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 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 85-88.)
To speak of Allen Tate and the personal epic—that peculiarly modern form which views historical material entirely through the glass of a private sensibility, fragmenting it into the elements of a series of lyrics rather than presenting it whole, as narrative—is to find oneself in difficulties at the start. Tate as critic has questioned the validity of the genre in Ezra Pound's Cantos and has rejected it in Hart Crane's The Bridge…. Yet Tate has followed his own advice only as a prose writer. In poetry, he has made his deepest, most artistically complex judgments on the past and the present, and has reached out toward the long poem in "Seasons of the Soul" and the unfinished terzinas, through exactly that lyric concentration on the self which, in theory, he questions.
The paradox deepens when one grasps the importance of action and narrative in Tate's philosophy, as set forth in the central essays "The Symbolic Imagination: The Mirrors of Dante" and "The Angelic Imagination: Poe as God." Following Jacques Maritain, Tate argues that the crucial fault of post-Cartesian thought is "angelism"—the aspiration to a direct, nonsensory knowledge of the essences of things—which Thomistic philosophy reserves to the angels. (p. 714)
"The Angelic Imagination" which Tate sees in modern science, and in the romanticism of Poe and Crane, creates "hypertrophies" of feeling, will, and intellect, by claiming to deal with essences. The hypertrophy of the intellect is its claim to complete objectivity, "whereby it declares itself independent of the human situation in the quest of essential knowledge." A hypertrophy of the will is implicit for Tate, both in scientific control over nature and in the alchimie du verbe of the symbolists…. Tate's later philosophy preserves Eliot's idea of the dissociation of sensibility, but makes it the symptom of a still deeper disorder, angelism. Neurotic-romantic man, of whom we are all in some degree incarnations, is both more conscious and more prey to the unconscious than his classical and healthy counterpart; his disconnected thought and his fantasies, concomitantly enlarged, threaten his ability to act in terms of reality. (pp. 715-16)
Upon [the] opposition of the symbolic and the angelic rests Tate's dislike of the modern world, his tendency—like Pound and Eliot—to make utopias of the more active, less individualistic cultures of the past. But Tate's utopia is a more ambiguous one than Pound's, because it is also his personal past…. It is Tate's curse—but perhaps ultimately his blessing—that idealization of the past does not free him from his central moral anxiety, but brings it back to him with redoubled force. In writing of the heroic past in a personal, postsymbolist mode, Tate acknowledges his double consciousness as an "angelic" man in love with the vision of a world where his own conflicts are transcended. But unable to experience such a world, outwardly or inwardly, he is therefore not utterly certain that it exists.
Tate has, of course, tried to draw the distinction between past and present with a more impersonal assurance, notably in the early poems "Retroduction to American History" and "Causerie." But these poems seem unsatisfyingly simplistic, even arrogant, when compared with those in which Tate feels detached from what he condemns. When Tate uses Eliot's method of ironic parallelism through literary allusion, the allusion often becomes a mere token of the goodness of the old days; unlike Eliot, Tate does not allow the moral problems and complexities of the earlier work to become part of his own poem. (pp. 716-17)
[If] one is looking for a great poetry of history, the most dangerous result of … polemical adulation of the past is that it tends to reduce the stature of the moral issues that the past struggled, and mostly failed, to resolve—as when Tate asserts, in his "Retroduction," that the problems of the Oresteia are "less subtle than you think," and important mainly as a contrast to the present—"Heredity // Proposes love, love exacts language, and we lack // Language."
In the "Ode to the Confederate Dead," by contrast, an open self-preoccupation leads to a more complex and troubled view of the past. Tate has written, in "Narcissus as Narcissus," that the poem is about "solipsism," which he defines as "a … doctrine which says that we create the world in the act of perceiving it"; but "solipsism," in the poem, seems to expand to include any thought or feeling that cannot lead, or be related, to outward action. The speaker wishes to celebrate the Confederate Dead, but he can do nothing but stand still outside a gate and reflect. For the future author of "The Angelic Imagination," such a situation is not only, as it was for Matthew Arnold, artistically dubious; it is paradoxically explosive and fraught with psychic peril. (pp. 717-18)
On an emotional level, ["Ode to the Confederate Dead"] reveals a double attitude toward the past: it is too remote yet devouringly close, adored but subliminally resented. And even intellectually, the poem expresses unwilling doubts about the past: to be "hurried beyond decision" seems enviable to one trapped in "mute speculation," but it cannot solve the most...
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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…. [In the] 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 Paris of Gertrude Stein and Ford Madox Ford, had receded into the mists of literary legend….
[Today] the battles of the New Criticism and the literary and political divisions they engendered are as distant from us as the Nashville of the Fugitives. They too evoke yet another lost world….
Throughout [the complex history of the New Criticism], Mr. Tate was never a writer easy to take hold of. For the New Criticism enjoined us to concentrate our attention on the poem itself—when it ventured into discussions of fiction or drama, it seemed to treat them too as poetic structures—and not to be bemused by the distractions of literary history, or indeed history of any sort. It was on the text, and not the context, that the New Criticism directed all intelligence, and yet the critical imperatives that focused so narrowly on the isolated literary object—isolated, that is, from the world that had produced it—seemed to carry with them a distinct but unacknowledged context of their own. (p. 3)
The odd thing about all this, so far as Mr. Tate's own writings were concerned, was that he had been all along a writer—as poet, critic, novelist and biographer—deeply immersed in the materials of history, and there could never be any question of separating his literary achievements from their attachment to the historical imagination. Only by means of a certain pedagogical magic and a classroom atmosphere of extreme casuistry could the author of "Ode to the Confederate Dead," of that fine novel "The Fathers" …...
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Most readers have long known that Tate has produced some of the finest poetry of his generation. This is true even of unsympathetic readers inclined to complain that the corpus is uneven in quality (as it is) and unfulfilled in promise (as it is not). Most consider the single novel [The Fathers] a distinguished achievement, though few have recognized that it constitutes the great watershed in Tate's life as an artist, bringing into significant conjunction the insights, tendencies, and techniques of his early work and anticipating the masterworks that began to appear after 1940. As for criticism, no one—at least no one since the appearance of Essays of Four Decades in 1969—has doubted that in an age...
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In the thirties (and it did not end with the thirties) I greatly admired Tate for the sonorous and noble effects in much of his poetry, which I wanted to make a part of my own. Moreover, certain rhythms or, perhaps more accurately, turns of phrase seemed to me so finely and inevitably poetic that all that could be done was to try to echo them…. (p. 234)
The following is what I started by saying when I [reviewed Tate's Poems 1920–1945: A Selection (published in England) in 1948] (I had just quoted the end of Ransom's "Survey of Literature"—"God have mercy on the sinner / Who must write with … Only consonants and vowels"):
We should be obtuse indeed...
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[The body of Allen Tate's poetry] is slim—as slim as Eliot's and Ransom's. He published one novel, The Fathers (1938). A remarkable work, it was never widely popular; but like Allen's best poetry, it remains in print, and I think it is destined to last.
Why did one so greatly and variously gifted write and publish so little? What he said of his friend John Ransom was not, I think true of him: that he set out deliberately to be a Minor Poet…. My observation is that as an imaginative writer Allen had a gift that was highly and intricately autobiographical. This may seem odd, in that his poetics placed a premium upon achieved anonymity, classical restraint, the primacy of craftsmanship over...
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