Allen Tate’s poetry has often been described as obscure, but although it is difficult and frequently misunderstood, it is not obscure. The difficulties in reading Tate’s poems arise mainly from his allusions, many of which are classical.
A facet of Tate’s poetry that is frequently misunderstood is his use of history as a theme. To Tate, a sense of history is no mere nostalgic longing for bygone glory. It is rather an understanding of those qualities of earlier cultures which made them human. In several poems, Tate expresses the belief that modern people have discarded too many of these qualities and thus have become less human. Tate does not suggest that people turn their backs on modern culture and attempt to return to a more classical and simpler way of life, but he does seem to believe that modern technology and humanism are mutually exclusive. He is in favor of the creation of a new culture rather than the re-creation of an older one.
Tate’s techniques as well as his themes are worthy of study. He rejected at first, but later acknowledged, the truism that form and content should be inextricably related, and he described free verse as a failure. His poems show experimentation with many different forms. Also typical of Tate’s poems is the use of unusual adjectives. “Ambitious November” and “brute curiosity of an angel’s stare” (both from “Ode to the Confederate Dead”) may be cited. These adjectives have the effect of capturing the attention of readers and forcing them to explore the images in order to understand them. A similar technique is his play of word on word, frequently by exact repetition. Tate’s poetry is also characterized by the use of concrete details to modify highly abstract language. Such details, sometimes consisting of single words only, are somewhat jarring to the reader, as they are no doubt meant to be. Finally, Tate can move easily from a formal, “scholarly” style to the use of highly sensuous diction, often within the same poem. He seems to be acutely aware of the tension that is produced by the contrast between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. He chooses the diction suited to his subject, with the language illustrating changes in imagery or tone.
Much attention has been focused on the effect other poets have had on Tate’s poetic techniques and themes. His early poetry has been compared with that of his teacher and friend John Crowe Ransom, while his later work is often compared to that of T. S. Eliot, whom Tate greatly admired. Tate was, however, writing such poetry before he had even read Eliot. In any case, the issue of anyone’s “influence” on Tate is nebulous; certainly his work is not derivative, whatever the generalized debt he may owe Ransom, Eliot, and other writers with whose work he was familiar.
Throughout his poetry, Tate’s major concern is the state of modern culture and modern humankind. He is a sort of prophet, warning people of the consequences of their way of life. In some of his works, he offers remedies for human dilemmas, although he does not hesitate to blame people for being the cause of their own problems. Tate’s poems will no doubt be read in the future as a fairly accurate record of the concerns of twentieth century humanity. Read in the chronological order in which they appear in Collected Poems, 1919-1976, they further serve as a record of the spiritual development of Tate himself, a poet of considerable talent and vision.
A good introduction to Tate’s poetry is “The Mediterranean,” a poem which displays many of his techniques and concerns. In fact, this poem appears as the first item in each of his collections (except Collected Poems, 1919-1976, which is arranged in order of first publication); it is considered to be one of the best of his shorter pieces. The poem begins with a Latin motto, which, as usual, Tate neither identifies nor translates. The motto comes from the first book of the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) and in the original reads “Quem das finem, rex magne, laborum?” (“What limit, great king, do you place on their labors?”) Tate changes “laborum” to “dolorum” (pain, either physical or mental, but here probably mental). This motto should indicate to the reader that a knowledge of the Aeneid is necessary to an understanding of the poem. Indeed, a reader without a great deal of knowledge of the Aeneid would probably overlook or not understand many of Tate’s allusions to it. The poem is, first of all, dramatic; it can be read simply as a description of the dramatic setting. Beneath this surface, however, is the reference, maintained throughout the poem, to the events in the Aeneid, as well as a commentary on the modern human condition by contrast with the past.
The dramatic situation of the poem is simple: a group of people is on a boat trip, a sort of party. The speaker is a member of that group. The voyage of Aeneas is recalled by the speaker, setting up what seems to be an unlikely parallel, although many a weekend sailor may imagine himself to be a Columbus, a Magellan—or even an Aeneas.
In the first stanza, the setting is described. It is a long bay surrounded by a cliff, similar to the bay on which Aeneas landed in Italy. The cliff, called the “peaked margin of antiquity’s delay,” serves as a symbol of the border between the past and present. Time is an important element here, and the first image illustrates Tate’s belief that a difficult barrier exists between the past and present. This idea is developed throughout the poem by means of a contrast between the mythical past, represented by the heroic Aeneas, and the monotonous present, represented by the modern sailors who are attempting to retreat into antiquity. They themselves, however, as symbols of modern humanity, have made that return impossible.
The third stanza contains an important allusion to the Aeneid which continues to develop the contrast between the past and present. The speaker says that the party “made feast and in our secret need/ Devoured the very plates Aeneas bore.” The reference is to the third book of the Aeneid, in which the harpies place a curse on Aeneas and his men: Aeneas will not find the land he is searching for until he and his men have become desperate enough to eat the plates they are carrying. The terms of the curse are fulfilled when the men eat wheat cakes on which they have placed food, thus signaling that they have arrived at their destination. The modern sailors parody this fulfillment of the curse on Aeneas; they too are “cursed” and are seeking another land. The image is repeated in the fourth and fifth stanzas, emphasizing the idea of the removal of a curse.
The curse is explored in the last four stanzas; a question indicates what the curse is: “What prophecy of eaten plates could landless/ Wanderers fulfill by the ancient sea?” By sailing on the “ancient sea” and recalling Aeneas, the wanderers have established some contact with the past, but the contact is incomplete and ephemeral. Tate tells the reader why this is so in stanza 6: It is modern people’s “lust for power” that has been their undoing. His final, strong image is that of a land of plenty in which what should be a bountiful harvest is left to “rot on the vine.” This is the land, he reminds the reader, where he was born; one needs not seek a foreign land to regain the qualities of a great culture.
“Ode to the Confederate Dead”
A somewhat similar theme is treated in Tate’s best-known poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” The title of the poem is somewhat misleading, since the poem is not an ode, or public celebration, to the dead Confederate soldiers. The speaker is a modern man who must face the fact of his isolation, which becomes evident to him through his reflection on the various symbols in the poem, most significant of which is the cemetery where he stands. The speaker is not...
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