Tate, (John Orley) Allen (Vol. 4)
Tate, (John Orley) Allen 1899–
Tate, an American poet, critic, and man of letters—one of America's foremost writers—was an influential member of the "Fugitive Group" of poets writing about the agrarian South. His poetry, according to David J. Parkes, "has the intellectual discipline of Eliot, the turn of conceit of the metaphysicals and the macabre imagery of Poe." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Allen Tate's mind is exceptional in its harmony…. His personality is as whole and undivided, and it is as steady, as it is vivid. Allen would readily have found his role in the Golden Age of Hellenism, or in classical Rome, or the Elizabethan Renaissance. All the powers of the mind engaged at once in the great figures of those ages. And if he had been of middle age in Virginia during the Civil War, he would have been a statesman, or a warrior, and he would have retired like General Lee afterwards to the university, but in the role of poet in residence. Yes, and if it had been fated—and even in this age it may be fated, in view of the religious establishment which survives so resolutely from "the age of faith"—Allen would have been a theologian and a poet in those Middle Ages when there was a sort of closure of the whole mind under the religious prescription. There was not in theory any division within that mind. It was not necessarily contemplated that the right hand would have to be jealous of the freedom of the left hand. And here I take the right hand as standing for religion, and the left hand as standing for poetry and literature.
John Crowe Ransom, "In Amictia," in Sewanee Review (© 1959 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1959, pp. 528-39.
Every serious writer has one subject, I believe, which he spends his life exploring and delivering as fully as he may. Tate's subject is simply what is left of Christendom, that western knowledge of ourselves which is our identity. He may be classed as a religious writer, and that from the very beginning. The literary historian is likely to see his work as the best expression of the crucial drama of our time. "We've cracked the hemispheres with careless hand!" Does language more poetically describe the plight of western civilization? He has many voices: verse, biography, criticism, essay, even fiction—but one language and one subject. In rereading him I was surprised to find that, even as a young man, especially a young man in the 'twenties, he saw the religious doubt, the failure of belief, as crucial. In the same way he accepted the South's defeat not as a private or local affair but as the last great defense in a going society of those values, particularly human, we know as Christian. Even in the earlier verse such as "Causerie" and "Last Days of Alice" the ironic complaint derives from and hangs upon this ambiguity of belief. In I'll Take My Stand it was his essay which argued the religious position. The diversity and range, certainly in the verse, can be seen in the manner he divides his collected poems into sections. Early pieces are put by the latest, but the book opens with the larger treatments of his position, the historical and cultural past, not as background but as vision immediately related to the poet and all others now living. The first section opens with "The Mediterranean" and closes with the "Ode to the Confederate Dead." The final irony of the sound of nature's soughing of the leaves serves for a transition to the other parts of the book.
Behind Allen Tate lies a body of work anyone would be proud to call a life's work.
Andrew Lytle, "Allen Tate: Upon the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1959 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1959, pp. 542-44.
[Tate's] poems, all of them, even the slightest, are terribly personal. Out of splutter and shambling comes a killing eloquence. Perhaps this is the resonance of desperation, or rather the formal resonance of desperation. I say "formal" because no one has so given us the impression that poetry must be burly, must be courteous, must be tinkered with and recast until one's eyes pop out of one's head. How often something smashes through the tortured joy of composition to strike the impossible bull's-eye! The pre-Armageddon twenties and thirties with all their peculiar fears and enthusiasms throb in Tate's poetry; imitated ad infinitum, it has never been reproduced by another hand.
Robert Lowell, "Visiting the Tates," in Sewanee Review (© 1959 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1959, pp. 557-59.
One has only to recall those Arnoldian "touchstones" which Allen Tate gave in his essay on "Tension in Poetry" to see the romanticism openly confessed—not one of these touchstones could conceivably be given as an example of classical precision or elegance. The whole concept of "tension," central to much of Allen Tate's thought, is a romantic concept. The classicist ideal is not tension, but serene security….
I am not instructed in the hierarchies of American criticism, but I have never seen Allen Tate in the battle-dress of one of its factions, and I imagine that he cannot easily be classified. That, to me, is the mark of a sound critic, forever dwelling in uncertainties, forever qualifying categorical logic with intuitive finesse. I think it is a characteristic to his credit that although he has voluntarily accepted the rigors of a dogmatic faith, he has never sought to subordinate his criticism to morality. Perhaps he has never confused morality with religion, or faith with belief. He knows that Satan, if put to it, could write his own Paradise Lost….
Allen Tate knows that poetry survives and has meaning for survival only to the extent that it is and remains a symbolic language. In an Introductory Note to his translation of the Pervigilium Veneris (one of the few translations that exist in their own poetic virtue) he suggested that this great poem of antiquity is trying to tell us (with contemporary philistines in mind) that the loss of symbolic language may mean the extinction of our humanity. This is perhaps the most urgent note in Allen Tate's poetry, and the purpose of his criticism. He has had many forces working against him, in American civilization (which is merely the perfection of the frustrations we all suffer) and in American academies (which are advanced posts of our desolate rationalism), but the protest cannot be ignored.
Herbert Read, "Our Cousin, Mr. Tate," in Sewanee Review (© 1959 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1959, pp. 572-75.
There is such a thing as being so truly sophisticated, if one must use the word, as to enjoy immunity to all so-called sophistication, the fads, foibles and novelties of the moment, that actually are anything but new. Yet a thorough grounding in what has been done in the past would not, of itself, have been enough without an imaginative perception of what is relevant to the present. Mr. Tate's poetry represents, to my mind, an achievement that could only have come about through the happy and inspired coincidence of these two uncommon qualifications. In that poetry, contemporary sensibility finds embodiment in forms that are timeless.
This balance of perception, of judgment, of taste is exerted by a true poet throughout the entire structure of a poem, from the grand scheme down to the smallest detail.
John Hall Wheelock, "Allen Tate," in Sewanee Review (© 1959 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1959, pp. 577-78.
[The] singular virtue of Tate [is] that both in his verse and his criticism his mind operates upon insight and observation as if all necessary theory had been received into his bones and blood before birth. That is why what is controversial in him is so often a matter either of temperament or temper, and there is a strength to his language superior to any ideas that may be detached from it. From this one virtue stem his two talents as a critic: one, to see through or around or beyond the methods of other critics into an image or insight (for an insight is seen like an image, that it gives light) of what those methods left out; two, when he is practising direct criticism, his extraordinary skill, surpassed only by Eliot, at illuminating quotation, especially those made for the purpose of exemplifying what he calls the tension between the different elements in a poem. Anybody who writes poetry will understand what he is up to, even if disagreeing; anybody who does not write poetry will feel as if he did. Tate is the man who is concerned with poetry as it always was. His taste is deep; hence the love at the bottom of his contentiousness.
R. P. Blackmur, "San Giovanni in Venere: Allen Tate as Man of Letters," in Sewanee Review (© 1959 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1959, pp. 614-31.
[For] me Allen Tate was, and has remained, one of the indispensable writers. I would say, moreover, that insofar as I understand the development of modern literature in this country, Tate has played a role which has been central, and in some ways unique….
"The Cross," with its extraordinary realization of conceptual and emotional experience in primarily visual imagery, is probably the best example I know of what most critics have usually thought they were describing when they spoke of metaphysical poetry, and that it is one of relatively few twentieth-century poems which will bear genuine comparison to the methods of the poems of John Donne. By "comparison" I do not mean to suggest a facile identifying of the work of a seventeenth-century poet and a twentieth-century poet; we have, surely, learned better than that, and like any modern poem "The Cross" can be compared only analogously with the poetry of the past. For if it is anything, "The Cross" is a twentieth-century poem. It exists in an area which is very close to the heart of some of the most, shall I say, crucial dilemmas which we have faced in this time….
Though the poem is short, its controlling idea is as large and vital as any in our experience; the handling of it is very fine. It is apparent, I believe, that although the poem is in a sense explicitly religious, its meaning expands until it includes the large historical and cultural concerns which inform all Tate's work.
R. K. Meiners, in his The Last Alternatives: A Study of the Works of Allen Tate (© 1963 by R. K. Meiners; reprinted with permission of The Swallow Press, Inc.), Swallow, 1963, pp. 145-52.
Tate's … criticism has always been exact, authoritative and subtle, unencumbered with the self-consciousness so often found in the modern Freudian approach. For a brief time his reputation as an outstanding critical authority tended to overshadow his poetry. But poetry is Tate's chief concern….
A basic element that has nourished Tate's poetic response is his relationship to his land and his view of its history—the Southern civilization both in its flowering and its decadence. He is the only modern American poet so deeply involved. One thinks of John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, but Tate is less romantic, less tolerant, and, though less limited in his approach, is more passionate. His "angry love" of the South, as an English critic has said, has made him criticize but never abandon the image of what that life once was. In his memory, land and people together express the beauty, intelligence, and wit of a classic age. His memory of actual events has supported his poetic vision. The tragedy of defeat adds to its heroism.
His agrarian theories, which he shares with other Southern writers …—once centered in the Fugitive group at Vanderbilt University—sprang from a belief in the essential relationship between the land and the living. Tate would keep the values of the South, with its noble past, though now a poor section of the earth, against the sterile and anonymous environment of vast urban conditioning. He does not think of agrarianism alone as restoring the old South—something new must be created in the moral and religious outlook of Western man. That the Southern way of living inevitably took for granted the existence of a class society has not troubled Tate, though it has disturbed some of his liberal admirers….
His sense of tragedy springs from the frustration that comes from the ever unresolved conflict between the ideal and the actual.
Tate expresses this frustration in a poetry that cannot be read or understood "inadvisedly or lightly." His meaning is not often on the surface. His style is elliptical and powerful. There are qualities like the poetry of the 17th Century, particularly Donne, in the baroque wit, the play on words, the metaphysical slant, and the religious circle of emotion.
The intellectual vision is so emphatic in Tate that emotion is seldom loosened or set free at once. Rather it is embedded in the image and must be forced out to reach the reader. Violence is never the primary motivation of a poem; the pulse, the feeling comes first and the explosive expressions, far from being elaborately induced for effect, are held back in a tight leash. What has been called the violence of his style is found in the startling union of opposites: "the bleak sunshine shrieks its chipped music," or "the idiot greens the meadows with his eyes." And these opposites can also create a sensuous melodic tempo…. Sometimes there is a lack of tenderness or warmth in his poems, a shining bleakness; more often a deeper sense of horror than any sense of hope. One does not expect to find consolation, and there is little spontaneous joy. But there is stimulation of honesty and challenge of courage in what one might call his "stance" to meet calamity head on; he summons defenses in which irony is a weapon, not an escape, though it may act as a shield. The wound can still bleed behind the shield, but the spear is lifted and the voice speaks: There is a moment of respite in the midst of an encounter with life at a dark hour. The courage of irony is Tate's unique contribution, and the originality and power of his language are poetry of "a mind imperishable if time is."…
The style of vers libre has never tempted Tate. His form, so essentially a part of his thought—"the language of the poem is the poem"—fits into two general modes, a meditative blend of rhymed verse which introduces a theme and then discusses it; or in what he calls "the immaculate conception of its essence in itself." To me Tate's most successful poems are his condensed lyrical perceptions. Tate is not a man of action, he is a man of thought, of books, of language. But his scholarship is never dry.
Katherine Garrison Chapin, "The Courage of Irony: The Poetry of Allen Tate," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1965 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), July 24, 1965, pp. 4-5, 22-4.
For the most part Mr. Tate has (by his own account) been able to limit his criticism to subjects which are of genuine interest to him, and usually he has written on poets whom he could use, at the same time justifying, however consciously or unconsciously, his own poetic procedures. This is also true in similar ways with the other subjects he has wrestled with. Tate has accordingly been able to bring a special concentration to bear upon the work at hand, a special urgency and authority. Moreover, he has the enormous advantage of a classical education, a far-ranging mind, and an incisive wit. (I often get the uncomfortable feeling when reading Tate that he sprang into the world, like Athena from the head of Zeus, with a fully-formed intelligence and style. Skeptics should read "Emily Dickinson" which he wrote in part at the old age of twenty-nine.) Tate also "enjoys the power of received philosophy," as R. P. Blackmur puts it; and he is possessed of an imagination which is both literal and historical….
There are three myths which Tate has used metaphorically to define the South. The first is the obvious one—that the Old South was a medieval society patterned after the feudal autocracies of the Middle Ages; the second pattern of likeness he remarked (some thirty years after writing "Religion and the Old South") in "A Southern Mode of Imagination" is the parallel with Sparta—and, more clearly, Republican Rome; the third, mentioned casually in the obituary on Faulkner in 1962, is still farther back in history—the Greco-Trojan myth. This last parallel takes us a good deal further than the first two, at least to the extent that we have often encountered the others. Tate develops the analogy in "Sanctuary and the Southern Myth," a major statement about Faulkner and Southern letters, even though it repeats things the author has said elsewhere. Tate sees Faulkner's principal subject—and that of his contemporaries—as the Greco-Trojan myth. "The 'older' culture of Troy-South was wiped out by the 'upstart' culture of Greece-North. Sunt lacrimae rerum; and the Yankees were therefore to blame for everything—until, as I have pointed out, the time of the first World War. This myth, inadequate as it may appear to the non-Southern reader, has permitted a generation of Southern novelists to understand and to dramatize (that is, depict in action) much of the Southern historical reality." Needless to say The Fathers is, among other things, one of the most powerful fictive embodiments of this myth so transformed.
This view of the South provides the foundation for Tate's many trenchant observations on its literature…. Tate has said that "myth should be in conviction immediate, direct, overwhelming" and that it is "a dramatic projection of heroic action … upon the reality of the common life of a society." The society which embodies such a mythology is regional and religious, traditional and unified, primitive or highly refined, "extroverted" and unselfconscious. The last traditional society in this country was largely extinguished by the Civil War, and in entering the modern world and becoming a part of the United States after the First World War, it became aware of its peculiarly historical predicament in a way that had escaped it previously; and the agency of self-consciousness was accomplished through the determined work of many brilliant writers, of whom Allen Tate is of course one.
In seeking to define the strange brilliance of the Southern renascence Tate is at once probing his own artistic conscience with the intense historical, aesthetic, and moral judgment which is typical of him. Since the Old South provides Tate with the concrete model for a traditional Christian society, it is only natural that he fully understands the fictive works which have sprung from the consciousness of writers who like himself have painfully recognized that society's passing. Tate is perfectly aware of the failings of the Old South, yet it remains his chief model for his whole life—and one much closer in time and more palpable than, say, Yeats's Byzantium, which is largely a historical and mythopoeic reconstruction by one man. Hence Tate's connections with the South—by inheritance, kinship, custom, and manner—have furnished him with what Blackmur has deemed a central allegiance. Out of the tension between Tate's personal allegiance and his awareness of what he has called "a deep illness of the modern mind" has come the enkindling subject of his work as a whole….
Again and again one encounters this historic and mythic perspective in Tate's criticism. As Blackmur noted in 1934, Tate writes as though we are not living in a largely post-Christian age…. [He] has steered towards literature as a form of expression more complete than that offered by any other discipline or mode of discourse. In arguing this position he has, however, too often involved himself in elaborate operations against the enemies of art—positivism, social science, semantics, and the other myopias which have slowly eroded classical education and have at once caused, or been caused by, education of the modern dispensation. He has smitten these enemies of culture and civilization, much as Arnold and Eliot did in their separate ways. But he has not been so involved in these preoccupations as his friend Eliot who once complained that Arnold couldn't find time for literature because he was too busy cleaning up the country.
George Core, "A Metaphysical Athlete: Allen Tate as Critic," in The Southern Literary Journal, Autumn, 1969, pp. 138-47.
I shall not patronize Allen Tate by pretending to be impartial: it is precisely because he is more than a man of parts, because he is a whole, that I am partial to him; I shall take him, merely, at his word, the only place to take a poet, even in his prose. And in his prose Tate's word is the same as in his poems—why, forty years ago he admonished us: "all the books of a poet should ultimately be regarded as one book—it was to this end he worked." And the word I take him at is that he has never been able to concentrate on what could not be useful to him….
And the effect, when the books of this poet are ultimately regarded as one book, is of life pressing round a dedicated victim decked with all the gauds of immolation—dedicated, that victim, to the grand-mannerist acknowledgment of the Natural Order, which is the Repudiation of Eschatology.
His criticism is a part,… the contralto part, a middle voice taken and sustained within what Blackmur has called Allen Tate's virtuosity of presence: one utterance among many voices—verse, fiction, biography, essay, history, gossip, invective—though the voices speak but one language to articulate but one subject….
Nothing ends without having to be broken off, for everything—the poet tells us, in his poems—everything is endless. That is why the South, in these essays, is regarded as a style of life representative of the continuities of blood, and so of ritual and tradition…. Again and again, the critic rehearses what the poet calls "the deep coherence of hell," reiterates "a commitment to the order of nature, without which the higher knowledge is not possible to man." He wants one thing to lead to another, wants it so hard that his thirst becomes aphoristic….
We must judge the past and keep it alive by being alive ourselves. Thus he rejects Basic English (the secularization of the mind) as he rejects the Protestant, scientific North (the secularization of the body politic) because it leads to communication without prior or following communion. "Poe," he says in one of his great dismissals, "Poe circumvented the natural world. Since he refused to see nature he was doomed to see nothing. He overleaped and cheated the condition of man." Essentially Catholic, then, Tate's imagination (and he would say, all imagination) rejects an heretical Apocalypse, rejects that compulsion to cast out nature, to uproot whatever seems external to redemption, whatever might intervene between the self and God. "The task of the civilized intelligence," Tate insists, "is one of perpetual salvage." His is the tact, as he says of Dante somewhere, "the tact of mediation between universals and particulars in the complex of metaphor."
Patience, then, in the full sense of the word, the sense that shares, with passion, suffering—patience, salvage, and death ("the general symbol of nature is Death") are this poet's articles of faith, and they work to his concentration in the criticism. "The singular passion/abides its object" one poem says, and that is the attainment of his prose.
Richard Howard, "A Note on Allen Tate's Essays," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1970, pp. 43-5.
Emerging from the exuberant literary climate of the first postwar period, Allen Tate's poetry has had to face the dizzy changes of perspective that took place in the last three decades. These changes mirror the modern writer's endeavor to throw light on his spiritual predicament in a world beset by the demonic dynamism of the atomic age. An unquestionable vitality marks Tate's poetry when we set it beside so much of the derivative elegiac production that sprouted from Eliot's Waste Land only to wither shortly after at the first change of weather. Tate's poetry endured—thanks to its incisive language, its structural rigor, and its seminal authenticity….
Only today, after such a crowded time, the value of his poetical work shows fully, and his contribution to twentieth-century poetry is understood in its cognitive and ethical implications. For his writing hovers in an interstellar emptiness, between a very remote world of aristocratic culture where the individual had fulfilled the supreme ambition of making himself the spiritual legislator of reality, and a closer yet equally (for the artist) unattainable world where the machine is king and levels out of existence whatever proves irreducible to the standards of industrial use in a Babelic civilization.
Tate's authentic note rings out from the permanent structures of his ironic vision. His knife-sharp paradox cuts into our consciousness. He has filled the emptiness with a real anguish, with a tension of suffering which bespeaks a dramatic perception of life. Intellectual bewilderment at a dehumanized world wore very thin, and actually evaporated, in the cosmic poetry of the "Wastelanders," whose prophetic attitude degenerated into a mannered posture of "metaphysical" cast and wailing tone. In Allen Tate's poetry the bitter awareness of a hopeless split between past and present finds such graphic expressions as this line (from "The Mediterranean"): "We've cracked the hemispheres with careless hand!" It always implies the concrete experience of a place, of a time, of a history. Like William Faulkner's fiction, Allen Tate's vision is linked to the myth and reality of the South. It is the South that looms behind both writers' work: a motherland harboring darkness and splendor, haunted by images of heroism and human misery, obsessed by the tragedy of slavery and by the yearning for a lost tradition of spiritual freedom….
A child of his time, Allen Tate had to claim the resources of metaphysical poetry, the only kind to offer him a model of total application of the mind to poetry, both to react against the tired fin de siècle Decadentism so widespread in the early twentieth century and to shape the tools for exploring a world seemingly inaccessible to any other "strategy."… Actually by subsuming sensuous imagery and musical verse to an intense realization of intellectual values, Tate places himself on the opposite side of Symbolism and pure poetry. These are just a portion of the experiences absorbed by his poetry, which in the last resort, as Herbert Read has seen, flaunts a paradoxical union of romantic with classical elements, the former implied by the very concept of "tension," the latter by the necessity of a formal rigor. As a matter of fact, even while sharing the thrill of discovering metaphysical poetry, Tate was never completely imprisoned by a poetics which mirrored a timeworn mechanism of sensibility. In his eyes, Metaphysical conception represents one extreme, with the other extreme supplied by a Romantic or Symbolist conception: one tends toward the other, in the urge to occupy all the possible intervening space in this range of tensions. His poetics, thanks to the awareness of a last alternative, marks a step beyond a strictly metaphysical conception. It aims at an ultimate fusion of "extensive" and "intensive" values of experience and language, in the median point, so hard to reach nowadays, which our poet illustrates with a few lines of Dante's, the model he has chosen in his recent work characterized by terza rima. This median point would be where the harmony of verse in the individual poem becomes one with the recaptured harmony of a vaster order.
Alfredo Rizzardi, "An Introduction to the Poetry of Allen Tate," translated by Glauco Cambon, in Ode ai Caduti Confederati e Altre Poesie, translated by Alfredo Rizzardi (© 1970 by Arnoldo Mondadori, Editore, Milano), Arnoldo Mondadori, 1970.
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 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.
Sister Mary Bernetta, O.S.F., "Allen Tate's Inferno," in Renascence, Spring, 1971, pp. 113-19.
The poetry of Allen Tate is remarkably consistent in mode and in theme. Many of his poems, including some of the most moving of them, have to do with the impact of modern science, the consequent withering away of man's sense of the supernatural, and his radically altered conception of nature. Thus, in his "Last Days of Alice," Tate uses as a symbol for modern man Lewis Carroll's child heroine of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass….
Alice, looking into the mirror, suddenly found that she had stepped through its polished surface into a world which was like that of the room in which she had been sitting but with everything reversed, a world of marvels in which chess pieces talk; white rabbits consult their watches; and a grinning cat fades away until nothing is left save—a miracle of abstraction!—the grin itself. Twentieth-century man also finds himself in a world of wonders, beautifully logical, quite self-consistent, conforming relentlessly to its own special laws, but a world in which man is lost and baffled. In Lewis Carroll's books, Alice is rescued from her nightmare world by waking up. Unfortunately, modern man cannot wake up and find himself back once more in the world which he has known throughout history and in which he has achieved his humanity….
Many of Tate's poems deal with a related blight, that which has fallen over history, which has become impersonal process and as such, drained of meaning. Tate's most celebrated poem, his "Ode to the Confederate Dead," has to do with this theme and only incidentally with the Confederacy. This is by no means the only poem in which Tate has used his native region as a special vantage point, from which to comment upon Everyman, specifically the modern Everyman, who, deprived and emptied, rootless and uncommitted, is attempting to live in a world which, in the process of making a gigantic extension of its technology, has lost its grip on values….
Like William Butler Yeats, Tate finds in history, not only the ground for his discourse, but the central excitement of his poetry. With the possible exception of Yeats, no poet of our time has possessed a more penetrating discernment of the predicament of modern man with reference to nature and history. In the old Christian synthesis, nature and history were related in a special way. With the break-up of that synthesis, man finds himself caught between a meaningless cycle on the one hand, and on the other, the more extravagant notions of progress—between a nature that is oblivious of man and a man-made "unnatural" Utopia.
In Tate's poetry nature comes in for a great deal of attention—"The Seasons of the Soul" is a typical instance—but Tate rarely exhibits nature for its own sake and never as a kind of innocently pastoral backdrop for man's activities. Since man, who had once thought his journey had a destination, the return to the meaningless round of the seasons is not comforting but terrifying….
Tate sometimes impresses one as an almost desperate poet who, in order to convey to his reader the profound irony of modern man's plight, is willing to startle and shock him and is quite prepared to take the risk of putting him off the poem altogether. So also with Tate's rhythms. He sometimes seems trying deliberately to deform the metrical structure to achieve a richer and more subtle effect. All of this is to say that Tate puts a great burden upon his reader. He insists that the reader himself, by an effort of his own imagination, cooperate with the poet to bring the violent metaphors and jarring rhythms into unity.
For the casual and careless reader, the poem may seem to explode in his face. The recalcitrant elements that Tate insists on binding into one pattern will not stay bound, but fly apart. Yet, the reader who is willing to wrestle with a bold and adventurous poetry and is not insistent on easy harmonies will find Tate's poetry remarkably exciting and rewarding. Robert Lowell has made the point in his own way: "Out of splutter and shambling comes a killing eloquence."
Cleanth Brooks, "On the Poetry of Allen Tate," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1971, pp. 225-28.
[We must] take cognizance of the astounding diversity of Allen Tate's achievement. But in a last analysis the divisions are an Aristotelian nicety, an arbitrary convenience. His work is really all of a piece. It has all derived from the same energy, the same insights. It has all had a single aim. When I try to explain that aim I am drawn toward a quaint analogy or a metaphor whose coordinates are very distant from each other. There used to exist in elementary courses in physics an apparatus intended to instruct students in principles of pressure. Consisting of a sealed jar nearly filled with liquid, it had some provision for pumping air into the space at the top. As the air pressure was increased, from the bottom of the jar would rise a little imago—an ivory-colored homunculus, one thought at first. Then, as it rose higher one saw that it was a representation of a medieval Satan. The synergy of Allen Tate's poetry, fiction, and essays has had the aim of applying pressure—think of his embossed, bitterly stressed lines, his textured metaphors—until it brings up before our eyes a blanched parody of the human figure, which is our evil, the world's evil, so that we begin to long for God. That has seemed to him a worthwhile task to perform for modern man threatened by such fatal narcissism, such autotelic pride that he is in danger of disappearing into a glassy fantasy of his own concoction. We shall need his help for a long time to come.
Radcliffe Squires, in his "Introduction" to Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations (© 1972, University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1972, p. 8.
Like Ezra Pound, Allen Tate is one of those twentieth-century writers whose works have until recently been available only to a small company of readers, fortunate in their apprenticeship or else heroic in their lonely perserverance. Indeed the two have been victims of the great ideological wars of the modern world, and against both the philistines have mounted the same two-pronged attack: charging on the one hand political heresy and on the other, literary obscurantism. In fact, because of the notorious Bollingen Prize controversy, Tate is often linked with Pound and Eliot as members of the same reactionary and elitist cabal.
But Allen Tate's work is perhaps best understood in contrast with Pound's (and to some extent Eliot's), though the three were literary "modernists" preoccupied with the preservation of an endangered cultural heritage. Pound was a temperamental exile and latter-day gnostic who seemed to feel at times that he could save the world with economic pleading and translations of lyric poetry. Eliot, like Pound, strayed far from home, but ultimately sank his roots deep into English tradition and bloomed like a hothouse plant. Tate, on the other hand, can only be fully understood as a Southerner; for, though he too lived in Paris during the 'twenties, he never really left his native soil….
[In] Tate's use of manners one sees the epitome of the order he was attempting to define and preserve in his poetry, fiction, and criticism. What are manners, after all, but the form whose "content" is the very nature of humanity itself? Manners, it should be evident, control and order our purely natural impulses; they are one means of defining man's transcendent being, to distinguish him from those creatures whose drive to survive and reproduce is all-consuming. Manners are also essential to a hierarchical society, where communion between unequals is facilitated through such mutually agreeable rituals. It is such a civilized society that Tate has always advocated in his art and in his discursive prose, a society with a transcendent view of man. His working model, more often than not, has been that of the South, which by 1930 he came to understand as somehow deriving its structure from Western European civilization in a way that, say, New England did not.
Thus Mr. Tate's manners can be viewed as something more than the quaint vestiges of a Southern childhood. On the conscious level they are the weaponry of active combat against hostility and chaos, the walls of the city against which the barbarians throw their hoards. Unconsciously they are the expression of man's highest concept of being….
Because Tate's latter-day work is so singularly infused with a commitment to Christianity, it is surprising to be reminded by Monroe Spears' 1949 essay ("The Criticism of Allen Tate") that Tate was a skeptic until the 1950's, devoted to the idea of religious faith as the most important element informing a traditional society, yet unable to accept that faith as anything more than a useful, indeed necessary, myth….
In the medieval world, which he publicly admired as much as did his friend Eliot, he found the archetypal model for his own vision of the dying South; and he also found in Dante the poet who had invented the aesthetic which linked the classical world with Christendom and thus provided Western civilization with a necessary continuity which defined the Middle Ages not as a descent into theological darkness but as a fulfillment of the promise of order and ultimate truth found in Homer and Vergil. Dante, after all, was something of a modern in that he was preoccupied with the internal world and thus was the hero of his own epic struggle for salvation….
His impeccable manners, his generosity, his fierce loyalty to his Southern heritage, his preoccupation with the formal elements in poetry, his innate classicism—all of these qualities crystallize in his later essays and in such a poem as "The Buried Lake," a hymn to St. Lucy which is one of the most moving religious statements of the twentieth century.
Indeed, in rereading the body of Tate's work one is struck by its remarkable unity of vision and also by its extraordinary timeless quality. Though one of the "moderns"—a term still used to designate a poetry outmoded by the late 1950's—few of his poems have become period pieces like "Prufrock" or The Waste Land, which for all their technical virtuosity contain a heavy-handed irony which sounds "cheap" to the contemporary ear. Though Tate is perhaps not as historically important a poet as Eliot, he may well be a more durable (that is to say, a better) one.
For one thing, there is a little more of what has been called "the native strain" in Tate's poetry, a directness of diction, despite its textural difficulties. These difficulties usually can be traced to the subtlety of his mind rather than to a flamboyant use of modernist technique, with its formal fragmentation and its arcane allusions. (Tate's poetry is occasionally arcane, but he never leans so heavily on a tissue of allusion that it requires extensive footnoting.)
Then, too, at a time when poetry is highly personal—at its worst confessional—a poem like "The Swimmers" has a distinctly contemporary flavor….
Eliot's conservative Anglicanism has provided trouble enough for the literary establishment, which accorded him his laurels before he made his later commitment to high Toryism. Tate's Southern conservation was militant almost from the beginning of his career.
For this reason, I suspect, those troublesome though essential allies, the explicators, have steered clear of the difficult challenge that Tate's work has always posed. The Squires volume [Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations], therefore, is something of a godsend, since it gathers together some of the most important criticism necessary to make Tate available to a wider audience of younger readers. In an age of bad manners and literary barbarism it is perhaps too much to hope that a host of critics will immediately follow suit.
Thomas Landess, "Allen Tate: Southern Man of Letters," in Intercollegiate Review, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 54-7.