent years. It is still aloof from the common run and is still a sanctum, but, whether secluded or not, it is now a remote observation post that is open to philosophers, college professors, various writers, an occasional editor, and others who may, as from a place of vantage, watch the world go by.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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