Morris’s poem ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ has perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful refrain in all his verse: ‘”Therefore,” said fair Yoland of the flowers,/”This is the tune of Seven Towers”’. The meaning of both poem and refrain remains obscure, despite the reference back to the Rossetti watercolour. But we might want to ask of both the painting and Morris’s delicately enigmatic little text, why seven towers, rather than five or nine or eleven?
So the Seven Towers motif makes me wonder why that particular figure has proved such a recurrent numerological theme in both literature itself and in literary and cultural studies more generally. In Thomas Campanella’s utopia City of the Sun (written in 1602) there are seven concentric circles bearing the names of the seven planets. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin in 1849 offered us Seven Lamps of Architecture, not six or eight. T.E. Lawrence entitled his autobiographical account of his war experiences Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). William Empson, perhaps our most mischievously brilliant literary critic ever, proposed Seven Types of Ambiguity in 1930, although I am not sure anyone has ever believed that you could fully tell all the different types rigorously apart from each other. More recently, in a breathtakingly ambitious survey of the world’s story-telling, Christopher Booker has sketched out Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004); and in the field of linguistics rather than literary studies, Ronald Macaulay has just published Seven Ways of Looking at Language (2010). No doubt there are plenty more examples if one goes hunting for them (Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and so on)
Why then, I wonder, does this particular figure haunt our literary imaginations so? Do we all secretly want to live in that walled town called Sevenham which Morris mentions in his Child Christopher? I have a feeling, at any rate, that in the numbers game which the utopians play after dinner in Thomas More’s Utopia seven will certainly be the numeral which trumps all the others!