Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 78
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 a 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, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2449
[Tate grounds] his quite various speculations on art, letters, society, manners, morals, and human behavior … on a total view of man; that is to say, on religion, and specifically the view of man given in the classical-Christian tradition. Thus, Tate can set forth an ethics, an aesthetics, a concept of proper social order, and an idea of history that are thoroughly consonant with one another. Tate's writings do not, to be sure, give off the reek of the conscious system builder. But from any thoughtful reading of his works in verse and prose, of his fiction and his nonfiction, there arises the sense of a remarkable coherence. (pp. 686-87)
[Tate] located and articulated his essential ideas while he was still a very young man. Think of that remarkable essay "Religion and the Old South." The ideas contained in this seminal essay state, in what anthropologists and other scholars of symbolism would call "compact" form, much of what the later poetry and prose would extend, articulate, and develop. In compact form, the essay contains the essence of "The Ode to the Confederate Dead," "The Mediterranean," and even "The Seasons of the Soul." It also contains "Literature as Knowledge," "Three Types of Poetry," and those magnificent late essays "Poetry Modern and Unmodern" and "A Southern Mode of the Imagination." It prefigures quite clearly the theme of Tate's novel, The Fathers. But I am being too general, and I am also getting ahead of the game.
To be more specific: By 1930 Tate had already discovered what is reductive and destructive in Hegel and Hegelianism. Hegel destroys human history by turning it into a paradigm: in his system, rationalism devours sensibility and the universal devours the particular. As Tate puts the matter more generally: "Abstraction is the death of religion no less than the death of everything else."
For Tate, that "everything else" includes man himself, whose unity as a whole being is lost when human history becomes transformed into an abstract series of events…. [In] "Religion and the Old South" his analogy has to do with the distinction between an actual horse and mere horsepower. He points out that the religious view will never be satisfied with anything less than the whole horse, whereas modern civilization tends to discard everything but the horsepower.
The young essayist, however, never takes a holier-than-thou nor a sanctimonious more-religious-than-thou attitude. He views the split in the horse as the consequence of a split in the human mind which now views the horse with modern, post-Cartesian eyes. Like the man at the cemetery gate in the "Ode to the Confederate Dead," he is well aware that the catastrophic split has already occurred and may well be irremediable. The essay is here primarily concerned with reviewing the consequences. Thus, the tone is predominantly descriptive rather than hortatory. (pp. 687-88)
[What] emerges early in Tate's work [is] his basic belief in man as a total being whose view of reality, if it is to be true to the reality of which he himself is a part, must take account of spirit and flesh, sensibility and reason, and not settle...
(This entire section contains 2449 words.)
for some abstract account devised to satisfy the mind about the nature of material objects and their relation to each other. (p. 688)
The language in Tate's poetry and his fiction … [judges] the situations described—by its accuracy, by its discriminations, by its ability to bring to focus and unity the disparate and even warring elements. This is precisely what we expect of a poet, for in poetry, proper focus is indispensable. It is typically in poetry that reason and sensibility—head and heart—speak, and in doing so, become one unified voice. That unified voice is not simply rational man, or practical man, sentimental man, or animal man. (p. 690)
Tate tells us in the concluding paragraph of the essay "Poetry Modern and Unmodern" that he himself first experienced "the shock to the twentieth-century sensibility out of which modernism developed," not through reading Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, but through reading James Thomson, the author of The City of Dreadful Night. Tate points out that the issues were not really defined for him in Thomson's book. Thomson's "inflated rhetoric and echolalia merely adumbrated the center of psychic and moral interest" that was to be later articulated by poets such as Yeats and Eliot. As regards his own poetry, Tate goes on to say: "It remained [for me] to find the right language and to establish a center from which it could be spoken; for the poet is never wholly aware of his subject until his language is able to speak it, and to render it to the entire human being, to both the sensibility and the intellect, at that focus of awareness at which he does not know whether he is thinking or feeling." This is spoken specifically about the poet, but it applies to us all. No human being is truly aware of a situation until he can render it in a language that is at once intellectual and emotional.
So, at the end of this magnificent, late essay, we come back again to the division in modern man—to the rift between reason and emotion, the gap that is peculiarly the task of the poet to bridge. It is the same chasm that the great Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge strove to bridge, with, I believe, only partial success. This has also been the special task of the great twentieth-century poets such as Yeats, Eliot, and Tate—though their analysis of the problem has differed rather sharply from that of, say, a Wordsworth, and accordingly they have had to employ very different strategies.
I have just invoked the names of Yeats and Eliot. Let me take this occasion to declare that no modern poet has been concerned more intensely with the unity of being than has Allen Tate—not even Yeats, for whom it was the true center of concern. Let me say further that no poet has been more concerned with the importance of recovering a living tradition—not even the author of "Tradition and the Individual Talent."
I have stressed Tate's attempt to find a language that could bring reason and emotion together in one unified experience. "Retroduction to American History" and "Causerie" are sardonic comments on a culture that has failed to bring them together. But a related task for this poet was to bring present and past into experiential relationship; that is, to bring the traditional to bear upon the contemporary…. Tate was not retreating from an unpleasant and unpoetic present day into a delightful and, therefore, "poetic" past. (pp. 691-92)
[In the essays cited above, Tate explained that] modernity involves a profound sense of the past, but with a final commitment to the present. Unless there is a sense of tradition, there can be no real modernism…. History, for Tate, is important, and because he is a southerner, the history of southern culture has a special significance.
As I have already remarked, for Tate history is a matter of concrete particulars, an account of real men and women, of actual circumstances and events. When history is runthrough a Hegelian meatgrinder, say, or maybe a Marxist grinder, Tate has not been willing to accept what has come out as history. For he would deny that anyone possesses a privileged view of history—would deny that any political party or group of intellectuals really knows how history will finally come out. (Faith that certain things lie beyond the grave, or a belief that the New Jerusalem does exist in eternity—beyond the realm of time—are very different matters.) But for most modern intellectuals, the New Jerusalem lies not in eternity but in the realm of time; that is to say, it is a secular city with flesh-and-blood citizens, a place to which a correct understanding of history can deliver us, more or less on schedule. Tate clearly distrusts all guide books and roadmaps for getting to the secular New Jerusalem, presumably because he regards the secular New Jerusalem to be a mirage. As early as 1930, when he published "Religion and the Old South," the essay in which he indicated that Hegel actually destroyed history when he reduced it to an intellectual process, he observed that "sad, more concrete minds may be said to look at their history in a definite and now quite unfashionable way." Clearly, he numbered among these "sad, more concrete minds," his own. (p. 692)
[Tate] very early found an essential difference between the Old South and the rest of the country in their quite different orientations toward the future and the past. The Old South was semifeudal, agricultural, and backwardlooking; indeed, as he once actually calls it, a "traditional European community." The first settlers of Virginia and the Carolinas were no Pilgrim Fathers; they were not possessed by a messianic mission; nor were they bent upon building the perfect society in the American wilderness. If those indifferences render the Virginians and Carolinians a less noble band, nevertheless, the absence of messianic purposes is precisely Tate's point—a point that I would like to bring to a special focus of my own. Millennialism [the belief that we can produce the perfect society, here and now] never got the grip on the Old South that it fastened, for better or worse—perhaps one should say, for better and worse—on the rest of the country.
This is not to say that Tate regards the society of the Old South as perfect. In fact, he has some sharp criticisms to make of its quality and character. To name just a few; it had the curse of slavery; it was insufficiently intellectual; it failed to produce a genuine literature. Tate would add that it was not fully capable of understanding its own true virtues: that is to say, the eighteenth-century rationalistic political ideas it brought over from Europe, and its religion—whether the deism of the Virginia planters or the dissenting evangelical protestantism of the back country—were not appropriate to the semifeudal, patriarchial, society that rapidly developed in the South between 1607 and 1860.
Was the Old South in fact the kind of society that Tate describes? Or is his concept built up out of the speculations and fantasies of a young man of the 1920s? The historians who have come into prominence in the 1960s and 1970s thoroughly vindicate Tate's basic conception. (p. 693)
The classical-Christian tradition—where I locate Allen Tate's work—sees millennialism and utopianism as heresies—falsifications of history and oversimplifications of human nature. They have developed out of ancient gnosticism. But we delude ourselves if we think of them as harmless aberrations of the mind. Not so: they have power to warp and destory. Unless we understand why Tate sees in such forces of modernity an implicit threat to civilization and to man himself, we shall miss the passion and the sense of tragedy in Tate's poetry, and in his great novel, The Fathers.
The world revealed in Tate's poetry is in danger of destruction—perhaps as never before. But the prime threat is not the hell bomb. It lies within man himself, that now divided creature whose heart and head are hardly on speaking terms anymore. It is man who poses the serious threat not only to himself but to everything else. What is the testimony of Tate's poetry? What does it say? (pp. 694-95)
If space permitted, one might present the whole of the magnificent "Ode to the Confederate Dead." The world in which the dead men lived was completely human. They felt that they belonged to causes and purposes larger than themselves, causes to which they could wholly submit themselves. They believed that they had a meaningful place in history, whereas the man at the cemetery gate, though he envies the dead men the faith in which they lived and died, cannot attain it any more than could J. Alfred Prufrock or Stephen Dedalus. (pp. 695-96)
Read in its entirety, The Seasons of the Soul develops almost every element of Tate's vision of modern life. It says in finely developed and articulated poetry all that he had adumbrated in his earliest essays on the state of the culture of the West.
In what is perhaps the finest first novel (and in this case, also, the finest last novel) ever written, Tate sums up his philosophical and historical judgment as it is specifically focused upon the South. The Buchan family is destroyed in the Civil War, but not merely by fire and sword. It is destroyed from within. The Buchan family had lived by custom, taste, and family tradition. Each member knew without going through any painful reference to rule or principle what conduct was expected of him or her. But this reliance on unthinking taste has left it thoroughly vulnerable to change—particularly when that change comes to the person of a charming, unprincipled, completely rootless young man, George Posey, who seeks the hand of the daughter of the house.
Major Buchan, the kindly, guileless patriarch, is especially vulnerable. He cannot understand George Posey anymore than he can understand the forces of modernity that are at work on the national scene. He still thinks that statesmen are gentlemen of principle and honor, and that wars are fought by soldiers who respect the rights of the civilian population.
Tate has been scrupulously fair to Posey. He is not made an obvious villain: no more is Major Buchan made a saint—though in his innocence, he approaches moral blindness. In short, Tate has been too fine an artist to turn the story into a neat moral fable. Yet the novel does dramatize the weakness as well as the virtues of the civilization of the Old South when confronting a great industrial-commercial power. (pp. 696-97)
[Faulkner's] Sutpen is far closer in spirit to George Posey than he is to Major Buchan. Sutpen and Posey are antitraditional. They are both ambitious, "new" men. Both consider themselves hard-boiled realists, though actually they are at the mercy of their own undisciplined emotions…. If the victorious North represented in general this new ethic and this new dynamic, it should be noted that Posey and Sutpen possess them too.
Yet even in The Fathers Tate does not preach or argue. He presents. He witnesses to the truth as only a great artist can witness—through imaginative forms…. [He is] an acute, if impassioned, critic of our culture. I admire his sense of history and his insight into what is true and abiding in mankind. (p. 697)
Cleanth Brooks, "Allen Tate and the Nature of Modernism," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1976 by Cleanth Brooks), Vol. 12, No. 4, Autumn, 1976, pp. 685-97.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1879
Any consideration of the pastoral mode today involves us in questions of very awkward accommodation. As a matter of fact, there are two traditions not susceptible of extension into modern literature, at least not in any pure manner. These are the epic and the pastoral…. Both epic and pastoral conceive of human character as being perfectly revealed in action. Homer and Theocritus clearly believed that was so; we do not. It is questionable whether even Virgil could quite believe Homer's credo, and we are very likely to approve of the Aeneid at those moments when a psychological strangeness subsumes the heroic movement. We do not believe in action as the great revealer, largely because we cannot feel sure that meaningful action is possible. Hence, adaptations of epic in modern literature convert action to symbol, and the symbol itself is subjugated to quarrelsome oppositions, is diluted by irony, and, finally, is no revealer at all, but is in fact itself revealed by such devices as stream of consciousness. We believe in the major tragedy and major triumph of the epic pole of man's being, but we do not credit an analogue of action.
If it was accurate to mention the major tragedy and triumph of the epical pole of man's being, it is accurate to speak of the minor bliss and fulfillment of the pastoral pole of man's being. Yet we are speaking of essence, not reality.
One can hardly disagree with the usual definition of pastoral verse: rustic in setting and simple in thought and action. But while one does not disagree with the definition, neither is he noticeably informed by it. Let me suggest that the difficulty of definition is that we have no poetry that is not in some way pastoral, or, to put it another way, we have no examples at all of pastoral poetry. What I mean by that outrageous remark is this: Pastoral poetry aims at yielding an impression of innocuous happiness, which we desire; it aims at paraphrasing an animal energy, which we admire; it aims at creating a freedom of being, which we yearn for, would escape to if we could, but in which we cannot believe, and, seeking, cannot find. We cannot believe or find because we cannot remove time from action and cannot remove mind from existence. Neither can we achieve complete freedom without inclining toward a licentiousness which, like pornography, is not at all free or adventurous but stylized, heartless, and dead. At best, then, pastoral poetry gives intimations of a state we apprehend in imagination but cannot accept in reality. It gives what form can be given to our sophistries of Edens, our superstitions of blessed isles, our love of dolphins moving, our sentiments about past cultures, especially those that, like Theocritus' dear, nonsensical meadows, never existed. In short, we can have, to borrow Empson's title, some versions of pastoral. Pure pastoral we cannot have. Indeed, one may wonder to what extent a pure pastoral poetry was possible for Theocritus or any of the other ancients. The main drift of the classical lyric was not pastoral. (pp. 733-34)
[Any] important poetic consciousness yearns toward a pastoral vision at the same time that it yearns toward its polar opposite, an epical vision, neither of them quite possible. Allen Tate is no exception, for we can observe how in his early and middle work his aspirations divide between a desire for a perfect world, which poets always seem to think they deserve, and a wish to assert through action and will a change upon the world as it actually is. I suggest this division (rather than fashionable aesthetics) led him to embrace in his early career a belief in "dissociation of sensibility." That was a worry he later abandoned, but not for a long time. In the meantime, this division tended to direct the course of his poetry. It lies behind his "Ode to the Confederate Dead," a poem in which the natural world moves on about the narrator, beyond him, offering inklings, but no sure prophecy, no heroic home, while he himself is powerless to implement his will to act. He can only react, and, even so, the manner of reaction finally reduces will to veleity, while the minor fret of aggravated sensibility remains. Therefore one way to see the "Ode" is as a poem about the blunting of the epic will. There are many poems in which the pastoral will or desire is equally blunted. (pp. 734-35)
I believe for Tate the separation from the timeless world of the pastoral aspect of life and poetry meant loss of humanity. Surely, it is at least partly for that reason that he could, in the 1930's, throw himself passionately into a movement for which he had few practical hopes. I refer to the Agrarian Movement. The whole picture of the movement is, of course, complicated by the historical milieu of the Great Depression, by wounded southern pride, and, perhaps, by certain amount of desperate impudence on the parts of the advocates. But I have uncovered little to suggest that Tate thought Agrarianism would really prevail. Nor did he or any of the Agrarians except Andrew Lytle think of being a farmer—dirt or gentleman. Why then all the energy, the public debates, the quarrels, the cruel and hasty words? I submit that their passion was at base an artist's passion and one which rehearsed Blake's indignation at the abstractions of an industrialism that called human innocence into doubt.
The same abstract malignity that questions innocence also questions experience. Or, to put it another way, to doubt the spirit is to doubt the flesh, and to doubt the pastoral is to doubt the epical. This attendant doubt surfaces in such poems as "Aeneas at Washington" and "The Mediterranean." For these are both poems wherein the burden of history ultimately divorces man from history, giving him as a consolation prize a "sense of history." They are poems that wrench their triumph from a recognition that there is no triumph. In the magnificence of his despair Tate could go even further, creating marvelous poems about the enemy of poetry, that narcissistic abstractionism in which he perceives Alice submerged in the looking-glass…. She possesses "eyesight," rather than vision. The horridness of the picture derives from the separation of consciousness from a natural world. Such poems come from deciding to look the devil in the eye, something no one has to do, but if he does it and is not destroyed, he may be strengthened.
When World War II came, Tate saw it as the inevitable extension of industrialism with totalitarianism as its inevitable expression. To defeat Germany, he felt, America would have to become even more fascistic than Germany. He envisioned our young pro-consuls of the air destroying the lama, which is to say, he envisioned the death of innocence, freedom, and possibly of poetry. The poems of this time … were either strident in their denunciation or woebegone in their defeat. Yet a remarkable alteration occurred in his outlook. In "Seasons of the Soul" he confronted, almost for the first time, his own past, both at the level of fearful nightmare, which he had done before, and at a level of relative innocence, which he had not done before…. The cave imagery for Tate, who was once fond of spelunking around Sewanee, incorporates the submerged self, its memory, atrament, cryptic omens, the self's whole past experience to be comprehended at last in ways it could not have been comprehended in that past when past was present. That which happened in the serial drift of accident cannot be recaptured in memory, but it can be truly known in the imagination. That which existed in space rather than time, he tells us of his youth, can be transfigured first into time and then further transfigured into timelessness. Though "Seasons of the Soul" suggested changes in Tate's viewpoint, it nevertheless continued his old theme of an inability to convert feeling into action in the world, that theme which pervades "Ode to the Confederate Dead." "In bloody time of war / Who will know the time?" he asks. Only an ungenerous critic would want to judge "Seasons of the Soul" as anything short of being a very nearly perfect poem. Still, it is a penultimate poem in the sense that the changes in Tate's conceptions, which it adumbrates, were only fully realized a decade later in the terza rima poems of an unfinished sequence, "The Maimed Man," "The Swimmers," and "The Buried Lake." These are intricate poems; the symbolism is of a tremulous echoing, rather than of a fixative order. Yet it is fair to say that the poems are as easy to understand as they are difficult to explicate. They are, all three of them, poems of confrontation with the self, a lost or almost lost self. This self must be shaken free of an ancestral past which the poet had labored under, as one remarks in such earlier poems as "Records" and "Sonnets of the Blood." In "The Maimed Man," Tate adduces an early self, an incomplete self whom he must know better before he can move through him with the help of poetry into a poet's freedom. He must "rehearse / Pastoral terrors of youth still in the man."… ["The Swimmers"] is Tate's version of pastoral, an American pastoral with terror inseparable from the beauty. He had never before quite been able or willing to admit the propriety of that fusion. (pp. 737-41)
Cleanth Brooks has spoken of ["The Buried Lake"] as a great religious poem and a great love poem. That is altogether true of its public face. I would add that for Tate, and, surely, we are always at least dimly aware of what a poem is doing for its creator, it is a poem that creates a home for the poet. That is to say, it is, in an essential way, a pastoral poem. And I note with awe that this pastoral home is created within the self before it is created and envisioned without. That act of creation, no matter how much it depends upon a buried lake of good and evil, corruption and purity, or on the ministrations of St. Lucy, is one that ultimately is created by the poetic will. And so the poem combines the element of will and the element of desire. The epic element creates the pastoral.
My envoi to the subject takes the following turn. Tate had, from his early maturity, known that such a confluence or relationship was possible and desirable in art. He had seen, in his essay "Tension in Poetry," that any extreme, classical or romantic, was not so beautiful or true as finding a position between the extremes and drawing power from both. In that knowledge he joins Blake and his reverence for pastoral and epic, though he called them innocence and experience, contraries necessary to progression. He joins Yeats and his obsession with the interacting subjective and objective facets of the self, and T. S. Eliot whose poetry bisects the line of self and non-self, of time and eternity. (pp. 742-43)
Radcliffe Squires, "Allen Tate and the Pastoral Vision," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1976, by Radcliffe Squires), Vol. 12, No. 4, Autumn, 1976, pp. 733-43.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682
Allen Tate published in 1938 a splendid novel that places the social and aesthetic vision in a living circumstance. The setting of The Fathers is Virginia and Georgetown at the breaking up of the Union. The story is told through the elderly Lacy Buchan's recollections of his boyhood. His father, Major Lewis Buchan, sums up the antebellum Southern social order. George Posey, who marries Lacy's sister Susan, reflects the modern temperament; as a destructive presence in the Buchan family, he is an instance of the forces that were beating in upon the Old South. In Major Buchan, substantial feeling and moral will are one. He is a whole man and a gentleman; he gets his gentlemanly completeness from his perfect relationship to a full and sustaining environment, though it is on the verge of crumbling. He exemplifies the Southerner whose character, Tate had said in Stonewall Jackson, is in his property—and that can mean also in the kin and community within which his property locates itself. The Buchans, remembers the narrator, seemed to suffer their domestic troubles and the political crisis as a single event, for "as in all highly developed societies the line marking off the domestic from the public life was indistinct." The community contains manners and ceremonies for the expression of the important feelings, and the "personal" sphere as we know it hardly exists, or hardly articulates itself. The moral and emotional lives of the antebellum Virginians, acted out through precise community rituals and customs, become in effect impersonal and have dignity…. [The major] joins the private to the public order and lives ceremoniously within the dense and mannerly composite, ceremoniously restrained even in his revelation of his own distress. (pp. 58-60)
George Posey, although of an established family, has been raised outside the system of understandings that have perfectly tempered the major. George must be personal, and shape himself through his own will and passions. Tate might have said of him that he lives by the angelic imagination, trying to grasp the essences by an autonomous thrust of the will, as the major lives by the symbolic imagination and contents himself with the truths his surroundings provide him…. George's [feelings], while forceful, have little power of direction and growth. His will is energetic, but it is the energy of spasm rather than of consistent purpose. His feelings have violence without depth or perception…. George represents … the alliance between the apparent opposites of science and primitive lust, for in his eagerness to seize upon existence George reduces it by cold rationality to its usable terms. (pp. 60-1)
The Fathers is a stunning novel, and a remarkable testing out of social philosophy in an imagined living situation. It is in one way a curious accomplishment. Its author has been a spokesman for a literary school that has sounded, perhaps not quite by its own intention, almost as though it would deny to ideas the right to have an explicit independent place within an artistic work. The most admirable figure, Major Buchan, is a gentleman in whom thought is totally contained within tradition, manners, and experience. Yet ideas command The Fathers: careful speculative observations made by the narrator on the events he recalls give the themes, and the characters are representations of them.
While Tate has a pleasing skill at bringing back the texture of life in an era that is past and peopling it with real human beings, it is the ideas that give the novel its greatest strength.
The sensibility possessed by Major Buchan is indivisible. His exquisitely polished manners, his spareness of open gesture, his impersonality—the traits that in another person would be the results of reason and a strenuous moral will—derive in Buchan's case from that brand of feeling we call taste and from the massive feeling that constitutes his sense of his social heritage. (pp. 62-3)
Thomas R. West, in his Nature, Community, & Will: A Study in Literary and Social Thought (reprinted by permission of the University of Missouri Press; copyright 1976 by the Curators of the University of Missouri), University of Missouri Press, 1976.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992
Allen Tate's work in poetry, fiction, and criticism touches American life at nearly every point of consequence and continues to exert moral pressure even when the causes it serves are already mostly lost. Many of his poems take up arms against his fated enemies: the North; the forces in the Old South that made the New South inevitable; the ideologies of positivism and naturalism, which Tate regards as vandalism. The "Collected Poems" is the definitive manual of these wars….
I find it significant that the new "Collected Poems" contains about 30 early poems more than the corresponding section of Tate's standard selection, "The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems" (1971). In a note to "The Swimmers" Tate said that by an "early" poem he meant a poem he had written before 1922, when he first read Eliot…. In his novel "The Fathers" (1938) the narrator reports that, "in my feelings of that time there is a new element—my feelings now about that time…. There is not an old man living who can recover the emotions of the past; he can only bring back the objects around which, secretly, the emotions have ordered themselves in memory." Tate's earliest poems are such objects, and they are recovered in the "Collected Poems" for that reason, like the memories recited in his "Memoirs and Opinions" (1976).
After 1922, Tate's work took on a lot of freight—preoccupations in history, politics, religion and literature. Some of these were a consequence of his birth in Kentucky: he would have found it impossible to ignore the South, the nature of tradition, the family, the "antique courtesy" of myth. Other themes were congenial to a poet of Tate's temper: time, death, belief, errancy of feeling, will and intellect. In essays and, by implication, in poems, Tate has been speaking of a possible harmony of feelings, will and intellect, but he knows that in practice they exhibit mostly chaos. He has described various forms of excess, beginning with the refusal or the failure "to represent the human condition in the central tradition of natural feeling." Another exorbitance is "the thrust of the will beyond the human scale of action." And a third excess is "the intellect moving in siolation from both love and the moral will, whereby it declares itself independent of the human situation in the quest of essential knowledge." That last adjective, "essential," explains why Tate calls such an exorbitant imagination "angelic"; it represents a claim upon essence without the mediation of existence, and it is a form of spiritual pride. Against these forms of vanity, Tate sets the symbolic imagination, and his text for its working is Dante…. (p. 13)
I name these few themes in default of a complete list: such a list would constitute not only Tate's history but much of the moral history of the modern world. But I name them also to account for the difficulty of Tate's poetry, where it is difficult…. I do not know whether or not Tate's poems have been conceived in joy, but most of them come with an air of tension, if not desperation. Like many other American poems, they assume that they have to do all the work by themselves.
Given Tate's sense of modern life, his preoccupations and his feeling for grand causes mainly lost, his poems cry out for structures and forms commensurate with the chaos of their substance; or, the same thing in other terms, cry out for a masterful rhythm equal and opposite to the chaos it encounters. Some of his poems fail to reach their rhythm, and in these what we feel at every point is turbulence and frustration…. Such poems bring to bear upon their provocations an order, or a set of orders, chiefly theoretic, hypothetical, archaic or chivalric; good in general and worthy in any case but not good enough in the particular case. So the poetry senses its doom in advance, takes up burdens it has no hope of sustaining. I am thinking of "Sonnets of the Blood" (1931) and other poems as late as "The Maimed Man" (1952), poems which are moving and desperate because, achieving so much, they cannot achieve themselves.
It is well known that Tate resorted to other poets in the hope of finding himself and his own voice. Before 1922, his masters were mainly those he named in the note to "The Swimmers"; after 1922, they were chiefly Eliot, Yeats, Hardy and in certain moments Hart Crane. (pp. 13, 45)
Tate's poetry has resorted to many kinds of music. The first risk is ventriloquism, when one of Tate's poems sounds like Tate reading one of, say, Eliot's poems. A more desperate risk is inarticulateness, when the music sinks. The great occasions are those when a poem achieves its rhythm, and Tate's voice comes powerfully through its commotion. I am thinking of "The Mediterranean" (1933) for a relatively early instance, and of "The Swimmers" and "The Buried Lake" (1953) for the grand achievements. In the first, Virgil helps Tate to assume every burden in the case, and the achieved rhythm takes in its surge the sense of human action in which Europe and America are about equally implicated. Twenty years later, Tate's guide was Dante. The terza rima of "The Swimmers" and "The Buried Lake" is a remarkable achievement, commensurate with the grandeur of their themes….
[The example of Dante in "The Buried Lake"], as of Virgil in earlier poems, has given Tate the conviction that he is not compelled to do all the work by himself. Whatever the mood of the poet, his poem is at peace with its mixture of knowledge and ignorance, reason in madness….
One of the gratifications of the "Collected Poems" is to find an exasperated spirit, in the later poems, taking things a little easy. As Wallace Stevens wrote of another occasion, the mind lays by its trouble and relents. (p. 45)
Denis Donoghue, "Moving and Desperate," in The New York Times Book Review, (© 1977 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 11, 1977, pp. 13, 45.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877
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. Scarcely 20 years had passed since the appearance of his first books in 1928—the year of both "Mr. Pope and Other Poems" and "Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier"—yet in those 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….
It seemed slightly incredible … that this embattled exponent of the New Criticism—for so was Mr. Tate generally regarded in the academic controversies of the time—could the same writer who had once belonged to the worlds that had produced Hemingway and Hart Crane and "I'll Take My Stand."…
[Throughout the complex history of 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. (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" (which Arthur Mizener once described as "the novel 'Gone With the Wind' ought to have been") and "Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas" be separated from the iron grip of history. It was done, of course, but the result, I think, was to blur his distinction, especially his distinction as a poet. The New Criticism may have enhanced our appreciation of his powers of literary artifice, but it diminished our understanding of the vision that such artifice was designed to serve. In this respect, the most blatant of Mr. Tate's political and historical essays often prove a better guide to the poetry than the most accomplished explications of his language and structure. (pp. 3, 36)
Returning to the poetry again on the occasion of this new "Collected Poems," one is indeed keenly aware that "time and history" is its central concern and "man's attachment to the past" its major theme, but it is a particular history that so impresses itself on our imagination—the history of a lost world carried in the mind of a Southerner, a classicist and an artist exiled to a Northern culture in which the imperatives of industrialism, philistinism and bourgeois capitalism reinforce a sense of irretrievable defeat.
The tragic dimension of Mr. Tate's poetry, which we feel most profoundly in the poems written in memory of friends—especially in "Seasons of the Soul," written in memory of John Peale Bishop, and "The Eye," written for E. E. Cummings—as well as in the better-known "Ode to the Confederate Dead," the irony of which is in its not being an ode at all, is to be found precisely in this consciousness of exile from a history that holds the poet in its power. All that can be retrieved from this history, and from the sense of defeat that is inseparable from it and which in the end is indistinguishable from the scenario of existence itself, is what the artist makes of it. Is this, perhaps, why the poems written in memory of friends who were also poets seem to carry a special power?
It is, in any case, in this sense of history—the most encompassing of Mr. Tate's lost worlds—that we find the source of both the politics that may appall us and the poetry that moves and instructs us…. This is a poetry that is formal, elegant, "metaphysical"; and coming to it today from an immersion in the newer, looser, more solipsistic modes of contemporary verse, it too conjures up a lost world—a world of flawless, well-made structures and meters that flatter and educate the ear. But it is also a poetry of knowledge, a poetry confident in its assumption that poetry has something to tell us about our experience, about history, that only poetry can tell us. Mr. Tate's very long and distinguished career is, in its way, a kind of parable on the poet's vocation, for his poetry is often wise as well as beautiful in ways that his prose is not. It is the poetry that will live. (pp. 36-7)
Hilton Kramer, "Allen Tate: Lost Worlds," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 8, 1978, pp. 3, 36-7.