(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 is a belief in the desirability of generally accepted standards—that is, in a goal toward which all sorts of people are struggling. But Tate's essays also deal with poetry as an abstract idea ("Three Types of Poetry"), with religion ("Humanism and Naturalism") and with the need for recapturing the feudal virtues of the Old South. In this wider field there is more reason for his title, yet even here the essays are not so much reactionary as they are...
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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 both the specific formal properties of literature and its relation to civilization. The Marxists would have only the history, and he would have only the literature. "The true paradox," as Blackmur once wrote, "is that in securing its own ends thought cannot help defeating itself at every crisis. To think straight you must overshoot your mark." And how Tate overshot the mark! Overshot even Matthew Arnold's wistful faith that poetry could be "a criticism of life"! In his reaction against "our limitation of the whole human problem to the narrow scope of the political program," he gave literature so self-sufficient and austere a character that almost everything that went into the making of literature and its significance for men was driven out. The Marxists made life and literature indistinguishable; Tate made life indistinguishable in literature. In a...
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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, especially in times such as the present; but it is distinctly subordinate. Mr. Tate's criticism fits his own definition: it is intended to educate the reader and guide him to an understanding of literature, and especially of modern poetry. To achieve this purpose, the negative task of preventing the audience from misunderstanding literature through expecting too much, or the wrong things, of it is now most urgent…. For the most part, Mr. Tate aims at the limited objective of destroying popular misconceptions which distort or prevent the reception of poetry among its potential audience. Since he emphasizes this corrective function, he does not elaborate his positive demonstration of the value of literature, which is developed mostly by implication. All criticism, Mr. Tate believes, is limited and partial: there "are all kinds of poetry … and no single critical insight may impute an exclusive validity to any one kind."… [His] own criticism, he points out in his preface, is particularly unsystematic and incomplete: most of his essays are occasional, controversial, and comparatively brief; hence they represent opinion rather than any fully-developed theory. In the face of this disclaimer, to discuss Mr. Tate in terms of general principles may seem unfair or foolish. Yet even negative criticism must proceed from a coherent intellectual position if it is to be valid; and permanent value will depend upon the presence, by implication at least, of a satisfactory positive theory. (pp. 61-2)
Although Mr. Tate has occupied himself mainly with demonstrating that poetry is not what the Positivists variously take it to be—history, emotion, false science, propaganda, religion—he has always maintained positively that its true value is cognitive, that it gives us a unique, true, and complete knowledge…. Usually, he rests his case upon simple assertion, with little explanation. The only systematic exposition of his theory of poetry that I have been able to discover is that in his early essay, "Poetry and the Absolute."… Since his later remarks are more comprehensible in the light of this explicit statement, a brief summary of it will perhaps be useful. Both poet and philosopher, Mr. Tate argues, strive to construct a "portrait of reality" which will be absolute; but the poetic absolute, being "a function of subject-matter in interaction with a personality," is not single and unchanging like the metaphysical; it is capable of infinite recreations. The poetic absolute is achieved, created, in terms of form. The poet may come to terms with his experience through contemplating it in the created absolute of art; he constructs the possibility of this kind of absolute experience first of all for himself, but if the perceptions are perfectly realized, presented free of the disturbance out of which they have sprung, the poem will provide the same absolute experience for others…. This absolute quality, Mr. Tate concludes, explains the necessity for poetry: if the need of the mind for absolute experience could be satisfied adequately in ordinary experience, this experience, metaphysically defined and classified, would be sufficient; but only sentimentalists hope for a world absolute of this sort. Art alone provides absolute experience....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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