If “Aeneas at Washington” has a single theme, it is the corruption of an ideal. This ideal is, in Tate’s view, so pervasive and ancient that he cannot attempt to describe its corruption except in sweeping cultural and mythic terms.
During the 1930’s, the Great Depression was both undermining America’s faith in the free enterprise system and threatening the tenuous balance between urban and rural segments of society. Even without this economic crisis, the increasing industrialization and urbanization of American culture, along with the United States having become entangled in Old World affairs as a result of World War I, was increasingly provoking debate about the national purpose. Some were insisting that the republican virtues upon which America had been founded—respect for the individual, for the common man, for self-sufficiency and self-reliance—were in danger of succumbing to the hollow necessities of internationalism.
A leading force in this call for a restoration of those republican virtues was a group of Southern thinkers and writers who called themselves the Agrarians. The Agrarian movement included such important literary figures as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, John Gould Fletcher, and Kentucky-born, Tennessee-educated Allen Tate. Despite its harking back to the classical past, “Aeneas at Washington” is a product of the Agrarian movement. It sees in the present-day corruption of traditional values and ideals a national dilemma that transcends contemporary issues.
At the heart of the problem, Tate is saying, is the concept of the city and what it represents. In this regard, the provincial beauty of Troy is the civilized ideal against which the crass materialism and imperial vainglory of ancient Rome and its present-day counterpart, Washington, D.C., pale in comparison—yet the irony is that Rome was the result of the mythic attempt to rebuild Troy. Finally, then, the poem suggests that human history has become a devolutionary process amid which the ideals of a golden age, with its pastoral myth, remain only to taunt humankind into regret at how low it has fallen despite high aims.