Study Guide

Allen Tate

Allen Tate Essay - Tate, Allen (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tate, Allen (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tate, Allen 1899–

An American poet and critic, Tate was a member of the Agrarian movement at Vanderbilt and later a New Critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Tate's best-known poem, the "Ode to the Confederate Dead," has to do, as he has told us, with "the failure of the human personality to function properly in nature and society." It is ironical from first to last, beginning with its title, for this Ode is presented not as the poet's share in a public celebration, but as the reflections of a solitary man at the cemetery gate. Tate's allusions are less private here than elsewhere, but it is doubtful whether without the help of his prose explication the reader could discover what is implied in its crowded symbolism. The poem was ten years in the writing and, when its final version was completed, failed to satisfy its author. Nor can it fully content the reader, in spite of the significance of its theme, its richness of reference, and the technical care with which the poet manipulates the antiphonal voices of what Hart Crane called "active faith" and "the fragmentary cosmos of today."

The difficulty with the Ode, as with so many of Tate's thoughtfully wrought poems, is that it carries too heavy a weight of intellection for the poetry to sustain. What he has said of R. P. Blackmur might with equal propriety be said of him, that he is "as a critic … a master of ideas; as a poet he is occasionally mastered by them."… The idea upon which he plays variations in his poems is that the dominant scientific view has given us an abstract picture of the world which emphasizes man's helpless isolation, while finance capitalism has degraded or destroyed men's relations with one another, so that we are cut off from the universe and from our fellows.

In this emphasis, as in other respects, not least the attraction that the Elizabethans have for him, Tate's alliance with Eliot is plain. His scholarship also is great, and his verse has the crowded intensity, the wry irony that is associated with certain of the metaphysical poets. His later work, not only in its concern with ultimate moral values, its exploration of the contemporary hell, but in its very details, shows his careful reading of Dante, who seems to mean to modern poets something of what Bach means to composers.

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1952, pp. 196-97.

Tate, primarily a poet and critic both of literature and in the realm of ideas where literature, morals and politics exist side by side, was one of the theorists of the Fugitives Group, and The Fathers could be taken as a dramatization in fiction of his ideas of society and tradition. It is that, but it is much more. It is a beautifully articulated novel whose author, one feels, knows throughout exactly what he is doing and saying. Tate is in complete control…. Apart from perhaps one instance where a single literal or realistic detail is allowed to obtrude too much in order that the symbolic point may be made, he achieves his intention almost perfectly, and the result is a peculiarly satisfying novel, satisfying in the classical sense that its beauties spring from the conscious observation of conscious limits….

The action described in Tate's novel is as violent as anything in Faulkner, but the texture of the writing is anything but violent. The Fathers is a work of great formal beauty, the product of a most distinguished mind; implicit in it is a profoundly conservative moral and political philosophy; and, as with the best of Faulkner, we realize, having read it, that it transcends its region and the time of its setting. The South and its troubles have become a metaphor for the human situation generally.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel: In Britain and the United States (copyright © 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. in a paperback edition and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 124-28.

Perhaps the best way to judge Tate finally is to compare the quality of his mind with that of his teachers and peers, T. S. Eliot and John Crowe Ransom. Like both of them he is a poet-critic, and like them he has been actively engaged during his lifetime as a man of letters, doing all the tasks which this phrase implies—editing, writing introductions, teaching, reviewing, making poems and novels, lecturing, serving as a member of symposiums. Despite the fact that he was more intimately and personally associated with Ransom, his debt to Eliot is the greater. He of course borrowed many of his early critical distinctions from Eliot—his idea of the necessity of social tradition, dissociation of sensibility, his literary tradition of Donne, Dante, and the rest. But more significant, he seems in a way to have lived Eliot's life in his search for a usable past, in his conversion and late remarriage, in his relative decline as a lyric poet and his late attention to a long religious poem like the Four Quartets ("Seasons of the Soul"). In his searching, Tate has seemingly been less successful than Eliot in finding a goal satisfactory to himself. While Eliot in "The Frontiers of Criticism," delivered at Tate's own University of Minnesota in 1956, made a radical revision of his earlier allegiances and came to a kind of acceptance of himself and the world as it is, we have had no similar statement from Tate, and he seems at present to be midway between the state of spleen and despair Eliot was in in the late thirties and the mood of acceptance of Eliot's final years.

Grant Webster, "Allen Tate: The Conservative Critic," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1967 by the Duke University Press), Autumn, 1967, pp. 591-605.

Allen Tate is one of the most versatile men of letters in America today. He gained his earliest fame as a poet, but he is almost as well known as a critic. He has written a novel distinguished enough to rank with the best in twentieth-century American letters. He has received national attention as a political polemicist. He has written meritorious biographies of two Civil War figures. And far from the least of his activities, he has provided numerous reviews and lectures; and he has been a distinguished teacher….

[The social] quality of Tate's mind and art it is most essential to recognize. He has always showed an unusual sensitivity to his surroundings; he has consistently been Classical, Christian, and Southern in his outlook….

Tate's reputation as a critic has always stood high; some would even accord him a greater place as a critic than as a poet…. [His] criticism has always had an oral quality. Tate assumes the role of the urbane, sophisticated talker, always ready to engage in a polemical discussion, provided he does not have to raise his voice. He carefully disciplines his material, and he uses understatement, irony, and wit as his chief instruments. While he purposely cultivates some resistance in the reader, he never makes it a barrier to understanding.

To try to give Tate his rightful place in twentieth-century criticism requires, no doubt, a longer perspective than is now available. For despite the gentlemanly tones of his work, he has always been a strongly polemical writer. His essays show the passionate concern he has felt for the issues under discussion, and they have not been without their opponents. Though much of what he has fought for has long been won, he is still somewhat a controversial figure. His criticism is perhaps most valuable when he is discussing the nature of poetry. One of the characteristics of poetry that he has been more willing to emphasize than many critics is its seriousness of purpose…. Another idea equally important to Tate is that of the importance of form…. The consequences of this view are that Tate has been led to emphasize how the work of art is put together. For him, the distinctively literary quality of a poem, play, or novel is the manner of its presentation….

Essentially, his [critical] approach consists of demonstrating the importance of a problem of art by focusing it against a larger background. In doing so, the critic is forced to take account of the complexity of his problem; he cannot simplify it by reducing it to an immediate issue….

The fact that his general critical outlook coincides with that of others has led to his being classified as a "New Critic" or as a "formalist critic." Neither epithet is more than a crude approximation of what he has been as a critic. He has always sought to return to first principles, and he has never emphasized form to the exclusion of other elements. When the controversies that gave rise to these epithets have vanished, his criticism will remain. Where he will rank is probably not even a very useful question, but he will be remembered as an important critic in an age which contributed much to criticism….

Tate's place in American letters is secure. He is one of a very small number of American writers who have had the ability to present the intellectual as well as the emotional side of the American experience. In a culture which has seemed so often to encourage and even depend on the anti-intellectual, he has emphasized the opposite. Ultimately, I feel, he will be proved to have dealt with the truly significant elements in our experience.

Ferman Bishop, in his Allen Tate, Twayne, 1967.

[Tate's] satiric bent … has always been fairly constant, and he finally wrote one of the finest modern poems in this mode. Although he is the most Roman of our poets, he has not tried to re-create Horace or Juvenal. His satirical poems are complementary to his more familiar ones, which are usually in the mode of tragic irony….

Tate is no more colloquial or "rough" in his effects than Juvenal, but his sarcasm never quite reaches a focus. The address to a character in The White Devil does not make the poem a dramatic monologue, either. Very likely English verse satire requires a tight stanzaic form to be successful, unlike Latin, and this Jacobean pastiche does not serve the purpose. All the same, Tate has a good sense of style, and he sometimes manages to make denunciation take on a high oratorical ring….

[The] dominant mode in Tate's poetry is not satiric. His view of history [as disorderly] almost precludes it…. What, then, is the function of the satire which runs through these poems? Chiefly it acts as a kind of "stiffening"—not so much a structural device as a moral attitude which complicates the tone of a given poem and reminds us, as Tate says, of the "vanity of the world." This may be the place, incidentally, to remark that the satirical thrusts in his poems are almost invariably Latinate in expression, as in "Captains of industry, your aimless power/Awakens harsh velleities of time." This phase of his poetry has sometimes been criticized as excessive. My opinion is that the diction is indulgently Latinate in such a line as "Sunlight topples indignant from the hill"—from one of the earlier "Causerie" poems, whose relative shapelessness allows this. On the other hand, "Noble beyond degree/ In a democracy" is a beautifully precise couplet which attains the effect that we admire in certain passages of Marvell's Horatian Ode. Tate's best poetry, in fact, has an austerity of style which is unusual among the moderns….

To summarize: Allen Tate has been a representative American poet in his satire. Like Ransom, Cummings, Eliot, and Pound, he has worked in whatever post-classical forms that have come his way, but his fierce Latinity has made him more inclined towards satire than most of his contemporaries. To read him from this point of view is, I think, to get an insight into his work as a whole.

Ashley Brown, "Allen Tate as Satirist," in Shenandoah, Winter, 1968, pp. 44-54.

Mr. Tate is often thought of as a very private poet. The violence of his imagery and the juxtaposition of levels of style in his work, his preference for the lyric and for the agonized persona in that genre—along with the admiration which his ingenuities in the employment of all manner of strategies have together inspired—have confirmed his reputation for obscurity, allusive privacy, and consequent difficulty. Were it not for his politics, his poetics, and his honesty about them both, he could have become the object of coterie enthusiasms. Indeed it appears from much recent comment on his verse that it is chiefly valued in some quarters as a formal curiosity—or that some would like to see it so classified. But such comment is invalid. Tate's poetry is, in its ultimate seriousness, consistent with his announced theories concerning the role of the poet. Implicit in his relentless focus on the subjectivity and narcissism of the speakers in most of his lyrics are an equally relentless critique and objective evaluation of life behind the looking glass. His subject and audience, because he would address them, have required of him the machinery he chooses to employ.

The lyric has usually been the appropriate vehicle for what this poet has intended to say—or rather, present. Nevertheless he has betimes turned to other and more public forms when provided with a genuinely public provocation. He has written eclogues, elegies, epistles, epodes, meditations (sans persona), and, on several occasions, odes. These poems are topical. However, the irony, the allusiveness, the often remarked violence of imagery are as pronounced in them as in the more characteristic lyrics. But this should not surprise. In these topical poems his subject is the same unchanging reality, pressed upon the same temporal configurations that the lyrics explore. The choice of a semi-traditional form or setting is part of the strategy that appears in all of Tate's verse, an ironic procedure obviously not unlike that of T. S. Eliot, Auden, and other poets.

M. E. Bradford, "Angels at Forty Thousand Feet: 'Ode to Our Young Pro-Consuls of the Air' and the Practice of Poetic Responsibility," in Georgia Review, Spring, 1968, pp. 42-57.

Tate has few of the gifts of the winning or charming critic, the critic whose essay is abandoned half-way through because the reader runs off to read the gorgeous book that has been described to him. "The most marvelous bishops of heaven," said Wallace Stevens, "were those that made it seem so." Tate is not, in that sense, a marvelous bishop of the heaven that is literature: his style is rigid and analytic, and his taste is far from catholic….

Tate helped bring to consciousness in America, especially in the universities and colleges, the Coleridgean value of literature as an expressive and cognitive act (though he seems to forget always that Coleridge insisted that poetry proposes for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; there is precious little pleasure in Tate's sterner essays….

He was, though, more deeply infected than he realized by his enemy, scientific positivism, and he adopted in his defense of poetry the arid and sterile language of scientific demonstration, as if to prove that critics could think too. The result was to make the study of poetry seem, in fact, a peculiarly repellent form of ascetic practice.

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1969, p. 6.

It may well turn out that of Allen Tate's poems those which will claim the greatest attention are those that today are the least read. These include two poems written in 1952, "The Maimed Man" and "The Swimmers", and one poem written in 1953, "The Buried Lake". They must be approached from several different directions: first, as logical developments in Tate's poetry as poetry; second, as logical developments in Tate's thought; third, as a logical break on Tate's part with certain aspects of T. S. Eliot's poetry….

Against Poe's a-sensuous cosmogony in which Satan has triumphed over God—for it is the sin of intellectual pride Tate is talking about in "The Angelic Imagination"—Tate counter-weighs the cosmos of Dante. In his great essay "The Symbolic Imagination" Tate's primary point is that Dante works from the common and sensual to the extraordinary and the suprasensual. Tate's word for it is not "suprasensual" but "anagogical", a word that appears frequently in the later essays, just as the word "failure" occurred frequently in the earlier essays. Indeed, the anagogical or mystical discovery became Tate's way of surmounting what he once thought to be inevitable failure….

Looking at the three late poems one sees that they belong to a pattern repeated throughout Tate's career. It is a pattern in which we are conscious of a ratio of relative failures to relative successes. "The Maimed Man", fine as it is in places, fragments, and the macabre elements will not stay with the rational. "The Buried Lake" vibrates continuously but does not move very far. "The Swimmers", perfectly attuned to Dante's form, moves through its journey-encounters and stands at last, as all fine poetry does, not as a set of symbols, but as an action which is in toto symbolic. Now, this same ratio may be observed in the summits of all of Tate's poetry. "Ode to the Confederate Dead" emerges from a context of several inferior poems that are thematically similar. "The Mediterranean" rises above the lesser poem "Aeneas at Washington"; "Seasons of the Soul" issues from the lesser poem "Winter Mask". But that is only part of the pattern. It remains to be observed that all of these poems are concerned with integrity or its absence….

Tate was right … when he told his friends that he was always writing only one poem. But there are peaks in the one poem and these peaks obtained with the most severe effort throughout his career are the poems which make him one of the masters of a varied and brilliant epoch. But even if his superior poems had not come, he would still be an important poet, for we should have "Death of Little Boys" instead of "Ode to the Confederate Dead". We should have "The Buried Lake" instead of "The Swimmers". And we should pay them homage as examples of a poetry that strained, indeed wrenched, the language with bitter zeal. We should see, moreover, that that zeal was one that sprang from a refusal to tolerate falseness either in the self or in man in general. Tate's language is of that kind which wells forth when the poet presses with all his force for a victory which he knows he will not obtain.

Because he has been unable to lie to us about victory, his poems have never been very popular. For popular poetry is the kind that encourages people who are not poets to believe that they are. Tate's poetry cannot have that effect. But the effect it can and does have is that of reminding us that the heroic, the saintly act is a subjective, even a hidden, act of such private intensity that its public implementation is only an inevitable step, not a greater step. In this way Tate is entirely different from T. S. Eliot, whom he resembles in such obvious but superficial ways that some critics stopped digging for the treasure when they found a few coins in the topsoil. Eliot's poetry has no private morality. His figures are either public saints or paralyzed puppets, just as his cats are either practical or dead. But it is by reason of this very difference that Tate in his later poetry could achieve an optimism that never came to Eliot. One can after all save what can be saved if he does not try to save what cannot be saved.

Radcliffe Squires, "Will and Vision: Allen Tate's Terza Rima Poems," in Sewanee Review (© 1970 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1970, pp. 543-62, and in Squires' Allen Tate: A Literary Biography (© 1971 by Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc.), Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

In Tate's verse, even more obviously than in Eliot's, there are powerful forces of order to create a fruitful tension against the forces of disorder. Thus most of Tate's poems are in regular and traditional meters: sonnets, blank verse, quatrains, and various intricate stanza forms strictly followed; epodes, odes modeled on "Lycidas" and on Drayton's "Ode to the Virginian Voyagers." There is no shying away from the conventional iambic pentameter, though much of Tate's best work is done in trimeter (e.g. "Seasons of the Soul") or tetrameter—his use of both these latter forms clearly owing much to Yeats's example. The long poem on which he has been at work for the past two decades, and of which three parts have been published so far, is in terza rima, the strictest and most demanding of all forms in English.

Against this ordered formal background there plays the audacious and elliptical language of the poems, passionate, violent, sometimes obscure….

Tate's obsessive theme, as he put it himself, is "man suffering from unbelief." In one sense, this is very personal, since the man is often clearly the poet himself; in another, it is general, for the poet is a representative modern, and the theme defines the modern world, "from all salvation weaned," oppressed by the approach of mortality, seen usually at twilight and in autumn. Undoubtedly, the pervading metaphor of the modern world as Hell owes much to Dante, to Baudelaire, and to Eliot's fusion of the two; but it is also deeply felt and personal.

Like Eliot again, he sees modern man—in a metaphor that is sometimes an alternative to the vision of Hell and sometimes a variant of it—as the living dead.

Monroe K. Spears, in his Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry (© 1970 by Monroe K. Spears; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 173-74.

For me, Allen Tate has always been the poet of great, unforgettable single lines and passages. His finest poetry seems to come from a direct sensuous apprehension not of thought (to alter Eliot's phrase) but of the Southern experience—the Southern people, animals, terrain, and climate; memories of childhood and youth in Kentucky and Tennessee; his feeling for Southern tradition and history….

One naturally thinks of Tate as a Southern poet, which of course he is. He is, in the opinion of this editor, the finest poet that the South has produced—without exception. But of course he is a modern poet as well, and his work transcends the regional. The major problems of the typical twentieth-century intellectual are the concern of much of his poetry. What should be our attitude toward the past, and specifically toward the ante-bellum and Confederate South ("Ode to the Confederate Dead")? Is the Christian faith still possible for the modern intellectual ("The Cross")? Is "unity of being" (Yeat's phrase) possible in twentieth-century America? His answers to these and other questions are sometimes indecisive. He is frequently in a dilemma—"a stag charged both at heel and head."

Donald E. Stanford, "'Out of That Source of Time': The Poetry of Allen Tate," in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. xvii-xxiii.

From his lifework Allen Tate has chosen ninety-nine poems for this definitive selection [The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems]. One feels that the same untiring scrutiny with which Tate the critic has judged the works of others has fallen without indulgence upon his own. But the book radiates energy all out of proportion to its slender heft. A fierce critical intelligence has operated not only in selecting these poems but in writing them in the first place.

The initial impression which any selection of Tate's poems enforces is one of formal rigor, especially striking in an age in which poets have thought of traditional form as a thing either to be avoided or rendered with the lowest possible visibility. Tate's formal structures are insistently visible…. Form is a compelling ritual to which the reader must submit in order to approach this poet's meaning. One never sees in Tate the effortless dexterity of an Auden; stress is always present between style and substance, as though the formal structures were dykes holding back high seas. The conscious constriction of these poems, their sense of being about to burst at the seams, reflects their main burden: the plight of modern man, exiled from the stability of tradition and holding chaos in check with forms which every day are witness to their own fragility….

The poems are Christian, then, but wrenchingly, almost willfully so—perhaps we might better say they are Christ-haunted. Tate is not one to drum up cheap epiphanies.

Robert B. Shaw, "The Fugitive Returns," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1972, pp. 222-24.

Allen Tate may well be the most difficult poet of the twentieth century, more difficult even than Pound or Eliot. The obscurity of his verse is interior, arising not so much from arcane allusions or private symbology (both of which, when explicated, turn out to be fairly simple) as from the very nature of his poetic language and insight. Tate is in fact unique in modern poetry; for though, to be sure, he has shared in the universal sense of alienation and dissociation expressed by other poets of the early part of the century, he has in a prior sense been urged on by an aim more complex than the simple reunion of man's fragmented parts. In Tate's theory and practice, as in hardly any other modern writer, there is present the full reach of the "fourfold" method used by Dante in The Divine Comedy and explained in his letter to Can Grande; that is to say, the highest level, the anagogical, is truly present in both Tate's criticism and his poetry. Yet no writer of our time has more studiously avoided the "angelic"; nor has anyone else given such weight to the senses. In fact, Tate is aware as are few others that the "anagogical conversion of symbol" cannot take place without concrete sense experience of the "common thing". For him, the symbolic imagination, originating with the senses and proceeding by analogy—the "way of affirmation"—leads a poet to that light which, reflected back on things, reveals the true being of the world. Much of Tate's work has had to be carried on, however, in what he has considered darkness; only after he touched "the hem/Of him who spread his triptych like a fan", as he describes Dante in "The Maimed Man", did he begin to understand that as poet he was seeing all along, though indirectly.

Louise Cowan, "Allen Tate and the Garment of Dante," in Sewanee Review (© 1972 by The University of the South), Spring, 1972, pp. 377-82.