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.
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.
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.
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.