Tate, (John Orley) Allen 1899–1979
Tate was an American poet, critic, novelist, and man of letters. A member of the "Fugitive Group" of artists, Tate created a poetry that reflected the concerns of his fellow Fugitives: the life and landscape of the agrarian South inform all of his work. Tate's best poetry presents a world where the mythical and historical past serve allegorically to illuminate simple, personal experience. (See also CLC, Vols, 2, 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Tate grounds] his quite various speculations on art, letters, society, manners, morals, and human behavior … on a total view of man; that is to say, on religion, and specifically the view of man given in the classical-Christian tradition. Thus, Tate can set forth an ethics, an aesthetics, a concept of proper social order, and an idea of history that are thoroughly consonant with one another. Tate's writings do not, to be sure, give off the reek of the conscious system builder. But from any thoughtful reading of his works in verse and prose, of his fiction and his nonfiction, there arises the sense of a remarkable coherence. (pp. 686-87)
[Tate] located and articulated his essential ideas while he was still a very young man. Think of that remarkable essay "Religion and the Old South." The ideas contained in this seminal essay state, in what anthropologists and other scholars of symbolism would call "compact" form, much of what the later poetry and prose would extend, articulate, and develop. In compact form, the essay contains the essence of "The Ode to the Confederate Dead," "The Mediterranean," and even "The Seasons of the Soul." It also contains "Literature as Knowledge," "Three Types of Poetry," and those magnificent late essays "Poetry Modern and Unmodern" and "A Southern Mode of the Imagination." It prefigures quite clearly the theme of Tate's novel, The Fathers. But I am being too general, and I am also getting ahead of the game.
To be more specific: By 1930 Tate had already discovered what is reductive and destructive in Hegel and Hegelianism. Hegel destroys human history by turning it into a paradigm: in his system, rationalism devours sensibility and the universal devours the particular. As Tate puts the matter more generally: "Abstraction is the death of religion no less than the death of everything else."
For Tate, that "everything else" includes man himself, whose unity as a whole being is lost when human history becomes transformed into an abstract series of events…. [In] "Religion and the Old South" his analogy has to do with the distinction between an actual horse and mere horsepower. He points out that the religious view will never be satisfied with anything less than the whole horse, whereas modern civilization tends to discard everything but the horsepower.
The young essayist, however, never takes a holier-than-thou nor a sanctimonious more-religious-than-thou attitude. He views the split in the horse as the consequence of a split in the human mind which now views the horse with modern, post-Cartesian eyes. Like the man at the cemetery gate in the "Ode to the Confederate Dead," he is well aware that the catastrophic split has already occurred and may well be irremediable. The essay is here primarily concerned with reviewing the consequences. Thus, the tone is predominantly descriptive rather than hortatory. (pp. 687-88)
[What] emerges early in Tate's work [is] his basic belief in man as a total being whose view of reality, if it is to be true to the reality of which he himself is a part, must take account of spirit and flesh, sensibility and reason, and not settle for some abstract account devised to satisfy the mind about the nature of material objects and their relation to each other. (p. 688)
The language in Tate's poetry and his fiction … [judges] the situations described—by its accuracy, by its discriminations, by its ability to bring to focus and unity the disparate and even warring elements. This is precisely what we expect of a poet, for in poetry, proper focus is indispensable. It is typically in poetry that reason and sensibility—head and heart—speak, and in doing so, become one unified voice. That unified voice is not simply rational man, or practical man, sentimental man, or animal man. (p. 690)
Tate tells us in the concluding paragraph of the essay "Poetry Modern and Unmodern" that he himself first experienced "the shock to the twentieth-century sensibility out of which modernism developed," not through reading Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, but through reading James Thomson, the author of The City of Dreadful Night. Tate points out that the issues were not really defined for him in Thomson's book. Thomson's "inflated rhetoric and echolalia merely adumbrated the center of psychic and moral interest" that was to be later articulated by poets such as Yeats and Eliot. As regards his own poetry, Tate goes on to say: "It remained [for me] to find the right language and to establish a center from which it could be spoken; for the poet is never wholly aware of his subject until his language is able to speak it, and to render it to the entire human being, to both the sensibility and the intellect, at that focus of awareness at which he does not know whether he is thinking or feeling." This is spoken specifically about the poet, but it applies to us all. No human being is truly aware of a situation until he can render it in a language that is at once intellectual and emotional.
So, at the end of this magnificent, late essay, we come back again to the division in modern man—to the rift between reason and emotion, the gap that is peculiarly the task of the poet to bridge. It is the same chasm that the great Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge strove to bridge, with, I believe, only partial success. This has also been the special task of the great twentieth-century poets such as Yeats, Eliot, and Tate—though their analysis of the problem has differed rather sharply from that of, say, a Wordsworth, and accordingly they have had to employ very different strategies.
I have just invoked the names of Yeats and Eliot. Let me take this occasion to declare that no modern poet has been concerned more intensely with the unity of being than has Allen Tate—not even Yeats, for whom it was the true center of concern. Let me say further that no poet has been more concerned with the...
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Any consideration of the pastoral mode today involves us in questions of very awkward accommodation. As a matter of fact, there are two traditions not susceptible of extension into modern literature, at least not in any pure manner. These are the epic and the pastoral…. Both epic and pastoral conceive of human character as being perfectly revealed in action. Homer and Theocritus clearly believed that was so; we do not. It is questionable whether even Virgil could quite believe Homer's credo, and we are very likely to approve of the Aeneid at those moments when a psychological strangeness subsumes the heroic movement. We do not believe in action as the great revealer, largely because we cannot feel sure that meaningful action is possible. Hence, adaptations of epic in modern literature convert action to symbol, and the symbol itself is subjugated to quarrelsome oppositions, is diluted by irony, and, finally, is no revealer at all, but is in fact itself revealed by such devices as stream of consciousness. We believe in the major tragedy and major triumph of the epic pole of man's being, but we do not credit an analogue of action.
If it was accurate to mention the major tragedy and triumph of the epical pole of man's being, it is accurate to speak of the minor bliss and fulfillment of the pastoral pole of man's being. Yet we are speaking of essence, not reality.
One can hardly disagree with the usual definition of pastoral verse: rustic in setting and simple in thought and action. But while one does not disagree with the definition, neither is he noticeably informed by it. Let me suggest that the difficulty of definition is that we have no poetry that is not in some way pastoral, or, to put it another way, we have no examples at all of pastoral poetry. What I mean by that outrageous remark is this: Pastoral poetry aims at yielding an impression of innocuous happiness, which we desire; it aims at paraphrasing an animal energy, which we admire; it aims at creating a freedom of being, which we yearn for, would escape to if we could, but in which we cannot believe, and, seeking, cannot find. We cannot believe or find because we cannot remove time from action and cannot remove mind from existence. Neither can we achieve complete freedom without inclining toward a licentiousness which, like pornography, is not at all free or adventurous but stylized, heartless, and dead. At best, then, pastoral poetry gives intimations of a state we apprehend in imagination but cannot accept in reality. It gives what form can be given to our sophistries of Edens, our superstitions of blessed isles, our love of dolphins moving, our sentiments about past cultures, especially those that, like Theocritus' dear, nonsensical meadows, never existed. In short, we can have, to borrow Empson's title, some versions of pastoral. Pure pastoral we cannot have. Indeed, one may wonder to what extent a pure pastoral poetry was possible for Theocritus or any of the other ancients. The main drift of the classical lyric was not pastoral. (pp. 733-34)
[Any] important poetic consciousness yearns toward a pastoral vision at the same time that it yearns toward its polar opposite, an epical vision, neither of them quite possible. Allen Tate is no exception, for we can observe how in his early and middle work his aspirations divide between a desire for a perfect world, which poets always seem to think they deserve, and a wish to assert through action and will a change upon the world as it actually is. I suggest this division (rather than fashionable aesthetics) led him to embrace in his early career a belief in "dissociation of sensibility." That was a worry he later abandoned, but not for a long time. In the meantime, this division tended to direct the course of his poetry. It lies behind his "Ode to the Confederate Dead," a poem in which the natural world moves on about the narrator, beyond him, offering inklings, but no sure prophecy, no heroic home, while he himself is powerless to implement his will to act. He can only react, and, even so, the manner of reaction finally reduces will to veleity, while the minor fret of aggravated sensibility remains. Therefore one way to see the "Ode" is as a poem about the blunting of the epic will. There are many poems in which the pastoral will or desire is equally blunted. (pp. 734-35)
I believe for Tate the separation from the timeless world of the pastoral aspect of life and poetry meant loss of humanity. Surely, it is at least partly for that reason that he could, in the 1930's, throw himself passionately into...
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Allen Tate published in 1938 a splendid novel that places the social and aesthetic vision in a living circumstance. The setting of The Fathers is Virginia and Georgetown at the breaking up of the Union. The story is told through the elderly Lacy Buchan's recollections of his boyhood. His father, Major Lewis Buchan, sums up the antebellum Southern social order. George Posey, who marries Lacy's sister Susan, reflects the modern temperament; as a destructive presence in the Buchan family, he is an instance of the forces that were beating in upon the Old South. In Major Buchan, substantial feeling and moral will are one. He is a whole man and a gentleman; he gets his gentlemanly completeness from his perfect...
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Allen Tate's work in poetry, fiction, and criticism touches American life at nearly every point of consequence and continues to exert moral pressure even when the causes it serves are already mostly lost. Many of his poems take up arms against his fated enemies: the North; the forces in the Old South that made the New South inevitable; the ideologies of positivism and naturalism, which Tate regards as vandalism. The "Collected Poems" is the definitive manual of these wars….
I find it significant that the new "Collected Poems" contains about 30 early poems more than the corresponding section of Tate's standard selection, "The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems" (1971). In a note to "The Swimmers"...
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For readers of a certain age—I have in mind those who, like myself, first came to modern poetry (and to the criticism written to defend and elucidate it) in the years just after the Second World War—the publication of Allen Tate's "Collected Poems 1919–1976" … is an event that stirs a good many memories and associations. Scarcely 20 years had passed since the appearance of his first books in 1928—the year of both "Mr. Pope and Other Poems" and "Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier"—yet in those first years after the war Mr. Tate already seemed a venerable survivor of several lost worlds. The Nashville of the Fugitives, the New York of the young Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Burke and E. E. Cummings, like the...
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