Tate, (John Orley) Allen (Vol. 24)
(John Orley) Allen Tate 1899–1979
American critic, poet, novelist, and editor.
Tate is renowned as one of the most influential thinkers of the New Criticism movement. Considered a critic of rare integrity and commitment, he is noted for his impassioned attacks on positivist and purely scientific approaches to literature. Concentrating mainly on the criticism of poetry, Tate advanced the idea that literature is a primary means to understanding human experience. Such understanding is best promoted, in his view, by critics who devote the bulk of their energies to a close analysis of texts.
Tate's first literary essays were published in The Fugitive, an influential Southern journal founded by Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren, among others. Tate gained prominence with the publication of Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas in which he presented his humanistic views in essays on Dante, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Emily Dickinson, and other poets.
Tate's books stress the conviction that positivism, or any critical method that "reduces" literature to something other than "an inexhaustible object of contemplation," is unsound. Positivist criticism was repellent to him because it placed great emphasis on the social, historical, and scientific aspects of literature. A religious man who subscribed to a humanist philosophy, Tate felt that critics should be deeply concerned with the spiritual and moral insights offered by literature. Throughout his career, he was considered a critic with a passionate love of literature and a deep respect for language.
(See also CLC, Vols, 2, 4, 6, 9, 11, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 85-88 [obituary]).
I doubt that any other poet in this country is a better judge of his contemporaries than Allen Tate. He has a personal distinction that frees him from jealousy and a sense of craftsmanship that qualifies him to explain all sorts of technical matters…. Moreover, [as evidenced by his recent Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas], he goes beyond questions of technique into a frequently illuminating type of social criticism. He says in his essay on Hart Crane—certainly the best of all those dealing with the subject—that the poet tried to create a religious myth for an anti-mythical nation, with the result that his central symbol, the Bridge, has no real meaning. Edwin Arlington Robinson's long poems, he says, are dull and undramatic because "Mr. Robinson has no epos, myth or code, no supra-human truth, to tell what the terminal points of human conduct are, in this age." In Archibald MacLeish's "Conquistador," there is likewise no objective convention that would give value to the hero's personal memories of the march to Mexico…. Except for a few questionable words like "religious" and "supra-human," I think these judgments are final; they fix the landmarks by which other critics will have to steer.
And in this sense Allen Tate's new essays deny the title under which he has printed them. When they deal with modern poets, they are not at all "Reactionary Essays"; instead they point toward the future; their only political color...
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To save criticism from the scientists, Tate disengaged literature itself from society and men, and held up the inviolate literary experience as the only measure of human knowledge. Literature in this view was not only the supreme end; it was also the only end worthy of man's ambition. Critics who saw in works of literature "not the specific formal properties but only the amount and range of human life brought to the reader" were vulgar expressionists. Critics who studied literature as "expressive of substances" beyond itself were only historical scholars aping the positivism of science and remote from the crucial spiritual values to be derived from literature. Thus only Formalist criticism remained, to elucidate those "high forms of literature [which] offer us the only complete, and thus the most responsible, versions of our experience."
What one saw in Tate's system was a fantastic inversion of the Marxist system; and in him the extremities met as in no other critic of the time. The Marxist critic could study a work of art only in terms of its social relations; Tate would study literature—that is, only poetry of a certain intensity and difficulty—precisely because it had no social relations at all. A form like the novel could be despised because it was so much like history. Could anything be more illuminating of the contemporary mind in criticism? As fanatical as the Marxists, Tate never admitted for a moment that one could study...
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Monroe K. Spears
Mr. Tate is, as critic, essentially a polemicist, an aggressive and sometimes truculent warrior who for more than twenty years has conducted a skillful defensive action. Believing that the best defense is an offense, he has given no quarter to any in whom he detects, under whatever disguise, allegiance to the Enemy—the reigning tyrant, Positivism. Though I do not come to praise Tate, I am not attempting to bury him, for the corpus of his criticism [displayed in On the Limits of Poetry, Selected Essays: 1928–1948] is still fresh and lively. But the appearance of this collection, together with many other omens, does seem to mark the end of a campaign. The cause that Mr. Tate champions has probably won as much territory as it is likely to obtain without a change of strategy; and it is time now for a consolidation of gains, a check of casualties, a re-grouping of forces. (p. 60)
Mr. Tate's approach to criticism is refreshingly modest. Criticism, he holds, is a form of literature, since it tells us the meaning and value of concrete experience; but it is definitely not autotelic: its purpose is "the protection of that which in itself is the end of criticism"—creative writing. The function of criticism is "to maintain and to demonstrate the special, unique, and complete knowledge which the great forms of literature afford us."… Its function, in thus creating a proper audience for imaginative writing, is highly important,...
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R. J. Schoeck
Allen Tate in his earliest criticism suffered somewhat from the Arnoldian confusion of art and life, which demanded too much of poetry; and we have all been involved by Eliot, Tate and our other major critics in their private darkness (or, better, in their private versions of a public darkness which has sought philosophic, anthropological and even religious answers from poetry).
In the separate appearances of the essays now included in The Forlorn Demon …, we have caught intermittent glimpses of the way out of that darkness, one way out, at least. And in this collocation of the continued raids of Mr. Tate upon the darkness we discover much about literature and language and ourselves: these essays are critical and didactic in the best sense….
In [some] essays in this volume which consider some consequences of the modern angelic imagination, Allen Tate exhibits that sense of ordered awareness and intelligence so conspicuous in his previous work. But his ordered awareness and intelligence have their full play only in the complete essay, as in … Longinus, whom Tate himself so much resembles, as Donald Stauffer once remarked….
As critic and as poet, as editor of The Sewanee Review during what may prove to have been its best years, as author of one of the best American novels between wars, The Fathers—Allen Tate has been one of our most distinguished American men of letters....
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Mr. Allen Tate is a religious determinist, and apart from his intellectual honesty (he constantly makes a point of giving his own case away), a very astute one. If the reader [of The Forlorn Demon: Didactic and Critical Essays] is a little jaded with the taste of dogmatic tabasco sauce on modern literature, he will have no relief here…. Mr. Tate continually refers to his prejudices, and the modern liberal's attempt to escape from prejudice is nailed into its coffin with three resounding whacks: it is private, mantic, and willful. Normally, a prejudice in the mind is a major premise which is mostly submerged, like an iceberg. Mr. Tate's explicit prejudice is more like a loadstone mountain or a siren's island and is for a view of man which coordinates and limits the faculties of intellect and feeling. Such a view he finds in Catholic Christianity, particularly in the period before Descartes introduced the dualism of the "angel in the machine"—a dualism which splits man into a pure but proud intellect trying to know essences directly, like an angel, and an autonomous feeling trying to gain an equally direct possession of experience. Dante is thus at one poetic pole of Mr. Tate's critical system; at the other is Poe, the "forlorn demon" …, in whom both aspects of the Cartesian dualism coalesce.
With one exception (a rather irresponsible discussion of "Is Literary Criticism Possible?"), the essays in his book are excellent. Few...
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"The man of letters," a phrase frequently employed by Mr. Tate, gives us, I believe, the key to his criticism…. [Its] ordinary use in French or English is as a synonym for "writer" or "literary man" or "scholar." But for Mr. Tate the man of letters has a responsibility and a dignity that we do not ordinarily associate with the activities of the writer. And in spite of our critic's instinctive modesty and courtesy, it is not difficult to perceive that he thinks of himself as a man of letters. For this reason, the phrase serves as an index of the seriousness with which Mr. Tate takes his profession; and when we consider it in conjunction with the sense he has of the modern world, it also gives us the measure of the desperate courage that is required of a man who makes of the profession of letters the demands Mr. Tate does. This in turn gives us the measure of his stature and the means to define his place in contemporary literature.
What does the activity of the man of letters consist of? In the first essay of [The Forlorn Demon], entitled "The Man of Letters in the Modern World," we are given the answer to our question. Mr. Tate suggests that we define the man of letters by what we need him to do. His immediate responsibility, "at our own critical moment," is for the vitality of language. It is his task to distinguish the difference between mere communication and the rediscovery of the human condtion in the living arts. This...
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Tate has always been less a technical literary critic than an essayist using literature as the frame of reference within which he criticizes the mind and life of his time in the light of his convictions about the proper ends of man. He speaks as a twentieth-century humanist intellectual, isolated and virtually unheard in the barbaric society whose larger deformities it is his concern to examine and minister to. (p. 108)
[We must see him as the man of letters], as flanked dangerously by two opposed chimeras of certainty, two opposed forces of the chaotic modern world [positivism and romanticism] that he perceives and must try to survive in. The first of them … Tate has unmistakably kept clear of. But the second has sometimes been harder for him to recognize. (p. 112)
Tate has continually declared his mistrust of quasi-religions of art, especially that of Matthew Arnold, whom he apparently regards as their official sponsor for our century. Yet these declarations have had the interesting quality of perhaps partly conscious and vividly relevant self-criticism. For Tate himself can be understood as a maker of art into religion…. Professor Francis Roellinger showed some years ago that Arnold's theory of poetry, which Tate had so vigorously attacked in his essay on "Literature as Knowledge" for giving poetry's case away to the sciences, was in the last analysis "not very much different from Mr. Tate's." And Monroe...
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John M. Bradbury
Despite [his] imposing record, Tate has not proved an original, seminal critic for his generation, as have Eliot, Richards, Edmund Wilson, and Kenneth Burke. His earlier work, both in the Fugitive articles and in his free-lance period in New York, was directly dependent on Eliot. When Eliot's influence waned, the original stimulus of Ransom reasserted itself, now strongly aided by that of Brooks and Warren, who were synthesizing the new critical doctrines. Finally, when he became a convert to Roman Catholicism, Tate moved back toward Eliot, while his further debt to M. Jacques Maritain was both evident and acknowledged.
What has characterized Tate's criticism from the first has been an apostolic fervor; and the firmness, often the dogmatic assurance, of his missionary zeal has inspired a large discipleship. He has, like no other American critic of his time, compelled attention. In an era gone largely over on its intellectual side to Marxist and militantly progressive ideals, he defiantly entitled his first critical volume Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (1936). The belligerence of this opening attack set a tone that has only gradually been modified in the following volumes. The new personal modesty that marks the late work offers a radically different surface effect, but an authoritative core remains. The critic is no longer dogmatic in his own right, but dogma is still the basis of his argument.
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R. K. Meiners
Many of [Tate's] early essays are stylistically awkward, full of involuted, semi-philosophical phrasings, and tentative in their critical formulations. But, though the brilliant style of Tate's later writings came slowly, these early things are still important. In these years, Tate was constantly concerned with the poetic order; but gradually, one can see a complementary theme entering his writing. This theme is an extension of Tate's continuing obsession with unity. By 1930, he was convinced that poetic order could not be divorced from the more general conceptions of metaphysical and social order. It was, possibly, twenty-five years before Tate found the larger unity to support his poetic order. Yet he constantly struggled for it. His concern with the agrarian society and the ante-bellum South must, I feel, be explained in these terms.
This is such a fundamental conception for understanding Tate's work that I have ventured to give it a title: the two faces of order. Tate's mind is one which habitually polarizes experience and then, not content to remain in dualism, attempts to mediate between the poles. The polar terms of his dialectic have shifted through the years, but the habit has persisted. And in the late 1920's and early 1930's the polarization takes, I believe, the form of a poetic order somewhat tenuously related to a social order: two faces of the same obsession with the necessity of unifying twentieth-century experience....
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