Allen Tate Tate, Allen (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Allen Tate 1899-1979

(Full name John Orley Allen Tate) American poet, essayist, biographer, critic, translator, novelist, memoirist, playwright, and editor.

The following entry provides criticism on Tate's works from 1929 through 1998.

Tate is recognized as a central figure in modern American poetry. A member of the “Fugitive Group” of writers, he created verse that reflected the concerns of his fellow Fugitives: the life and landscapes of the agrarian South inform all of his work. Critics contend that Tate's best poetry presents a world where the mythical and historical past serve allegorically to illuminate simple, personal experience.

Biographical Information

Tate was born on November 19, 1899, in Winchester, Kentucky, the youngest of three sons. His family moved frequently while he was growing up; as a result, his early education was irregular. Encouraged by his mother, he studied on his own and in 1918 he was admitted to Vanderbilt University. During his time at Vanderbilt he became involved with the Fugitive Group, an informal group of Southern intellectuals that included Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Merrill Moore, and Robert Penn Warren. The group met weekly to discuss poetry and philosophy as well as their creative work. The Fugitives argued that the Southern literary tradition was vital and significant and they rejected industrialism as anathema to Southern life. Moreover, they asserted that Southern agrarian way of life reflected the splendor, intelligence, and wit of the ancient classical age. The ideas of the Fugitive Group garnered much critical and popular attention and had a significant impact on American letters in the 1920s and 1930s. After receiving his B.A. from Vanderbilt in 1922, Tate moved to New York and worked as an assistant editor at Telling Tales. In 1928 Tate received a Guggenheim fellowship and traveled to France, where he wrote poetry based on the Southern experience as well as biographies of Confederate heroes Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. Upon his return to the United States, he worked as a lecturer and professor of English at several universities, including the University of North Carolina, New York University, University of Chicago, and the University of Minnesota. In 1953 and 1958 he was appointed a Fulbright professor. He also edited the Sewanee Review from 1944-46. He received many awards for his work, including a National Institute of Arts and Letters award in 1948, a Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1956, an Academy of American Poets award in 1963, and a National Medal for Literature in 1976. He died on February 9, 1979, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Major Works

While Tate's poetry developed and changed over twenty-five years, several critics identified a few unifying thematic concerns in his poetry: the rejection of abstractionism; the acknowledgment of the fallen or imperfect man; the profound impact of alienation or solipsism; the connection between past and present generations; and the relationship between the religious, ethical, and historical. Tate's early poems are often imbued with an idealized view of Southern tradition in order to convey the alienation of man in a modern, industrialized world. Considered his best-known poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead” explores that very theme as a former Confederate soldier ruminates on his place in the world as he looks over a Confederate graveyard. Thematically, the poem focuses on issues such as honor, heroism, mortality, and isolation and references the epic poems Iliad and the Aeneid as well as the work of ancient Greek philosophers. Tate's allusions to classical literature, myths, and philosophy are a recurring aspect of his work. Another well-known poem, “Aeneas at Washington,” juxtaposes the ancient definition of honor and bravery presented in the Aeneid against that of modern-day, solipsistic man. In his poem, Tate suggests that the idealized view of the American experience has been corrupted by materialism. In “The Mediterranean” Tate once again utilizes the concepts of heroism and honor as embodied in Aeneid to contrast against the shameful and damaging actions of North American settlers. Some critics perceive a break with Tate's early poetry with the publication of The Winter Sea (1944), which included the well-known poem “Seasons of the Soul.” Split into sections named for the seasons, “Seasons of the Soul” features the classical figures of Venus and Sisyphus to examine man's unexplored creative potential. Several commentators have noted the influence of religion—especially his conversion to Roman Catholicism—as well as the medieval author Dante on his later verse. In fact, critics note the stylistic influence of Dante in several of his later works, especially the later poems written in terza rima: “The Maimed Man,” “The Buried Lake,” and “The Swimmers.” These verses are referred to as “The Maimed Trilogy,” and are usually treated as three parts of the same poem. Moreover, the three poems include autobiographical incidents, as well as classical and mythical allusions, to explore man's need for profound spiritual and emotional connections to the world.

Critical Reception

Although Tate is viewed as an important modern American poet, many critics have questioned why he has not garnered more significant critical and popular attention. Some scholars assert that his work is too difficult, multilayered, and honest for widespread readership. Others contend that he is perceived as mainly a Southern writer and is constrained by his association with the Fugitives and Agrarianism, which some commentators view as an attempt to deny American progress. Despite these assessments, critics underline his relevance as a poet and urge greater attention to his verse. Commentators debate Tate's poetic development, noting his early emphasis on the Southern literary tradition and his shift to incorporate Roman Catholic theology and the influence of Dante in his later work. His place within the American literary tradition is a recurring topic of critical interest, as Tate has been classified at various points as a Fugitive, Agrarian, Southern traditionalist, medievalist, classicist, New Critic, or Roman Catholic author. Commentators have investigated the influence of T. S. Eliot, Dante, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Augustine, and classical literature and mythology on his poetry.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Mr. Pope, and Other Poems 1928

Three Poems: Ode to the Confederate Dead, Message from Abroad, and The Cross 1930

Poems: 1928-1931 1932

The Mediterranean and Other Poems 1936

Selected Poems 1937

Sonnets at Christmas 1941

The Winter Sea 1944

Fragment of a Meditation/MCMXXVIII 1947

Poems: 1922-1947 1948

Two Conceits for the Eye to Sing, If Possible 1950

Poems 1960

The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems 1970

Collected Poems, 1919-1976 1977

Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier (biography) 1928

Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall (biography) 1929

Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (essays) 1936

The Fathers (novel) 1938

Reason in Madness: Critical Essays (essays) 1941

On the Limits of Poetry: Selected Essays, 1928-1948 (essays) 1948

The Man of Letters in the Modern World: Selected Essays, 1928-1955 (essays) 1955

Collected Essays (essays) 1959

Essays of Four Decades (essays) 1968

Memoirs and Opinions, 1926-1974 (memoir and essays) 1975

The Fathers and Other Fiction (novel and short stories) 1977

Morton Dauwen Zabel (review date February 1929)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Zabel, Morton Dauwen. “A Critics Poetry.” Poetry 33, no. 5 (February 1929): 281-84.

[In the following mixed review of Mr. Pope and Other Poems, Zabel argues that most of Tate's poetry is obscured by “texture of allusions and intricate phraseology.”]

Allen Tate's poetry shares many of the perversities and stylistic mannerisms of what was called, a few years ago, the cerebral school. The reader, confronted by a texture of allusions and intricate phraseology, is soon willing to accuse the poet of disguising a poverty of emotion and a shoddiness of concept with deliberate obscurity. Occasionally, when the fabulous imagery wears thin, we stand face to...

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Morton Dauwen Zabel (review date April 1932)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Zabel, Morton Dauwen. “The Creed of Memory.” Poetry 40, (April 1932): 34-9.

[In the following positive review of Poems: 1928-1931, Zabel traces Tate's poetic development.]

The twenty-two poems and sequence of ten sonnets in this book represent less a new phase of Mr. Tate's work than a conscious attack on problems defined in his first collection, Mr. Pope, of 1928. Any concern arising from the volume's immediate reference to its predecessor is rendered gratuitous by Mr. Tate's anticipation of it. By making that reference implicit and organic he joins the small group of contemporary poets who have realized, at whatever cost of popular approval...

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Samuel French Morse (review date February 1938)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Morse, Samuel French. “Second Reading.” Poetry 51, no. 5 (February 1938): 262-66.

[In the following review, Morse notes the lack of development in Tate's poetry, but underlines the strengths of the poems collected in Selected Poems.]

In the current issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter, 1938) Allen Tate clarifies the statement with which the preface to his Selected Poems ends. In an article on his “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” the author points out the difference between feeling and experience, between knowledge “about” something and the knowledge as the thing itself. “In a manner of speaking,” he writes, “the poem is...

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Delmore Schwartz (essay date winter 1940)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Schwartz, Delmore. “The Poetry of Allen Tate.” The Southern Review 5, no. 3 (winter 1940): 419-38.

[In the following essay, Schwartz discusses Tate as an honest poet and investigates the relationship between his essays and poetry.]

An honest man is one incapable of deceiving others. An honest poet, however, is one incapable of self-deception, at least in his poetry. This requires much difficult labor. One of the essential facts about Allen Tate's writing is the tireless effort and strained labor to be honest as a writer. The effort, the strain, the labor, and the honesty are, in a sense, a dominant quality of the very surface of his verse. I say: in a...

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Cleanth Brooks (review date September 1945)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Brooks, Cleanth. “Reviews.” Poetry 66, no. 6 (September 1945): 324-29.

[In the following review, Brooks praises the topicality and richness of the poems in The Winter Sea, contending that the collection “deserves to be read by every one seriously interested in modern poetry.”]

It is impossible to review these poems without taking into account the topical references which they make, for the references are many and obvious—to Henry Wallace, to Van Wyck Brooks, to Pearl Harbor, to the fall of France. They reflect a world scene with which the reader is thoroughly familiar; but they stem from a point of view with which he is quite unfamiliar. The...

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Howard Nemerov (essay date October 1948)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Nemerov, Howard. “The Current of the Frozen Stream.” The Sewanee Review 67, no. 4 (October 1959): 585-97.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1948 in Furioso, Nemerov provides a stylistic examination of Tate's verse, focusing on a “major duality in his poetry.”]

My occasion is the publication of Mr. Tate's collection, Poems 1922-1947 (Scribner's, 1948), my purpose the elucidation of a major duality in his poetry, which I would regard as in some sense its generating or operative principle. In some sense … those beautiful precautionary and beforehand words which serve the critic so well through all life's...

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Vivienne Koch (essay date summer 1949)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Koch, Vivienne. “The Poetry of Allen Tate.” The Kenyon Review 11, no. 3 (summer 1949): 355-78.

[In the following essay, Koch differentiates Tate from the Fugitive poets and views him as a “poet of romantic sensibility who has tried with varying success to compress his talents into a chastely classical form.”]

I should like to propose two revisions of the customary valuation put upon the poetry of Allen Tate. First, it has become increasingly evident with each new work that Mr. Tate is a fugitive from the Fugitives. The Fugitives were that talented group of Southern writers who, finding the Northern poetic climate of the early twenties too exacerbatingly...

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Sister Mary Bernetta (essay date spring 1951)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bernetta, Sister Mary. “Allen Tate's Inferno.” Renascence 3, no. 2 (spring 1951): 113-19.

[In the following essay, Bernetta examines the theme of damnation in Tate's poetry.]

                    Gentlemen, my secret is

(“To the Lacedemonians”)

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...

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Alwyn Berland (essay date summer 1951)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Berland, Alwyn. “Violence in the Poetry of Allen Tate.” Accent 2, no. 3 (summer 1951): 161-71.

[In the following essay, Berland explores the role of violence in Tate's poetry and finds parallels between his verse and that of John Webster.]

Duchess: I could curse the stars—
Bosola: O, fearful.
Duchess: And those three smiling seasons of the year
                                        Into a Russian winter; nay, the world
                                        To its first chaos.
Bosola: Look you, the stars shine still.
Duchess: O, but you must
                                        Remember, my curse hath a great way to go.


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Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (essay date 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rubin, Jr., Louis D. “The Serpent in the Mulberry Bush.” In Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. and Robert D. Jacobs, pp. 352-67. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1953.

[In the following essay, Rubin discusses how Tate's background as a Southerner and Agrarian poet informed the imagery and subject matter of “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”]

“That poem is ‘about’ solipsism, a philosophical doctrine which says that we create the world in the act of perceiving it; or about Narcissism, or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature...

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Lillian Feder (essay date winter 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Feder, Lillian. “Allen Tate's Use of Classical Literature.” The Centennial Review 4, no. 1 (winter 1960): 89-114.

[In the following essay, Feder elucidates the influence of classical myths and literature on Tate's poetry.]


“Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet's own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history.” T. S. Eliot regards this consciousness of history as one of the requirements of the mature poet, and he suggests Vergil as an example of the poet who exhibits this awareness of his relation not only to the past of his own...

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Carol Johnson (essay date winter 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Carol. “The Heroism of the Rational: The Poetry of Allen Tate.” Renascence 17, no. 2 (winter 1964): 89-96.

[In the following essay, Johnson emphasizes the role of reason in Tate's poetry.]

The contemporary poet is a man whom our sophisticated awareness of extramental and preconscious conditions of existence causes us to credit with having even more to withstand from these quarters than he is likely to maintain in the way of technical resources with which to organize his response. If we apprehend one note common to the poems of our contemporaries, an extraordinary if diversely distributed weight incumbent upon their makers, it is freedom. For our...

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Ferman Bishop (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bishop, Ferman. “Mr. Pope and Other Poems.” In Allen Tate, pp. 61-74. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967.

[In the following essay, Bishop provides a reading of several of Tate's early poems, maintaining that it was his ability “to incorporate the tone of his age into the rhythms of his poetry that made his work so promising for the future.”]

The astonishing outpouring of brilliance that marked the beginnings of the Fugitive group resulted in a number of published volumes: John Crowe Ransom had four books by 1927; Donald Davidson, two; Ridley Wills, two; Stanley Johnson, one. Allen Tate, with only a privately printed undergraduate volume to his...

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Martin Newitz (essay date winter 1967-68)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Newitz, Martin. “Tradition, Time, and Allen Tate.” The Mississippi Quarterly 21, no. 1 (winter 1967-68): 37-42.

[In the following essay, Newitz delineates the defining characteristics of Tate's poetry.]

The plight of mankind in a mechanized age seems commonplace and trite in literature today, but to the poet of the thirties, the problem was still new, real and very meaningful. As a Southern traditionist, Allen Tate envisions mankind living in a stagnant society, rejecting the old traditions, and moving toward a symbolic doom. Man, existing in juxtaposition to tradition and doom, must choose between these worlds which remain eternal in time. Tate conveys...

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Radcliffe Squires (essay date autumn 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Squires, Radcliffe. “Will and Vision: Allen Tate's Terza Rima Poems.” The Sewanee Review 78, no. 4 (autumn 1970): 543-62.

[In the following essay, Squires explores the significance of three of Tate's poems: “The Maimed Man,” “The Swimmers,” and “The Buried Lake.”]

It may well turn out that of Allen Tate's poems those which will claim the greatest attention are those that today are the least read. These include two poems written in 1952, “The Maimed Man” and “The Swimmers”, and one poem written in 1953, “The Buried Lake”. They must be approached from several different directions: first, as logical developments in Tate's poetry...

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Denis Donoghue (essay date autumn 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Nuances of a Theme by Allen Tate.” The Southern Review 12, no. 5 (autumn 1976): 698-713.

[In the following essay, Donoghue investigates the theme of symbolic imagination in Tate's poetry.]

On April 8, 1943, in a lecture at Princeton University, Allen Tate concentrated his mind upon a major theme, the relation of the imagination to the actual world. The lecture has been published under the title “The Hovering Fly.” It was not the first nor the last occasion on which Tate addressed himself to this question: indeed, I regard it as his characteristic theme, his signature, the motif and motive of his entire work in poetry, fiction, and...

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Michael True (essay date fall 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: True, Michael. “Allen Tate as Teacher and Poet.” Cross Currents 29, no. 3 (fall 1979): 324-30.

[In the following essay, True discusses Tate's importance as a poet.]


In his essay, “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,” Allen Tate wrote about his reading Poe, as a boy of fourteen, and gazing, by the hour, “at the well-known, desperate and asymmetrical photograph … which I hoped I should some day resemble.”1 Anyone who ever saw Mr. Tate—or his photograph—knows that he succeeded in that wish, not only looking like Poe, but also achieving something of the brilliance that one associates with “The Philosophy of Composition”...

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Robert S. Dupree (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Dupree, Robert S. “The Buried City.” In Allen Tate and the Augustinian Imagination: A Study of the Poetry, pp. 31-52. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Dupree regards the theme of failed civilization, especially that of the Southern Confederacy, as central to Tate's poetry.]

In his essay “Homer and the Scholars,” George Steiner has noted the central importance of the city in the first works of Western literature:

At the core of the Homeric poems lies the remembrance of one of the greatest disasters that can befall man: the destruction of a city. A city is the outward sum of...

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Susan Ford Wiltshire (essay date winter 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wiltshire, Susan Ford. “Vergil, Allen Tate, and the Analogy of Experience.” Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 5, no. 2 (winter 1985): 87-98.

[In the following essay, Wiltshire asserts that Tate's “radical understanding of tradition, whereby the past must die and be transformed in order to enter into the life of the present, places Tate in a direct lineage with his predecessor, Vergil.”]

As a poet and critic Allen Tate was committed to the particularities of history, the definiteness of place, the passing of time, and the importance of the public realm. Cumulatively, those commitments mean that he opposed abstraction in all its forms. As early...

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Glenn Cannon Arbery (essay date March 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Arbery, Glenn Cannon. “Dante in Bardstown: Allen Tate's Guide to Southern Exile.” Thought 65, no. 256 (March 1990): 93-107.

[In the following essay, Arbery determines the influence of Dante on Tate's work.]

Of the writers born in 1899 who achieved world wide recognition—among them Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Allen Tate—Tate is probably now the least familiar to readers. He never became the center of a cult of bull fighting, he did not invent a word such as “nymphet” and he did not write the hall of mirrors fiction that would fascinate a Michel Foucault or a Jacques Derrida. He has dropped from favor partly because, as...

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Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date fall 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J.. “‘The Archeologist of Memory’: Autobiographical Recollection in Tate's ‘Maimed Man’ Trilogy.” The Southern Literary Journal 27, no. 1 (fall 1994): 51-60.

[In the following essay, Folks considers the unifying stylistic and thematic elements of the “Maimed Man” trilogy, focusing on the autobiographical aspects of the poems.]

The “Maimed Man” trilogy, including “The Maimed Man,” “The Swimmers,” and “The Buried Lake” (1952-53), comprises a terza rima cycle of poems linked not only by form but by connected imagery of mutilation, musical endeavor, baptism, communion of blood and body, and divine light mirrored in...

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Jan Nordby Gretlund (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gretlund, Jan Nordby. “The Man at the Gate.” In Frames of Southern Mind: Reflections on the Stoic, Be-Racial and Existential South, pp. 21-9. Portland: Odense University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Gretlund provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”]

Allen Tate began the “Ode to the Confederate Dead” in 1925, and the poem was first published in 1927. Since then it has been revised several times, and a so-called “final version” was published in 1937 in Tate's Selected Poems. Nevertheless the “Ode” was revised slightly for its inclusion in Poems: 1922-1947.1 From its first...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Underwood, Thomas A. Allen Tate: Orphan of the South. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, 447 p.

Biographical and critical study.


Bradford, M. E. Rumors of Mortality: An Introduction to Allen Tate. Dallas: Argus Academic Press, 1969, 43 p.

Overview of Tate's work.

Chabot, C. Barry. “Allen Tate and the Limits of Tradition.” The Southern Quarterly 26, no. 3 (spring 1988): 50-66.

Considers Tate's attitude toward the South throughout his career.

George, Hemphill. Allen Tate....

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