Tate, Allen (Poetry Criticism)
Allen Tate 1899-1979
(Full name John Orley Allen Tate) American poet, essayist, biographer, critic, translator, novelist, memoirist, playwright, and editor.
The following entry provides criticism on Tate's works from 1929 through 1998.
Tate is recognized as a central figure in modern American poetry. A member of the “Fugitive Group” of writers, he created verse that reflected the concerns of his fellow Fugitives: the life and landscapes of the agrarian South inform all of his work. Critics contend that Tate's best poetry presents a world where the mythical and historical past serve allegorically to illuminate simple, personal experience.
Tate was born on November 19, 1899, in Winchester, Kentucky, the youngest of three sons. His family moved frequently while he was growing up; as a result, his early education was irregular. Encouraged by his mother, he studied on his own and in 1918 he was admitted to Vanderbilt University. During his time at Vanderbilt he became involved with the Fugitive Group, an informal group of Southern intellectuals that included Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Merrill Moore, and Robert Penn Warren. The group met weekly to discuss poetry and philosophy as well as their creative work. The Fugitives argued that the Southern literary tradition was vital and significant and they rejected industrialism as anathema to Southern life. Moreover, they asserted that Southern agrarian way of life reflected the splendor, intelligence, and wit of the ancient classical age. The ideas of the Fugitive Group garnered much critical and popular attention and had a significant impact on American letters in the 1920s and 1930s. After receiving his B.A. from Vanderbilt in 1922, Tate moved to New York and worked as an assistant editor at Telling Tales. In 1928 Tate received a Guggenheim fellowship and traveled to France, where he wrote poetry based on the Southern experience as well as biographies of Confederate heroes Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. Upon his return to the United States, he worked as a lecturer and professor of English at several universities, including the University of North Carolina, New York University, University of Chicago, and the University of Minnesota. In 1953 and 1958 he was appointed a Fulbright professor. He also edited the Sewanee Review from 1944-46. He received many awards for his work, including a National Institute of Arts and Letters award in 1948, a Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1956, an Academy of American Poets award in 1963, and a National Medal for Literature in 1976. He died on February 9, 1979, in Nashville, Tennessee.
While Tate's poetry developed and changed over twenty-five years, several critics identified a few unifying thematic concerns in his poetry: the rejection of abstractionism; the acknowledgment of the fallen or imperfect man; the profound impact of alienation or solipsism; the connection between past and present generations; and the relationship between the religious, ethical, and historical. Tate's early poems are often imbued with an idealized view of Southern tradition in order to convey the alienation of man in a modern, industrialized world. Considered his best-known poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead” explores that very theme as a former Confederate soldier ruminates on his place in the world as he looks over a Confederate graveyard. Thematically, the poem focuses on issues such as honor, heroism, mortality, and isolation and references the epic poems Iliad and the Aeneid as well as the work of ancient Greek philosophers. Tate's allusions to classical literature, myths, and philosophy are a recurring aspect of his work. Another well-known poem, “Aeneas at Washington,” juxtaposes the ancient definition of honor and bravery presented in the Aeneid against that of modern-day, solipsistic man. In his poem, Tate suggests that the idealized view of the American experience has been corrupted by materialism. In “The Mediterranean” Tate once again utilizes the concepts of heroism and honor as embodied in Aeneid to contrast against the shameful and damaging actions of North American settlers. Some critics perceive a break with Tate's early poetry with the publication of The Winter Sea (1944), which included the well-known poem “Seasons of the Soul.” Split into sections named for the seasons, “Seasons of the Soul” features the classical figures of Venus and Sisyphus to examine man's unexplored creative potential. Several commentators have noted the influence of religion—especially his conversion to Roman Catholicism—as well as the medieval author Dante on his later verse. In fact, critics note the stylistic influence of Dante in several of his later works, especially the later poems written in terza rima: “The Maimed Man,” “The Buried Lake,” and “The Swimmers.” These verses are referred to as “The Maimed Trilogy,” and are usually treated as three parts of the same poem. Moreover, the three poems include autobiographical incidents, as well as classical and mythical allusions, to explore man's need for profound spiritual and emotional connections to the world.
Although Tate is viewed as an important modern American poet, many critics have questioned why he has not garnered more significant critical and popular attention. Some scholars assert that his work is too difficult, multilayered, and honest for widespread readership. Others contend that he is perceived as mainly a Southern writer and is constrained by his association with the Fugitives and Agrarianism, which some commentators view as an attempt to deny American progress. Despite these assessments, critics underline his relevance as a poet and urge greater attention to his verse. Commentators debate Tate's poetic development, noting his early emphasis on the Southern literary tradition and his shift to incorporate Roman Catholic theology and the influence of Dante in his later work. His place within the American literary tradition is a recurring topic of critical interest, as Tate has been classified at various points as a Fugitive, Agrarian, Southern traditionalist, medievalist, classicist, New Critic, or Roman Catholic author. Commentators have investigated the influence of T. S. Eliot, Dante, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Augustine, and classical literature and mythology on his poetry.
Mr. Pope, and Other Poems 1928
Three Poems: Ode to the Confederate Dead, Message from Abroad, and The Cross 1930
Poems: 1928-1931 1932
The Mediterranean and Other Poems 1936
Selected Poems 1937
Sonnets at Christmas 1941
The Winter Sea 1944
Fragment of a Meditation/MCMXXVIII 1947
Poems: 1922-1947 1948
Two Conceits for the Eye to Sing, If Possible 1950
The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems 1970
Collected Poems, 1919-1976 1977
Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier (biography) 1928
Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall (biography) 1929
Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (essays) 1936
The Fathers (novel) 1938
Reason in Madness: Critical Essays (essays) 1941
On the Limits of Poetry: Selected Essays, 1928-1948 (essays) 1948
The Man of Letters in the Modern World: Selected Essays, 1928-1955 (essays) 1955
Collected Essays (essays) 1959
Essays of Four Decades (essays) 1968
Memoirs and Opinions, 1926-1974...
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SOURCE: Zabel, Morton Dauwen. “A Critics Poetry.” Poetry 33, no. 5 (February 1929): 281-84.
[In the following mixed review of Mr. Pope and Other Poems, Zabel argues that most of Tate's poetry is obscured by “texture of allusions and intricate phraseology.”]
Allen Tate's poetry shares many of the perversities and stylistic mannerisms of what was called, a few years ago, the cerebral school. The reader, confronted by a texture of allusions and intricate phraseology, is soon willing to accuse the poet of disguising a poverty of emotion and a shoddiness of concept with deliberate obscurity. Occasionally, when the fabulous imagery wears thin, we stand face to face with ideas as commonplace as those in “For a Dead Citizen:”
He was the finest of our happy men, He had all joys, he never thought of death; He fiddled sometimes with his mind, and then Shook off the tremor like a nervous wren— Just once or twice I saw him catch his breath.
Again in the “Sonnet to Beauty” and “Resurgam” the mask of sophistication is worn at a decidedly rakish angle, and in “To a Romanticist” the failure to penetrate to any original idea is very obvious indeed. We are left with no more startling conclusion than this:
You think the dead arise Westward and fabulous: The dead are those whose lies Were doors to a narrow house.
In many of...
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SOURCE: Zabel, Morton Dauwen. “The Creed of Memory.” Poetry 40, (April 1932): 34-9.
[In the following positive review of Poems: 1928-1931, Zabel traces Tate's poetic development.]
The twenty-two poems and sequence of ten sonnets in this book represent less a new phase of Mr. Tate's work than a conscious attack on problems defined in his first collection, Mr. Pope, of 1928. Any concern arising from the volume's immediate reference to its predecessor is rendered gratuitous by Mr. Tate's anticipation of it. By making that reference implicit and organic he joins the small group of contemporary poets who have realized, at whatever cost of popular approval with its preference for familiar repetitions or facile “growths,” the meaning of unity. Both in arrangement and in foreword he emphasizes the continuity of a project: “The books of a poet are finally one book; this author is writing to that end.” This ideal appears in placing “Ignis Fatuus,” the final poem of the earlier volume, as an introduction to this. Two aids toward an intelligent approach to the book are thereby achieved. Mr. Tate recalls a program of ideas, apparently of early formulation, to which he has adhered with exceptional consistency; and he establishes as the aim of that program the schematization of experience and historical consciousness by a principle of order.
If the irony of his earlier...
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SOURCE: Morse, Samuel French. “Second Reading.” Poetry 51, no. 5 (February 1938): 262-66.
[In the following review, Morse notes the lack of development in Tate's poetry, but underlines the strengths of the poems collected in Selected Poems.]
In the current issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter, 1938) Allen Tate clarifies the statement with which the preface to his Selected Poems ends. In an article on his “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” the author points out the difference between feeling and experience, between knowledge “about” something and the knowledge as the thing itself. “In a manner of speaking,” he writes, “the poem is its own knower, neither poet nor reader knowing anything that the poet says apart from the words of the poem.” It is thus possible to learn more completely than before just where Mr. Tate stands, though the same principles have been set down at greater length in other of his writings, in the Reactionary Essays, and in some of the uncollected criticism.
Tate has been, and to a lesser extent still is, the most highly praised poet of his generation with the exception of Hart Crane. It is true that more recently he has had his share of condemnation, not only from the Left, but rather surprisingly, from what one would suppose to be congenial quarters. The preface to this book is partly at fault; the incomplete...
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Delmore. “The Poetry of Allen Tate.” The Southern Review 5, no. 3 (winter 1940): 419-38.
[In the following essay, Schwartz discusses Tate as an honest poet and investigates the relationship between his essays and poetry.]
An honest man is one incapable of deceiving others. An honest poet, however, is one incapable of self-deception, at least in his poetry. This requires much difficult labor. One of the essential facts about Allen Tate's writing is the tireless effort and strained labor to be honest as a writer. The effort, the strain, the labor, and the honesty are, in a sense, a dominant quality of the very surface of his verse. I say: in a sense, because strictly what we know as the surface is a certain unique harshness of diction and meter, and an equally curious violence of imagery and sentiment. It is only when we have grasped the writing as a whole vision that we recognize a consistent intention in the quality of specific details, reading from line to line.
But where, before this, have we heard of the honesty in poetry? T. S. Eliot, in his essay on Blake in The Sacred Wood, speaks of the peculiar honesty to be found in genuine poetry:
It is merely a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the world conspires because it is unpleasant....
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SOURCE: Brooks, Cleanth. “Reviews.” Poetry 66, no. 6 (September 1945): 324-29.
[In the following review, Brooks praises the topicality and richness of the poems in The Winter Sea, contending that the collection “deserves to be read by every one seriously interested in modern poetry.”]
It is impossible to review these poems without taking into account the topical references which they make, for the references are many and obvious—to Henry Wallace, to Van Wyck Brooks, to Pearl Harbor, to the fall of France. They reflect a world scene with which the reader is thoroughly familiar; but they stem from a point of view with which he is quite unfamiliar. The average reader—if he is fortunate enough to come upon a copy of this handsome, highly limited edition—will therefore be inclined to take it as a bitter and puzzling book, though, even so, he will in his bewilderment hardly escape becoming aware of the power and authority which manifest themselves in poem after poem.
The work of a first-rate poet always constitutes a commentary on the age out of which it comes, and is, in turn, commented upon by the events of that age. Likewise, any poem by a serious poet becomes a commentary on the rest of his work and, perhaps, achieves its ultimate richness for the reader only in so far as it receives the commentary of the rest of his work. Both propositions are peculiarly true of...
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SOURCE: Nemerov, Howard. “The Current of the Frozen Stream.” The Sewanee Review 67, no. 4 (October 1959): 585-97.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1948 in Furioso, Nemerov provides a stylistic examination of Tate's verse, focusing on a “major duality in his poetry.”]
My occasion is the publication of Mr. Tate's collection, Poems 1922-1947 (Scribner's, 1948), my purpose the elucidation of a major duality in his poetry, which I would regard as in some sense its generating or operative principle. In some sense … those beautiful precautionary and beforehand words which serve the critic so well through all life's appointments and will make him a satisfactory epitaph; but used here with particular intent to deny that the results of this (or any such) study are conceived as historically applicable, as suggesting the origin of the poetry. I am concerned to show the design that exists in the poetry; this does not extend to saying that the design has ‘caused’ the poetry, though it may extend, if the distinction is permissible, to showing that the design could have caused the poetry to be what it is, that the design is a sufficient reason of the poetry though not its specific occasion, and may therefore be taken as really a ‘generating’ principle. The design is a formal, though not a proximate, cause.
It will be objected by some, I think,...
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SOURCE: Koch, Vivienne. “The Poetry of Allen Tate.” The Kenyon Review 11, no. 3 (summer 1949): 355-78.
[In the following essay, Koch differentiates Tate from the Fugitive poets and views him as a “poet of romantic sensibility who has tried with varying success to compress his talents into a chastely classical form.”]
I should like to propose two revisions of the customary valuation put upon the poetry of Allen Tate. First, it has become increasingly evident with each new work that Mr. Tate is a fugitive from the Fugitives. The Fugitives were that talented group of Southern writers who, finding the Northern poetic climate of the early twenties too exacerbatingly modern, reaffirmed their allegiances with “tradition,” a term they took some care to define. While we commonly think of the Southerners as a group, and while in a loose personal sense this may be so, it is my belief that in a veiled but not altogether deceptive fashion Mr. Tate has been seeking to free himself from the claims of group loyalty, claims which at one time had threatened the temper of his own sensibility. For Tate, with an artistic humility strangely discordant with his critical arrogance, had publicly avowed his apprenticeship to his Southern master, John Crowe Ransom, and to his European one, T. S. Eliot. These poet-critics were the maîtres of the Southern group and a common devotion created additional pressures...
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SOURCE: Bernetta, Sister Mary. “Allen Tate's Inferno.” Renascence 3, no. 2 (spring 1951): 113-19.
[In the following essay, Bernetta examines the theme of damnation in Tate's poetry.]
Gentlemen, my secret is Damnation.
(“To the Lacedemonians”)
Certain critics have called the verse of Allen Tate Augustan, pointing out in particular his affinity to Pope; others have labeled it metaphysical, after the poetry of Donne's age; still others, in the tradition of the Greco-Roman classics. Yet his basic concern, especially as revealed in Poems: 1922-1947, is medieval. In the Middle Ages there was one drama which took precedence over all other conflict: the struggle of Everyman to win beatitude and and to escape eternal reprobation. Tate recognizes the issue as a subject most significant for literature. With the old veteran of “To the Lacedemonians” he announces: “Gentlemen, my secret is / Damnation.” One way to penetrate the meanings of his work, the difficulty of which is largely due to the complexity of his ideas rather than to verbal experimentation, is to trace the implications of this secret throughout his lyrics.
Damnation, of course, has its prelude. Without guilt, such a concept would be meaningless. Tate acknowledges the two kinds of guilt peculiar to the Christian dispensation: original and personal. Frederick...
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SOURCE: Berland, Alwyn. “Violence in the Poetry of Allen Tate.” Accent 2, no. 3 (summer 1951): 161-71.
[In the following essay, Berland explores the role of violence in Tate's poetry and finds parallels between his verse and that of John Webster.]
Duchess: I could curse the stars— Bosola: O, fearful. Duchess: And those three smiling seasons of the year Into a Russian winter; nay, the world To its first chaos. Bosola: Look you, the stars shine still. Duchess: O, but you must Remember, my curse hath a great way to go.
—The Duchess of Malfi
It is no accident that Allen Tate has written on John Webster (“Horatian Epode to The Duchess of Malfi”); the wonder is that he has done so only once. For the resemblances between these two are impressive, and illuminating. Both are artists who demonstrate their great consciousness of classical forms and conventions, and both manipulate these conventions for purposes which are ultimately non-classical, and romantic. There is more. Not the matter of source and influence; the obvious fact that Tate has read Webster is meaningless beside the fact that his sensibility, however struggling against his world, responds to it in ways we recognize as those of Webster.
Tate is obsessed by a...
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SOURCE: Rubin, Jr., Louis D. “The Serpent in the Mulberry Bush.” In Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. and Robert D. Jacobs, pp. 352-67. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1953.
[In the following essay, Rubin discusses how Tate's background as a Southerner and Agrarian poet informed the imagery and subject matter of “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”]
“That poem is ‘about’ solipsism, a philosophical doctrine which says that we create the world in the act of perceiving it; or about Narcissism, or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature and society.”
That poem, as Tate goes on to say about the “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” is also about “a man stopping at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon.” Thus the man at the cemetery and the graves in the cemetery become the symbol of the solipsism and the Narcissism:
Autumn is desolation in the plot Of a thousand acres where these memories grow From the inexhaustible bodies that are not Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row. Think of the autumns that have come and gone!
A symbol is something that stands for something else. What I want to do is to point out some of the relationships between the “something” and the “something else.”...
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SOURCE: Feder, Lillian. “Allen Tate's Use of Classical Literature.” The Centennial Review 4, no. 1 (winter 1960): 89-114.
[In the following essay, Feder elucidates the influence of classical myths and literature on Tate's poetry.]
“Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet's own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history.” T. S. Eliot regards this consciousness of history as one of the requirements of the mature poet, and he suggests Vergil as an example of the poet who exhibits this awareness of his relation not only to the past of his own nation but to the past of a civilization before his. Vergil himself has provided for Allen Tate a means of extending his view of history, and, as the “story of Aeneas” was for Vergil “a statement of relatedness between two great cultures,”1 so it became for Tate a symbol of both the “relatedness” and the tragic separation between the past and the present.
Critics have written much on Tate's use of historical material,2 but they have, for the most part, concentrated on one tradition—that of the old South. The influence of that “other history,” the publica materies, the myths and literature of the ancient classical world, which helped to form Tate as a poet, has hardly been explored....
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SOURCE: Johnson, Carol. “The Heroism of the Rational: The Poetry of Allen Tate.” Renascence 17, no. 2 (winter 1964): 89-96.
[In the following essay, Johnson emphasizes the role of reason in Tate's poetry.]
The contemporary poet is a man whom our sophisticated awareness of extramental and preconscious conditions of existence causes us to credit with having even more to withstand from these quarters than he is likely to maintain in the way of technical resources with which to organize his response. If we apprehend one note common to the poems of our contemporaries, an extraordinary if diversely distributed weight incumbent upon their makers, it is freedom. For our traditions inform us cumulatively of nothing more patent than that the great modes have achieved their maturest expressions, that the most strident rebellion must follow established paths, but that where much is disponible little is apt for possession in so eclectic a time.
The poet's freedom is coextensive with the repertory of choices, formal and interior, at his command. Yet the antimonies implicit in this condition can only have been intensified by the exaggerated self-watchfulness inherited from the Renaissance. Since all language is metaphor, all the arts of language are, in a sense, arts of translation. But translation must always be as well a way of talking to oneself: at its best a truly impersonal dialogue...
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SOURCE: Bishop, Ferman. “Mr. Pope and Other Poems.” In Allen Tate, pp. 61-74. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967.
[In the following essay, Bishop provides a reading of several of Tate's early poems, maintaining that it was his ability “to incorporate the tone of his age into the rhythms of his poetry that made his work so promising for the future.”]
The astonishing outpouring of brilliance that marked the beginnings of the Fugitive group resulted in a number of published volumes: John Crowe Ransom had four books by 1927; Donald Davidson, two; Ridley Wills, two; Stanley Johnson, one. Allen Tate, with only a privately printed undergraduate volume to his credit, must have felt the competition. In 1923, while he was teaching in West Virginia, he prepared a volume of poems for publication, but the financial difficulties of his publisher prevented its appearance.1 Yet it was probably not entirely by accident that Tate delayed in publication. For he was always a severe judge of his own poetry, discarding and revising ruthlessly, sometimes to the dismay of his critics. Very few of his earliest poems seemed to him worthy of republication, but he has admitted that some of his later poems were begun during the 1920's.
In 1928 Tate contributed to the anthology of Fugitive poetry published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. Later that year his own first volume of poetry...
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SOURCE: Newitz, Martin. “Tradition, Time, and Allen Tate.” The Mississippi Quarterly 21, no. 1 (winter 1967-68): 37-42.
[In the following essay, Newitz delineates the defining characteristics of Tate's poetry.]
The plight of mankind in a mechanized age seems commonplace and trite in literature today, but to the poet of the thirties, the problem was still new, real and very meaningful. As a Southern traditionist, Allen Tate envisions mankind living in a stagnant society, rejecting the old traditions, and moving toward a symbolic doom. Man, existing in juxtaposition to tradition and doom, must choose between these worlds which remain eternal in time. Tate conveys this theme in a unique style, employing many established devices, yet remaining free from formal limitations. However, in dealing with man's dilemma, he is not free from the influence of other poets; the overtones of three famous writers can be easily identified.
Although Tate is deeply concerned with man's acceptance of the traditional ways of living in his poems, his poetic style shows little resemblance to the formal prosody of the older poets. The bulk of Tate's poems are smattered with irregular rhymes, eliciting no visible pattern. Instead of conveying a lack of control, and confusion, this rhyme, which seems indiscriminate, actually gives his poetry a cohesive and smooth flowing effect. “Provence, / The Renascence,...
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SOURCE: Squires, Radcliffe. “Will and Vision: Allen Tate's Terza Rima Poems.” The Sewanee Review 78, no. 4 (autumn 1970): 543-62.
[In the following essay, Squires explores the significance of three of Tate's poems: “The Maimed Man,” “The Swimmers,” and “The Buried Lake.”]
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.
The suggestion behind the phrase “logical developments in Tate's poetry as poetry” is that a writer's poetry possesses a life of its own. It may be affected by many externalities, yet it possesses a core immune to influences. This is so because poetry exists in an alliance of rhythmic, imagistic, and linguistic forces. Any one or all of these powers can be magnetized by events or another poet's accomplishment, but the alliance will adjust to a new balance, and the alliance will continue. Another reason that an individual's poetry has an autonomous existence is that the...
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SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Nuances of a Theme by Allen Tate.” The Southern Review 12, no. 5 (autumn 1976): 698-713.
[In the following essay, Donoghue investigates the theme of symbolic imagination in Tate's poetry.]
On April 8, 1943, in a lecture at Princeton University, Allen Tate concentrated his mind upon a major theme, the relation of the imagination to the actual world. The lecture has been published under the title “The Hovering Fly.” It was not the first nor the last occasion on which Tate addressed himself to this question: indeed, I regard it as his characteristic theme, his signature, the motif and motive of his entire work in poetry, fiction, and criticism. It is not my business to speculate upon its origin, nor upon the relation in Tate between temper and theory. Richard Blackmur once said of Tate that “his mind operates upon insight and observation as if all necessary theory had been received into his bones and blood before birth.”1 I am content with that, and would add only one remark—when Tate felt it prudent to add flesh to bones and blood by producing a theory to sustain his practice, he proved himself entirely capable. The phrases and discriminations he received at various times from T. S. Eliot, Charles Williams, Jacques Maritain, and William F. Lynch merely confirmed what he had already discerned in his reading of Dante, that among the several forms or types of...
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SOURCE: True, Michael. “Allen Tate as Teacher and Poet.” Cross Currents 29, no. 3 (fall 1979): 324-30.
[In the following essay, True discusses Tate's importance as a poet.]
In his essay, “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,” Allen Tate wrote about his reading Poe, as a boy of fourteen, and gazing, by the hour, “at the well-known, desperate and asymmetrical photograph … which I hoped I should some day resemble.”1 Anyone who ever saw Mr. Tate—or his photograph—knows that he succeeded in that wish, not only looking like Poe, but also achieving something of the brilliance that one associates with “The Philosophy of Composition” or Eureka. Tate's dark side, in a poem like “The Wolves,” also reminds us of this boyhood hero.
As a member of the Fugitives, an association of teachers and writers at Vanderbilt University in the early 1920's; as editor of Sewanee Review and Hound and Horn; but mainly as poet, critic, and teacher, Tate was an influential man of letters for thirty years. Although his best known poems, “Mr. Pope,” “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” and “Aeneas at Washington”—admired for their intellectual wit and classic form—are now out of fashion, they belong, nonetheless, to the canon of American literature, and will be read after other, more “relevant” poems are forgotten.
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SOURCE: Dupree, Robert S. “The Buried City.” In Allen Tate and the Augustinian Imagination: A Study of the Poetry, pp. 31-52. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
[In the following essay, Dupree regards the theme of failed civilization, especially that of the Southern Confederacy, as central to Tate's poetry.]
In his essay “Homer and the Scholars,” George Steiner has noted the central importance of the city in the first works of Western literature:
At the core of the Homeric poems lies the remembrance of one of the greatest disasters that can befall man: the destruction of a city. A city is the outward sum of man's nobility; in it, his condition is most thoroughly humanized. When a city is destroyed, man is compelled to wander the earth or dwell in the open fields in partial return to the manner of a beast. That is the central realization of the Iliad. Resounding through the epic, now in stifled allusion, now in strident lament, is the dread fact that an ancient and splendid city has perished by the edge of the sea.1
This theme of a fallen world lies at the heart of Tate's work. In a letter to John Peale Bishop (June, 1931) he speaks of the way that “Southerners are apt to identify the great political and social failure with their characters, or if they are poets and concerned with themselves,...
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SOURCE: Wiltshire, Susan Ford. “Vergil, Allen Tate, and the Analogy of Experience.” Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 5, no. 2 (winter 1985): 87-98.
[In the following essay, Wiltshire asserts that Tate's “radical understanding of tradition, whereby the past must die and be transformed in order to enter into the life of the present, places Tate in a direct lineage with his predecessor, Vergil.”]
As a poet and critic Allen Tate was committed to the particularities of history, the definiteness of place, the passing of time, and the importance of the public realm. Cumulatively, those commitments mean that he opposed abstraction in all its forms. As early as 1930 he had made this explicit: “For abstraction is the death of religion no less than the death of anything else.”1 We come to understand our experience, he would say, not by resorting to abstractions, but by connecting one experience with another. Those connections constitute the act of poetry for Tate. More broadly, they constitute the meaning of tradition in literature, but tradition understood in a certain way—not as nostalgia, sentiment, or primitivist escapism, but as a way of viewing the past as analogue for the present. This radical understanding of tradition, whereby the past must die and be transformed in order to enter into the life of the present, places Tate in a direct lineage with his predecessor,...
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SOURCE: Arbery, Glenn Cannon. “Dante in Bardstown: Allen Tate's Guide to Southern Exile.” Thought 65, no. 256 (March 1990): 93-107.
[In the following essay, Arbery determines the influence of Dante on Tate's work.]
Of the writers born in 1899 who achieved world wide recognition—among them Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Allen Tate—Tate is probably now the least familiar to readers. He never became the center of a cult of bull fighting, he did not invent a word such as “nymphet” and he did not write the hall of mirrors fiction that would fascinate a Michel Foucault or a Jacques Derrida. He has dropped from favor partly because, as Louise Cowan has said, he “may well be the most difficult poet of the twentieth century, more difficult even than Pound or Eliot” (372), and partly because he is associated with the New Criticism, which is now treated by post-structuralist theorists as though it were both naive and subtly reactionary. Recently, he has become subject to political attack from an unsuspected quarter. As a Southerner who participated in the Agrarian Movement in the 1930's, he is implicitly included in Allan Bloom's denunciation of Southern writers in his introduction to The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom blames the Southerners of Tate's generation for popularizing a vocabulary of cultural relativism and anti-constitutionalism that fueled the...
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SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J.. “‘The Archeologist of Memory’: Autobiographical Recollection in Tate's ‘Maimed Man’ Trilogy.” The Southern Literary Journal 27, no. 1 (fall 1994): 51-60.
[In the following essay, Folks considers the unifying stylistic and thematic elements of the “Maimed Man” trilogy, focusing on the autobiographical aspects of the poems.]
The “Maimed Man” trilogy, including “The Maimed Man,” “The Swimmers,” and “The Buried Lake” (1952-53), comprises a terza rima cycle of poems linked not only by form but by connected imagery of mutilation, musical endeavor, baptism, communion of blood and body, and divine light mirrored in nature. The poems are also Tate's poetic autobiography, beginning in a Southern small town (Winchester, Kentucky) and developing from his childhood terror at the disturbing anarchy in nature toward his adult reaction to this perception of loss. This defensive reaction took the form of rational systems, technical virtuosity, formalism—those gestures of human control that the sensitive mind, like Yeats in his creation of “masterful images,” shores against the ruin of nature. Echoing phrases from Dante, Shakespeare, Eliot, Yeats, romantic and Victorian poetry, the trilogy seeks affirmation and resolution; it is Tate's summing up directly parallel to the culminating act, the sense of a lifetime of tortured inquiry coming to a triumphant but...
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SOURCE: Gretlund, Jan Nordby. “The Man at the Gate.” In Frames of Southern Mind: Reflections on the Stoic, Be-Racial and Existential South, pp. 21-9. Portland: Odense University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Gretlund provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”]
Allen Tate began the “Ode to the Confederate Dead” in 1925, and the poem was first published in 1927. Since then it has been revised several times, and a so-called “final version” was published in 1937 in Tate's Selected Poems. Nevertheless the “Ode” was revised slightly for its inclusion in Poems: 1922-1947.1 From its first version the poem has had the rigid formality that is characteristic of T. S. Eliot's poetry. This is not surprising, for among the Fugitive Poets at Vanderbilt University, it was Allen Tate who first came to know Eliot's work and adhered most strictly to his example. Tate's “Ode” is an intellectual poem in the tradition of Eliot's “The Waste Land.”
The “Ode to the Confederate Dead” was originally called “an elegy,” which seems appropriate as the poem is set in a cemetery and contains a meditation upon the Confederate soldiers who were killed during the Civil War. The poem qualifies for the word “ode” in its present title in that it is serious in subject and dignified in style. Yet the title is partly...
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Underwood, Thomas A. Allen Tate: Orphan of the South. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, 447 p.
Biographical and critical study.
Bradford, M. E. Rumors of Mortality: An Introduction to Allen Tate. Dallas: Argus Academic Press, 1969, 43 p.
Overview of Tate's work.
Chabot, C. Barry. “Allen Tate and the Limits of Tradition.” The Southern Quarterly 26, no. 3 (spring 1988): 50-66.
Considers Tate's attitude toward the South throughout his career.
George, Hemphill. Allen Tate. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964, 48 p.
Explores the defining characteristics of Tate's work.
Meiners, R. K. The Last Alternatives: A Study of the Works of Allen Tate. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1973, 217 p.
Full-length critical study of Tate's work.
Additional information on Tate's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 32, 108; Contemporary Authors - Obituary, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 4, 6, 9, 11, 14, 24; Dictionary of...
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