meaning and origin of ‘ivory tower’ (‘tour d’ivoire’)

The phrase ivory tower denotes a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world.

This phrase is a loan translation from French tour d’ivoire. In À M. Villemain, from Pensées d’août (August Thoughts – 1837), the French poet and critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), contrasting the French poet, playwright and novelist Victor Hugo (1802-85) with the French poet, playwright and novelist Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863), used tour d’ivoire to describe Vigny’s seclusion in a turret room as well as his preoccupation with inspiration unconnected with practical matters (the word ivory connotes both purity and incorruptibility – see footnote):

Hugo puissant et fort, Vigny soigneux et fin,
                                                  Hugo, dur partisan,
combattit sous l’armure,
Et tint haut sa bannière au milieu du murmure :
Il la maintient encore ; et Vigny, plus secret,
Comme en sa tour d’ivoire, avant midi, rentrait.
Hugo powerful and strong, Vigny meticulous and delicate,
                                                  Hugo, harsh partisan,
fought in armour,
And held high his banner in the midst of murmur:
He still maintains it; and Vigny, more secretive,
As into his ivory tower, before noon, retired.

The phrase ivory tower was first used in French contexts. The earliest instance that I have found is from Collecting “Conteurs”, published in The New York Times (New York, N.Y.) of 22nd December 1889, about a book hunter who, besides being a “Molièreist” (a collector of books by the French playwright Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – 1622-73)), collected works by French “conteurs”, i.e. story-tellers:

He cannot get the “Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles,” by birth and character a sine qua non of his collection. […] At the Solar sale in 1860, a perfect copy fetched $1,200, and 1860 was not a good year for book sales. Since then the “Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles” is locked in its ivory tower. Anybody who can persuade it to reappear please write to my Molièreist.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) of 30ᵗʰ December 1890 published an article about the French author Octave Feuillet (1821-90), who had died the previous day:

What Theophile Gautier said of one of his contemporaries might with truth be applied to him: “He climbed the ivory tower of the poets but his feet ever sought the earth.” Cloudland was too tranquil, too monotonous, to be the dwelling place of the soul of Octave Feuillet, and better than most men who have tried it he proved how near a literary Jack of all trades can come to being master of all. Had he pursued the severe walks of philosophy France would have possessed to-day no more instructive philosopher. Had he never deserted the “ivory tower” of the poets he would have furnished a new and brilliant chapter to the history of the Gallic muse.

In its Paris Letter, the Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette (Exeter, Devon) of 17th March 1892 described “the Foreign Secretary, M. Ribot”:

If not a Free Trader, he is not a Protectionist; just as if be not in sympathy with an English alliance, he is no gush admirer of Russian intimacy with France. The composition of his public character is singular. He is not exactly a doctrinaire, living in an ivory tower, but he is, perhaps, the only true representative of Parlementarisme in the French Parliament.


The image of the tour d’ivoire, of the tower of ivory, is very old, and very sensual in origin; in the Song of Songs, a book of the Bible containing an anthology of Hebrew love poems, the man praises the beauty of his beloved:

(King James Version – 1611)
1 How beautiful are thy feete with shooes, O princes daughter! the ioynts of thy thighes are like iewels, the worke of the hands of a cunning workeman.
2 Thy navell is like a round goblet, which wanteth not licour: thy belly is like an heape of wheate, set about with lillies.
3 Thy two breastes are like two yong Roes that are twinnes.
4 Thy necke is as a towre of yuorie: thine eyes like the fish pooles in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the towre of Lebanon, which looketh toward Damascus.

In Dictionary of English Phrases (Penguin Books – 2006), Robert Allen explains:

This image has pervaded poetic thought for centuries […]. Ivory as a symbol of delicate feminine beauty is wonderfully evocative, and the transition of the image to notions of remoteness is imaginative and romantic.

The metaphor was clearly in the mind of the English author William Morris (1834-96) when he described Gudrun in his Chaucerian poem The Earthly Paradise (1868-70):

Bluer than grey her eyes were; somewhat thin
Her marvellous red lips; round was her chin,
Cloven, and clear-wrought; like an ivory tower
Rose up her neck from love’s white-veilèd bower.

The image has become a cliché; The Era (London) of 1st July 1882 cited “several recent numbers of the Century magazine” about opera in New York, in which the author, describing “his visit to a popular vocalist of the time, Signora Truffi”, wrote:

Her hair was in disorder, and over her magnificent shoulders she had a queer little shawl, which she gathered closely around the ivory tower crowned by her beautiful head.



Note: The Roman-Catholic tradition is probably among the sources of the use of tour d’ivoire by Sainte-Beuve. Western medieval Christianity treated the love celebrated in the Song of Songs as an analogy for the love between God and the Church. The Virgin Mary and the Church of God having become symbolically merged, the former was associated with the bride of the Song of Songs, so that tour d’ivoireivory tower, connoting purity and incorruptibility, became one of the epithets for Mary, who is the ever-living spotless source of the incarnate God (this comes close to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was defined as a dogma of the Roman-Catholic Church in 1854); in the Sacramento Daily Record-Union (Sacramento, California) of 7th April 1883, Philip Shirley told of his visit to St. Mary’s, the Roman-Catholic Cathedral of San Francisco:

The fresh, light voices singing the Latin litany of the Virgin sounded very mediæval and devotional. Venus, Helen, Cleopatra, the berhymed women of the whole world, did any of them ever get such beautiful epithets as the early Church devised for the Madonna! Venus is “laughter-loving,” but Mary is “cause for joy,” and Helen, “golden;” but Mary, an “ivory tower;” Cleopatra, “triumphant,” and “the eastern star;” but Mary, “the refuge for sinners, morning star, gate of heaven, mystical rose.”

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