Tate, (John Orley) Allen 1899–
Tate, an American literary figure of international reputation, was a New Critic and a member of the "Fugitive Group" of poets. A leading Agrarian, he deplored the decline of the Old South and of meaningful cultural and literary traditions in general. "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is his best known poem. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[This son of the] American South is an essayist, a novelist, and a professor as well as a poet. His cultural world is double-stitched. One thread secures him to Europe, the other to the defeated South, so that his poetic imagination redounds with an exquisite metaphysics blended with generals, region, and the Confederate flag. Within this farrago, however, we can discern a great intellectual (after the model of Eliot who for a time constituted his god on earth), encumbered with a weighty tradition, fixed in his illustrious position of an authentic conservative, and favored (O rare occurrence) with an inexhaustible sense of irony. (p. 49)
I have been accustomed to two sorts of poets. There were the poet-bards, old not only in years but in the passions as well, perfectly cast for the role of reading official orations in the Campidoglio in honor of new presidents: one thinks of Robert Frost's homage to Kennedy. Or else there were those young and wild poets who delight in dishonoring the Stars and Stripes and who, like Allen Ginsberg, wander, scruffy and dazed with drugs, about the Old World, declaiming poetry spiteful to their fatherland.
Tate plays neither role; on the contrary, he embodies a solitary alternative which for Europeans is provocative: he is a magisterial poet perpetually discomfited by the global power of his country. Yet his quarrel, unlike that of the younger poets, affects no wild rage. Rather, it is a profound murmur which gives an inkling of something even deeper—a stone dropped into a well to measure the depths of an abyss.
No, Tate's rebellion has nothing of the surly whine of the contemporary world. Armed only with the grandeur of his despair and the grandeur of his language, he is exposed to the scornful incomprehension of his younger colleagues. Furthermore, that lofty rationality which governs his poetic discourse (a discourse simultaneously politic and civil) ultimately yearns to turn into a saving spirit of conciliation. Hence, it is necessary to guard against abandoning his private "global war," all fused with the matériel of his folkloric Southern arsenal—slavery, regionalism, agrarianism—and embroidered with ballads about generals and battles.
We come now to the heart of the matter. In a world preoccupied with collectivism, Tate's poetry is dramatically tensed to defend individualism. In a rather leaden society governed by a myth of science, his poetry conducts a fearless campaign against science, producing from that irony a measure both musical and fabulous. In an apathetic, agnostic period he is not ashamed to recommend a Christianity to be lived as intellectual anguish. (Tate became a Catholic when he was fifty.) One has to admit that rarely does America produce a personality that is persuasive chiefly because it is out of joint with the times. (pp. 49-50)
Pier Francesco Listri, "An Encounter in Florence" (originally published in La Nazione, July 22, 1970), translated by Radcliffe Squires for his Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations (© copyright 1972 by the University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, 1972, pp. 49-51.
Spengler's distinction between mathematical and analogical ways of knowing is quite prominent in Allen Tate's vision of modern man and his dilemmas. It reflects one of the central themes in Tate's writings: the contrast between modern man, who sees the world as a dead, inert structure of mathematically manipulable substances, and his ancestors, who knew a world of intricate relationships and analogies which linked far and near, past and present, in an organic whole. In particular, there are three poems—"The Cross," "The Last Days of Alice," and "The Mediterranean"—which explore the difference between merely perceiving (erkennen) lifeless units and truly understanding (verstehen) vital forms. (p. 774)
Tate found in [Alice] a rich example of post-Cartesian man, who demands that the universe obey his mental logic. Alice is turned absentminded by infinity because she is always in a world of the abstractly possible. She discovers that speculation, carried to extremes, can be a demonic sanctuary from life, and that the nothingness which accompanies it is her ultimate escape from reality. (p. 776)
What Alice does is to take the mathematical analogy of the universe, supplied by modern science, as a real picture of it. She sees the image in the mirror, but she does not turn around to view the real thing. She decides that the mirror image of herself has a validity equal to or even greater than herself and longs to join it. She is her own Beatrice, and she ends by replacing the world with herself. This "All-Alice" is the perfect example of that solipsism which Tate discusses in "Narcissus as Narcissus," a unity gained through exclusion rather than inclusion. To join her two selves "in a sweet one" is to destroy all sense of analogy…. (p. 777)
"The Cross"… is about the moment of crisis which makes an ultimate choice necessary, but it does not go beyond making vivid and clear the nature of that choice. An unusual aspect of the poem is its contrapuntal use of two themes: the idea of conversion and the relation between body and soul. The Latin meaning of conversion, "a turning around," is the key to the connection between the two. One can turn around and be converted, but he can also turn around and retreat. He can change directions in two senses, in a physical, literal manner, by altering the movement of his body, and in a spiritual sense by altering the movement of his soul. Tate uses the idea of physical movement, which exists, as it were, like a buried metaphor below the normal meaning of "conversion," and depicts the spiritual by mirroring it in the physical. (pp. 778-79)
As in "The Last Days of Alice," space is as large as the physical universe, and time is a kind of frozen present, a cosmic expanse which is made particular by a peculiar kind of analogical landscape. In blackness and blindness, the speaker can barely make out the vague figures which stand before him; all is blotted out by the tremendous light of the pit and the "blinding rood." There is a division of sensibility evident in this disjunction between the eyes which must and cannot see and the feet which must and cannot move. (pp. 780-81)
In "The Mediterranean," Tate is especially concerned with the sense of place and continuity and the dangers of the infinite. There are cultural perils in man's attempt to do away with time and space by a plunge into a boundless realm without guidance or responsibility. Place is preeminently a sense of location—the same location in the concrete that he mentions in his essay on "The Symbolic Imagination." But more than that, the sense of place has an intellectual or spiritual meaning. It has to do with appetitive powers and is signalled in the epigraph of the poem which, translated, reads, "What limit (boundary), great King, do you give for our labors (purpose)?" Thus place can also mean "duty" or "destiny," as it is understood when we say, "It is not my place to do so," and when commitment absorbs the love of self. (p. 785)
Time is meaningless without reference to space. To leave the past is to leave time, and even if we do succeed in escaping the past, we will only have to find it again. The earth is round, and the natural world operates cyclically, not in an infinitely drawn linear direction. No matter what we believe or do, we must inevitably return to our beginnings, just as surely as we must return to dust.
This is the central irony of Tate's poem. (p. 789)
The way to escape the natural cycle, Tate indicates, is not by leaping into the infinite but by experiencing the finite. We cannot know the infinite, except through analogy, and Tate uses the natural rhythms of life—the most basic images of light and darkness, the seasons, the elements, and history—to mirror our human destiny. (p. 790)
Robert Dupree, "The Mirrors of Analogy: Three Poems of Allen Tate," in The Southern Review (copyright 1972, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. VIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 774-91.
Tate's view is tragic. It is the anguish of the loss of the land that has tormented him throughout his literary career. The loss reaches back, past the seventeenth century into antiquity, past the fall of Troy to the archetypal loss of the garden. Like Hamlet, Tate ruminates on the meaning of life and death; like Tiresias he foresees the encroaching darkness; like the preacher in Ecclesiastes he is preoccupied with the vanity of earthly wishes. His chief themes are sin and salvation; he castigates society, like a prophet. His eye is filled always with the tragic vision of the impossibility of human achievement. (p. 17)
Tate's … poetry deserts the framework of narrative or logical sequence and displays supra-rational elements of suggestion and association. Its obliquities form strange and unexpected domains of meaning, rather than, like Ransom's, casting commonsense materials in a fresh light….
Tate's quest throughout all his writing was for the sacramental vision such as Dante's Christianity embodied; for the unity of being, achieved in the philosophy of Thomism; for the classical-Christian synthesis of thought and feeling, formed in the Middle Ages and still underlying, albeit fragmentarily, the Southern sensibility. (p. 36)
It is not science as knowledge he opposes, Tate makes clear, but science as a mode of abstract thought dominating religion and discarding tradition. This outlook, which he calls positivism, is of course valid in science itself; but it can deliver only a partial view of reality, he maintains, the merely useful part. (p. 39)
Tate's complete "model," by which he increasingly discovered his principles and the ramifications of his conviction, was finally medieval culture. His modernism has thrown some of his critics off the track; what they have failed to see is that, in being a rejection of the Puritan-scientific world, Tate's modernism has represented a return to patterns of thought older than rationalism and scientism. In the feudal society a communality of belief and an individuality of function allowed a wholeness of sensibility to men of all stations. This wholeness Tate saw as necessary to the good society. The poet is related to all men in sharing the same view of reality; his work, however, is different from other kinds of endeavor and consequently his formal discipline is unique and not to be subverted, even for a higher good. Poetry therefore cannot be made to serve the ends of religion, nor metaphysics, nor social justice; if he surrenders the uniqueness of his mode of discourse, the poet subverts his work. (pp. 40-1)
Tate's concern for criticism and for culture stems from his awareness of the special mode of knowledge presented by poetry. Beginning in the thirties, along with the development of his convictions concerning society, Tate undertook the process of working out his complete view of poetry. His essay written in 1938, "Tension in Poetry," clarifies his limited dualism. He lopped off the prefixes from "extension" and "intension" to make his key-word tension, seeing poetry as existing between these two opposite poles. At one extreme is extension, which tends toward "simple abstraction of the object into a universal; at the other extreme is intension, a merging with the object in pure feeling." "The metaphysical poet, as a rationalist," he writes, "begins at or near the extensive or denoting end of the line; the romantic or Symbolist poet at the other, intensive end, and each by a straining feat of the imagination tries to push his meanings as far as he can towards the opposite end so as to occupy the entire scale." (p. 44)
The greatest critical insight toward which all of Tate's work has been leading is contained in two seminally important essays: "The Symbolic Imagination" and "The Angelic Imagination."… Dante had long been Tate's exemplar for the true poet: given the forms of experience by his society, Dante was free in a way that no poet has been since. In contrast, Poe had begun to represent for Tate … the disjunction of the modern, in his peculiar anesthesia of the senses and hypertrophy of the will. Tate found the difference in the two poets to lie in the kind of imagination each possessed, the way in which each "saw" his world and attempted to combine his vision and his perception in a unity.
In "The Symbolic Imagination," Tate is concerned to show how the medieval poet's vision ascended, by a chain of analogies, into the region of the transcendent, beginning with an image of Beatrice. (pp. 45-6)
What Poe has done, finally, Tate argues [in "The Angelic Imagination"], is to "circumvent the natural world and try to put himself not in the presence of God, but in the seat of God."… Unlike Dante, Poe has not carried anything physical along with him—in his heart and imagination—as he has climbed to the top of the ladder. Consequently when he arrives at the summit of insight, he can see nothing. "Poe as God sits silent in darkness," Tate writes. "Man as angel becomes a demon who cannot initiate the first motion of love, and we can only feel compassion with his suffering, for it is potentially ours." (p. 47)
Tate's powerful insight into angelism informs all his criticism in one way or another. It is this presence of a negative force or a solipsism within poetry and culture which he has always discerned most vividly. As he has remarked in Reason and Madness (1941), he has been concerned in his critical writing with "a deep illness of the modern mind," with man suffering from unbelief; he has seen the mind as "the dark center from which one may see coming the darkness gathering outside us." Tate's understanding of his vision has not changed. (pp. 47-8)
Louise Cowan, in her The Southern Critics (copyright 1972 The University of Dallas Press), University of Dallas Press, 1972.
In Tate's fiction the symbolic imagination adheres to the world and enhances it with certain noble rituals, manners, codes, rites of dignity, actions to which one's mere personality may safely be consigned. The symbolic imagination would allow us to live at ease in the world, if we gave it a chance. But Tate's theme in The Fathers is the perversity by which his characters, innocent for the most part, turn violent and evil so that a world of equal ferocity may defeat the world into which they were born….
[Tate] describes what he calls the angelic imagination [which] is the form of imagination which "tries to disintegrate or to circumvent the image in the illusory pursuit of essence." If we need another description of this force it may just as accurately be called the Manichean imagination: under any name it declares itself as an exorbitance. (p. 421)
Tate's novel, ostensibly about the defeat of the Old South, is really about the defeat of the symbolic imagination by the angelic imagination. The symbolic imagination is terrestrial, familial, domestic, and historical; it maintains a special interest in the sustaining relation between man and place, a relation embodied in customs, rituals, forms, and civility. The angelic imagination is an act of will; it is alienated from the world and therefore whirls between two worlds, depending upon its own intensity to keep it going; scornful of existence, it makes a direct claim upon essence, and therefore aspires toward every version of ultimacy and the absolute. The critical pressure brought to bear upon the angelic imagination comes not from a demonstration of its failure or even of its practical success, New York defeating Virginia, but from a few instances of heroic style in the defeated, notably in the old major himself, and continuously from the style of the novel, Lacy Buchan's sense of the values at risk. (pp. 423-24)
The narrative style is concentrated upon surrounding the facts of the case with an ambience or moral comment appropriate to the values of a gentleman with southern blood in his veins. The chief characteristic of the style is that it is willing to surround each proffered act with cause and consequence…. [The] style treats each act as if, for complete understanding, the reader must resort to an historical sense lively enough to move from Monticello or Bull Run to Greece, Rome, and Troy…. Style is … an absolute standard, like honor in the Old South or conscience anywhere: that it may fail in every practical sense, like honor in the Old South, is not a reason for living otherwise or preferring another code. (p. 424)
Denis Donoghue, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Summer, 1974.
Though in some very real and good senses an internationalist—through travel, conversance with a good many languages, through translation work and extensive personal contacts with European writers and artists—Tate remains a product of the American South, and his influence and deepest value to us are inextricably bound up with that region: its history, its culture, its religion and the values and frustrations accruing to these things. It is no accident that his most famous poem concerns a man gazing at sunset into a Confederate graveyard. (p. 22)
[It] is as a poet that Tate most vitally exists. The other brilliant writings have spun as circumferences from poetry, the center of the creative wheel. From poetry have come the literary essays and assessments, the social, historical and political commentaries, and the magnificent one novel, The Fathers….
The language [of "Ode to the Confederate Dead"], with its stately, severe elegance, is something like that used by the generation of Tate's father, and in its heavily Latinate diction reminds us that a classical education was a prerequisite of the making of a gentleman in that pastoral long-ago. Upon this language is engrafted the modernism of poets like Tate's friend Hart Crane, with its insistence on connotation, but more especially that of T. S. Eliot. To cite but a single example of the latter influence, one has simply to look at the use of the word "only." The device of end-stopping a line with "only" is so closely to be identified as Eliot's watermark that the mannerisms of Eliot leap from Tate's page and all but rip your head off. Tate's poetry is an amalgamation of a very great many influences, some contemporary and fashionable or at least interesting, some foreign-language—Valéry is a case in point here—and some from antiquity. What are we left with as a result of this process which has been necessary to Tate's poetic development? A style that is uniquely Tate's…. Some eclecticism is present in all of Tate, and I expect he would be the first to admit this. The fact points out, however, that the same preoccupations that permeate the poetry run also through his literary, cultural and social essays as well. His has been a life devoted to passionate classicism. He is concerned with the depth and consequence of history, and with the means by which the human sensibility is weighed against these, and changes them by means of the disciplined imagination. (p. 23)
The fact that the South, with its tragic, almost Homeric history, has been for Tate the focal region of his own life and work is not the important consideration. He finds, by having been born to a fortuitous combination of genes into a certain location, a certain historical background, into the bewilderment of time, that his situation has certain perhaps profound implications for every man in every place and every time. And they are more than implications; they are the basic questions, the possible solutions to the question of existence. How does each of us wish to live his only life?…
A poet is nowhere more illuminating than when he is writing on the work of another poet with whom he feels an affinity ultimately inexplicable. It is this passionate sense of identification, coupled with his learning and his ability to reason about poetry in strange, hitherto unaccountable ways, that make Tate's essays on Poe his best. (p. 24)
James Dickey, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 1, 1975.