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(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]).

Malcolm Cowley

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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 personal and symptomatic. They reflect the confusions that are caused by the author's attempt to write, simultaneously, from three different points of view.

When T. S....

(This entire section contains 781 words.)

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Eliot told us a long time ago that he was a Catholic in religion, a royalist in politics and a classicist in literature, he was announcing a debatable position, but one that was at least consistent. Tate has not this advantage. He is a Catholic by intellectual conviction (though not by communion), he is a Southern Agrarian by social background, he is a man of letters trained in the Late Romantic or Symbolist tradition—and these are three positions that cannot be reconciled anywhere short of Nirvana…. Today if Tate carried his praise of traditional religion to the logical point of joining the Church, he would be alienating himself from his own people. He would not be alienating himself from poetry, but he would be forcing himself to reject many poets whom he still admires, with a divided mind. It almost seems that his essays are being written by three persons, not in collaboration but in rivalry….

The book abounds in abstractions, in mouth-filling words such as "the South"—which bears a shadowy resemblance only to part of the real South; "Europe"—which is not France or England or Germany or the people who live in those countries; "Science"—which is separated by a thousand light years from any aims that breathing scientists pursue in their laboratories; "Religion"—which is neither Catholic nor Protestant nor yet Buddhist, though it has elements borrowed from all three; "Quantity and Quality"; "Imagination" as opposed to "the Will"; and finally "History"—which tells us how "the ideas that men lived by from about the twelfth to the seventeenth century were absolute and unquestioned," in which respect it controverts the historical records of those six centuries. All these shadow-symbols, these disembodiments, are shifted back and forward with egregious skill; one can scarcely seize their coat-tails before they vanish. Reading some of Tate's political and theological essays is like watching a game of chess played on a triangular board with ghosts for chessmen. But the result of the match is settled in advance. At a certain point the author gets tired of his symbols and sweeps them off the board with one broad gesture.

It happens at the end of his essay on "Religion and the Old South," which is the climax of the book from the standpoint of interior drama. "How," he suddenly asks, "may the Southerner take hold of his tradition? The answer is: by violence." (p. 348)

Malcolm Cowley, "A Game of Chess" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright renewal 1964, Malcolm Cowley, © 1936 The New Republic, Inc.), in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 1117, April 29, 1936, pp. 348-49.

Alfred Kazin

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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 desperate effort to save literature from science and criticism from mere history or impressionism, he transformed the experience of literature into what I. A. Richards had called a set of "isolated ecstasies." The positivism was removed, the history forgotten, all extraneous vulgarities of circumstance disengaged. Only the poem remained, and its incommunicable significance; and before it the critic worshiped as at a mystic shrine, since in it was all human knowledge and all spiritual insight.

Here, at last, was the tragicomic climax to the long and often unconscious history of American pragmatism. (pp. 441-42)

What one saw in his work was a rage, so profound and superior a hatred of science and positivism, not to say democracy, that it was almost too deep for words. There was, of course, a certain irony in his position, since the very textual analysis he defended was an aping of scientific method and rigor. But Tate never saw that, as he never saw how presumptuously his plantation aristocrat's philosophy represented the subordinate classes in the South. In his biographies of Jefferson Davis and Stone wall Jackson, in critical works suggestively titled Reason in Madness and Reactionary Essays, there was fashioned a literary apotheosis of the South, the negation of whose ambiguous splendors in modern experience he explored with pyrotechnical bitterness in his poems. It was an affirmation so much more Royalist than the King's, so much more hierarchical than any hierarch's, that the view of American society which emerged was as false to the South as it was a travesty of its own idealism.

Yet there was method in this apotheosis, and a kind of tragic satisfaction to be derived from it. For everything Tate wrote proved the abundance of his talent and his own modern and sophisticated powerlessness to use it. His orthodoxy was so palpably a convenience, a foothold, a margin of security, that it made a joke of the historic legends it ran after, and belied them. This was the perfect manufactured traditionalism, the apex of desire: it called for faith, but it had no faith; it called for order, which it could find only in poetry; it summoned men to the tasks of philosophy as if philosophy were a dignity of mind rather than the relation of ideas to the human situation…. How transparent a makeshift this traditionalism was stood revealed on every page of Tate's books; yet he never gave himself away more clearly than when he wrote in Reactionary Essays that while slavery was wrong, it was wrong because the master gave everything to the slave and got nothing in return; that the "moral" wrong of slavery meant nothing, since "societies can bear an amazing amoung of corruption and still produce high cultures." High cultures! Here lay the ultimate significance of Tate's plea for moral philosophy, for discipline, for hierarchy. It was in the quest of high cultures that the modern poet lived at last; alone with his poem, alone with its ecstasy, with drawn in its exclusive and superior knowledge; weighing the poem in all the contentment of textual analysis, dreaming in embittered resignation of a time when there had been order, order, order in the world. (pp. 442-44)

Alfred Kazin, "Criticism at the Poles," in his On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (copyright 1942, 1970 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942, pp. 400-52.∗

Monroe K. Spears

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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. (pp. 67-8)

[Mr. Tate's] defense of poetry as knowledge, though effective controversial technique, seems to me ultimately dubious, for it depends on a semantic shift: Mr. Tate's knowledge which is about itself, proves nothing, explains nothing, and "has no useful relation to the ordinary forms of action" … is certainly not knowledge in the Positivist or any ordinary sense. But the important point is that Mr. Tate seems to mean by knowledge precisely what he earlier termed absolute experience: the contemplation or vision or revelation of absolute truth sought usually in philosophy and religion. And this goes beyond art for art's sake; it suggests life for art's sake. In asserting that art, and only art, gives us this absolute knowledge, Mr. Tate seems to be doing (much more subtly and intelligently) what he takes others to task for: making art a substitute for religion. (pp. 69-70)

Mr. Tate sees the social effect of poetry as essentially conservative: poetry is "the instinctive counter-attack of the intelligence against the dogma of future perfection for persons and societies"; it "tests with experience the illusions that the human predicament tempts us in our weakness to believe."… [Mr. Tate is] much more interested in the effect of society on poetry than in the effect of poetry on society. His view is, with some qualifications, deterministic; and its most extreme embodiment is the concept of the "perfect literary situation." The perfect literary situation occurs when a tradition, a culture, is breaking up; the "poet finds himself balanced upon the moment when such a world is about to fall."… The world order can then be assimilated to the poetic vision, "brought down from abstraction to personal sensibility." In such an age the clash of powerful opposites "issues in a tension between abstraction and sensation"; the poet is able to fuse sensibility and thought, perceive abstraction and think sensation…. Poetry "probes the deficiencies of a tradition. But it must have a tradition to probe."… The poet criticizes his tradition, puts it to the test of experience, compares it with something that is about to replace it. (pp. 70-1)

There would seem to be, in Mr. Tate's thought, a fundamental ambiguity, for his two goals—great art and a traditional society—ultimately conflict. And art is largely determined by society: tradition provides its myths, controlling ideas, unification of sensibility, apprehension of total experience; yet for its greatest stimulation it requires the disintegration of tradition. Mr. Tate, however, frequently implies that the two goals agree, when he is discussing social questions or modern poetry. The two problems involved—primacy of values and literary determinism—he never considers directly. My impression is that the aesthetic value is primary for Mr. Tate (though he does not want to change society only for the sake of art); as to literary determinism, the inconsistency results from his double purpose: he wishes to defend modern poetry, and at the same time use its defects as a basis for condemnation of the society which produced it; the first motive leads him to minimize the relationship between literature and society, and the second to emphasize it. Hence Mr. Tate's attitude toward contemporary poetry is curiously ambivalent. (pp. 71-2)

Unable to accept religion (but convinced of its necessity), Mr. Tate is driven to set up art and traditional society (or the moral unity to be attained within it) as absolutes; the two agree imperfectly, and are unreconciled. Mr. Tate's literary criterion is a rigorous one: most poetry lacks absolutism, and he is therefore occupied most of the time with explaining the failure of poetry in terms of its relation to society. Being a poet, he wishes to defend modern poetry (and the poetry of the past which is most like modern poetry); yet, largely on the evidence of the poetry, he condemns the society; and this dual purpose produces further ambiguities. (p. 75)

I do not wish to suggest that Mr. Tate's deficiencies in theory and logical inconsistencies (those I have pointed out; my interpretation cannot be entirely correct, and there may not be as many as I think) invalidate his criticism; many values, and those not the least important, are not dependent primarily on theory. In conclusion, I shall summarize what I take to be the chief permanent values of Mr. Tate's criticism. First, the essays aid one to understand Mr. Tate's own poetry: not only do they define the kind of poetry he is trying to write, but they state explicitly most of the ideas and attitudes found in the poems. And Mr. Tate's poetry is so fine that this use alone would justify the essays (though I doubt that Mr. Tate would entirely approve). Second, the prose exhibits the same gift of language that distinguishes the poetry—the same concentration, imaginative power, boldness combined with restraint. Mr. Tate can sum up a whole indictment, a whole philosophy, in a sardonic sentence or a vivid metaphor. Yet the style is refreshingly simple and unpretentious…. Third, in the realm of ideas, his conception of history—the contrast of the traditional religious imagination which sees the past as temporal and concrete with the modern historical method which sees it as abstract and detemporalized—is, with its corollaries and accompanying insights, his most important contribution. The bold simplification of reducing the enemy to Positivism, which is traced through its multiple metamorphoses, and the conception of poetry as the absolute, are (whatever the difficulties involved) effective and valuable formulations. Finally, Mr. Tate's greatest virtue is one I have had almost wholly to leave out of account in this review. His analyses of specific poems are masterly: their most remarkable feature is that they stress heavily the element of meter, rhythm, music, which most critics tend to neglect; Mr. Tate relates this element to the whole meaning and effect of the poem, and discusses it with an intelligence and sensitivity that are, as far as I know, unique. In reviewing contemporary poets Mr. Tate is free of the note of envy or malice which so often mars reviews of poets by poets; he does not reduce his critical apparatus to a formula, as even such excellent critics as Ransom, Brooks, and Winters tend, in varying degrees, to do. These reviews, generous yet just and penetrating, are perhaps the soundest judgments we have; their only defect is a tendency to blame the society for all the faults of the poetry, and that is a defect compounded of generosity and polemic intent.

The final impression this book leaves is one of admiration for Mr. Tate's independence and common sense and avoidance of cant; for his stubborn honesty and candor; his ideal of poise, integrity, and intelligence. (pp. 76-7)

Monroe K. Spears, "The Criticism of Allen Tate," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, author and publisher; © 1949 by The University of the South), Vol. LVII, No. 2, Spring, 1949 (and reprinted in Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations, edited by Radcliffe Squires, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1972, pp. 60-78).

R. J. Schoeck

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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 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. He has consistently held for the highest standards of literature and argued for the thesis that the fuller forms of literature offer us the most complete versions of our experience. Thus in this volume of critical essays of a high standard Mr. Tate offers not only exemplars of the critic at work but discussions of the realm and office of the critic, and other essays which deal with the basic conflicts of our culture. In all of them we witness what R. P. Blackmur has called his "powerful, because unusually integrated, sensibility."

It is that integration of sensibility which has here been carried one step further. I will not claim that his recent conversion to Catholicism has given him that; some, indeed, will argue that his integration has won him his conversion. But one sees an obvious influence at work here and the exercise of his imagination has gained coherence in its ordering and even generates additional insight. What is evident and ultimately vital is that (to modify his own phrase) the philosophical language in which Tate visibly expounds his insight now reflects an authority which he has experienced and tested and earned as a poet, not as a passive student.

That sense of authority does not become an abstract critical dialectic, for Mr. Tate does not lose his awareness of and emphasis on the provisional nature of the critical enterprise…. In the long run he keeps faith with the work that he engages to examine, and that is the ultimate responsibility of the critic. No one is more richly aware than he of that and other responsibilities of the critic to himself, to his craft and language, to society; and his integration of sensibility has kept pace with his awareness of responsibility.

R. J. Schoeck, "The Ordered Insight Which Is Earned," in Commonweal (copyright © 1953 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LVIII, No. 8, May 29, 1953, p. 205.

Northrop Frye

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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 critics can write with more sustained brilliance or employ the technical language of criticism with more assurance and dexterity. The incompetent critic has a delicate instinct for avoiding the center of his subject; Mr. Tate has an infallible instinct for finding it. In discussing Poe, he goes straight for Eureka and the "colloquies" and relates the speculative nihilism in them with the more obvious nihilism in the Usher story. In discussing Johnson, he puts his finger at once on Johnson's lack of sense for the dramatic or experiential aspect of literature. Even when his dialectic seems merely ingenious, it still has the brain-softening plausibility that we used to find in the best Marxist criticism. There is no question of finding in Mr. Tate himself what he calls the pride that prevents the complete discovery of the subject. Nothing is actually obscured: I get, rather, a sense of a wrenched and astigmatic intensity of vision. The astigmatism is due to what he calls "an ambitious assumption, about the period in which we live, which I shall not make explicit." There is an uneasy feeling of unwritten thus-we-see perorations hovering around the conclusions of his essays. (pp. 131-32)

Northrop Frye, "Ministry of Angels," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1953 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. VI, No. III, Autumn, 1953 (and reprinted in Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature: A Collection of Review Essays, edited by Robert D. Denham, The University of Chicago Press, 1978, pp. 130-40).∗

Eliseo Vivas

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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 responsibility puts on the man of letters the burden of inventing standards by which this difference may be known and a sufficient minority of persons may be instructed. It ought to be clear from this succinct statement alone that Allen Tate is going far beyond what T. S. Eliot conceives to be the task of the poet. For Eliot would have it that the duty of the poet is to preserve and develop the language. But both preservation and development are for Eliot controlled by the need for expression, through the objective correlative, of feelings and emotions. Even when Mr. Tate conceives the immediate task of the man of letters at our own critical moment, he is thinking of that task in objective and not in subjective terms. Sentiments and emotions are no doubt important constituents of the world in which we live, but they cannot give us the key to the whole.

The restricted "immediate responsibility" of the man of letters is conceived by Mr. Tate in the context of a larger and more permanent responsibility which is defined by him as follows: The man of letters "must create for his age an image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true." (pp. 131-32)

If this is how Mr. Tate conceives the task of the man of letters I do not believe it would take much argument to demonstrate that what he is expected to do today, as things are for us, at our critical moment, is a desperately quixotic and probably anachronistic service. (p. 134)

Ours, it has been frequently observed, is an age of criticism. Our critics are, one and all, endowed with considerable talent.

And they have added to this talent wondrous skills to achieve brilliant discriminations; they are endowed with subtle tools of analysis, they have at their command the insights of the sciences and the pseudo-sciences of today, and those who are put through the academic processing machinery—and most of them are in an age in which education is universal—possess more than enough historical erudition for their purposes. But it must also be observed that our critics are for the most part philosophically pauperized and are, hence, devoid of a coherent sense of the place of man in society, the place of society in history, and the relation of history to the universe. It is no wonder, therefore, that they should have only the most trivial notions of the use of literature…. None of these critics ask of themselves the simple question: How does it happen that art, that seems to be, and in a sense is, the most expendable of activities in human society, is one of the two most ineradicable, most indispensable modes of experience? Our critics cannot ask this question because, for the most part, they work in a philosophical vacuum. And they do because they lack a guiding body of convictions—of prejudices, in Edmund Burke's sense of the word—with reference to which the work of art is seen as an indispensable and unsubstitutable factor in the creation and maintenance of the human element in the animal, man. (pp. 137-38)

[Neither] conservative nor liberal critics seem to have a sense of the way in which art affects the lives of men. And the reason is simply that they do not base their criticism, whether new or old, whether historical or non-historical, whether sociological or psychoanalytic, on a tenable notion of the destiny of man. If you press them, all they can give you is a more or less dressed-up version of man as an animal essentially motivated by the pleasure principle…. For such men the role of art in human life cannot be central. Philosophically, ours is a bankrupt generation.

In contrast Mr. Tate is saying that art is important because human life is not capable of achieving what virtue or perfection it may achieve unless it is guided by an effective notion of the destiny of man. The poet makes his essential and indispensable contribution when he gives us "the image of man as he is in his time, which without the man of letters would not otherwise be known." Thus it is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Tate's fundamental concern as a man of letters is with the values men live by and the ends they serve. In the essay on Dante, what he explicitly proposes to do is 'to look at a single image in the Paradiso [the image of light], and to glance at some of its configurations with other images."… But when Mr. Tate is through with his analysis what he has given us is a contrast between the medieval imagination, which does not try to transcend the mediation of image and discourse, and "the angelic imagination" which "tries to disintegrate or to circumvent the image in the illusory pursuit of essence." What is suggested is a conception of man and, in sketch at least, a philosophy of history. (pp. 138-39)

[In the first of the two essays on Poe, Mr. Tate] demonstrates that Poe possessed the angelic imagination and used it without qualms and for this reason Poe is "the transition figure in modern literature," since he is the man who discovered our great subject, "the disintegration of personality, but kept it in a language that had developed in a tradition of unity and order."… In the second essay, Mr. Tate makes clear why he is fascinated by this man of the nineteenth century. He writes, "in the history of the moral imagination in the nineteenth century Poe occupies a special place. No other writer in England or the United States, or, so far as I know, in France, went so far as Poe in his vision of dehumanized man."…

One can disagree with Mr. Tate as regards details…. But I do not believe the reflective man can disagree with him as regards the substance of the issue. There are, in this quarrel, three possible positions. One can look forward to a totally secularized future, made glorious by science as it extends its sway; one can, with Mr. Tate, look back on a past in which men, for all their sins, never seriously proposed a purely secular conception of human destiny; or one can deny these alternatives on the ground that the more things change the more they are the same. I take it that this denial of the alternatives is given the lie by the facts and that the disagreement between Mr. Tate and the positivists is as to the proper evaluation of the facts and what they seem to portend. Science has indeed made a difference: it has encouraged a swarm of false philosophies which claim its authority and whose business is to destroy the once solid metaphysics in the light of which we defined our destiny…. It becomes more and more clear that the positivist mind … will do its termite work, and there is precious little that any one can do to stop it from destroying our culture. I suspect that the muffled despair the reader discerns below the surface of this book springs from the fact that Mr. Tate knows that the things he loves are doomed. Bet Mr. Tate is no man to take the threat lying down. At the heart of his criticism, informing it throughout and giving it remarkable consistency and force, is his protest against the meaning of the present and of the probable future. (pp. 139-40)

Eliseo Vivas, "Allen Tate As Man of Letters," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1954 by The University of the South), Vol. LXII, No. 1, January, 1954, pp. 131-43.

Richard Foster

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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 Spears, former editor of Sewanee Review and an admirer of Tate, has found that the knowledge supposedly constituted by poetry looked strangely like "the contemplation or vision or revelation of absolute truth sought usually in philosophy and religion." Tate, he says, seemed at times to be "making art a substitute for religion," which results not in a doctrine of art for art's sake, but of "life for art's sake" [see excerpt above].

The characterization is right and useful. But I should prefer it "art for life's sake" to enforce the Arnoldian likeness that, for all his denials, has been implicit in Tate's view of poetry. The difference from Arnold is one first of tone: where Arnold is respectable, journalistic, and traditionally humane, Tate is tragic, cryptic, mystic; and second of verbal technicalities: where Arnold distinguishes "idea" from mere fact, Tate distinguished "knowledge." And both alike attribute to poetry the higher thing distinguished…. [An early Tate essay called "Poetry and the Absolute"] is a useful specimen of the beginnings of Tate's actual romanticism of thought, and helps to explain why in the end, beyond the deep and unforgettable individuality of his rage, his work would finally exhibit a romantic enthusiasm like Coleridge's supported by a romantic moralism like Arnold's.

At many points in his essays one could almost imagine that Tate had consciously set out to complete the work that the romanticisms of Arnold and Coleridge left unfinished. Arnold's attempted exaltation of poetry as increasingly the "consolation and stay" of "the spirit of our race," Tate perfects by returning to poetry the rights to "knowledge" that Arnold was supposed to have signed away to the sciences in such essays as the one on "Literature and Science." And when in "The Man of Letters in the Modern World," Tate asks of "the letter of the poem, the letter of the politician's speech, the letter of the law," "Is there in this language genuine knowledge of our human community—or the lack of it—that we have not had before?" he does for the imagination what Coleridge, its most famous philosophic partisan, was ultimately unable to do. He performs an act of recognition of the imagination as the unifying power not only of artistic creation, but also of man's total life as a spiritual and social being.

Tate has glorified in similar fashion the activity of the critic. Criticism, he has written, expressing through metaphors of mystic intensity an Arnoldian emphasis on the importance of the critical faculty, occupies a "middle position between imagination and philosophy," which makes it "perpetually impossible. Like a man literary criticism is nothing in itself; criticism, like man, embraces pure experience or exalts pure rationality at the price of abdication from its dual nature." Or, to put it another way—and I assume the obviousness of the image Tate has here provided of the man of letters' difficult sojourn between two chimeras of modernist certainty—at the price of the freedom, as well as of the sanity, which is implicit in the idea of an uncommitted and skeptical intelligence.

Since it is as critic, as a voice of "reason" amid the modern madness, or a voice whose reason is as a madness to its surroundings, that the artist becomes the man of letters, I think Tate's conception of criticism and the critic is of special importance in this interpretation of him as an unmistakable if reluctant romantic. Tate has pictured the ideal criticism in a chaotic time as the expression of a "whole" and traditionally formed mind intellectually detached from the present. And I suppose for him its exemplar, besides the "skeptical and searching" Mr. Ransom of Tate's relative youth, would be T. S. Eliot. Such a criticism does the work neither of "reason" nor of feeling and intuition, but of "intelligence," which involves both. At its best, he had told us in his note on "The Critic's Business," it is no more nor less than "the ordering of original insights and … passing them on, through provisional frames of reference, to other persons secondhand:" It should be noted that this detached critical intelligence holds off explicitly from all limiting critical dogmas and methodologies, and implicitly too from the larger dogmas, social and spiritual, that would seek to compel literature into becoming an instrument of something else. This recalls Arnold's continual emphasis on the necessary "disinterestedness" of criticism. But from literature considered as an art the critical intelligence must move into the broader human issues; for literary standards, Tate has observed, "in order to be effectively literary, must be more than literary." And this should recall not only T. S. Eliot, but also Arnold again, who believed that criticism dealt with the best that has been thought and known in the world, and that literature is a "criticism of life," which is much more than a matter of the aesthetics of literature.

I am suggesting that the critical "intelligence" hypostatized by Tate, with the breadth of work that he assigns it, requires and desires, as the romantic mind does, both freedom and certainty. The word "intelligence" presumes to justify the man of letters' keeping free of commitment to any of the formulas of the modern world, whose fragmentation and dehumanization, measured against his vision of the coherent and traditional society, reveal no enabling pattern for full human realization. But it presumes also to reassure by suggesting a sufficient wholeness and certainty of mind—what in much lesser contexts might be called "good sense"—to save him from capsizing in a gust of reaction.

But in spite of the reasonable-sounding rhetoric, the actual position of Tate's man of letters looks untenably paradoxical. Let me quote something strikingly relevant to the point at issue that Tate wrote nearly a generation ago in the essay on "Confusion and Poetry." He had then discovered the New Humanists caught in a telling intellectual dilemma: they desired authority at the same time they desired "freedom from the traditional sources of moral judgment, as these come down to us in living institutions like the church." Their solution, he wrote, was to make "a vague mixture of Classical and Christian authors" into their missing traditional or institutional authority. A solution, is it not, like Tate's own humane critical "intelligence," like Arnold's quest for the best that has been thought and known, and eventually even like Wordsworth's and Coleridge's intuition, which bypasses the discursive books to go straight to infants, peasants, and mountains, Truth's natural vessels? His solution is a romantic solution, and the end it looks toward is the angelized intellect of Poe, where without either nature or light "thought" is its own object, its own substance, its own structure. Some words of Tate's own, abducted into my special context here, supply exactly the suggestive application I wish to make about Tate's position as the man of letters who does not live intellectually anywhere in the modern world. Here are the disturbing last sentences of "Our Cousin, Mr. Poe":

Mr. Poe tells us in one of his simpler poems that from boyhood he had "a demon in my view." Nobody then—my great-grandfather, my mother, three generations—believed him. It is time we did. I confess that his voice is so near that I recoil a little, lest he, Montressor, lead me into the cellar, address me as Fortunato, and wall me up alive. I should join his melancholy troupe of the undead, whose voices are surely as low and harsh as the grating teeth of storks. He is so close to me that I am sometimes tempted to enter the mists of pre-American genealogy to find out whether he may not actually be my cousin.

Let us come back into the element of our discourse and direct the force of these metaphors upon the man of letters as a free-floating humanistic intelligence scrutinizing, in the capacity of critic, the discontinuous, dehumanized modern world. What is this intelligence that he would exercise? And how would we know it from a possibly Satanic intelligence? And when it acted critically, would we not be implicitly committed in advance to accepting whatever "insights" came from it labeled as products of a free, unmethodological and undogmatized mind? What is an "insight"? How is it different from a logical conclusion or an empirical observation? And how could we tell it from a whim, an error, a lie?

These are rhetorical questions. But they represent, I think, very real problems, unless we are going to take Tate's critical discourse as merely a lifework of idle rhetoric. The man of letters makes assertions about important matters—about literature, yes, but also about values generally, about life, about "reality." He engages with philosophical questions by his own choice, and if we take any stock in the answers he gives, "provisional" or not, we must care how well they meet the tests of experience, of logic, or even of received dogmas. To care may be our only protection, for all we know, against a philosophic madness, or a Poeish descent into the romantic maelstrom, or a hopeless entombment by Montressor as critic.

It seems, actually, that Tate has become his own Montressor, that in the end he has lain down almost willingly where he never wanted to—in darkness, with his cousin Mr. Poe. But there is another act in this drama of the mind of the man of letters in the modern world. Capitulation to the intellectual anarchy of romanticism would indeed mean, by the man of letters' own standards, a kind of tragedy of the mind—or, at the very least, a death. But Tate became a convert, a few years ago, to Christianity; and I think we may understand that conversion as a kind of resurrection. (pp. 118-26)

In the criticism there is still the mystic fervor, but it is now, presumably, regulated by the structures of the Church and sanctioned by the histories of its saints, and need no longer justify itself with the old humanistic slogans of certainty or the ejaculatory jargon of the romantic intuitionist. And the reactionary rage that has given us some of the most memorable literary essays of our times is still fiercely operative. But now it has a more definite work to do, something in the nature almost of holy war. (p. 128)

I think one must take the view that where Tate has finally arrived on his pilgrimage has not been precisely a destination in the sense of an ending. Instead of putting down burdens he has taken up new ones. For, as in the case of Eliot, the place where he has chosen to lay his final allegiance has itself become the origin of a new creative progress. Soon, probably, they will be speaking of the work of the fifties as the beginning of his third period. (p. 129)

Richard Foster, "Allen Tate: From the Old South to Catholic Orthodoxy," in Accent (copyright, 1957, by Accent), Vol. XVII, No. 3, Summer, 1957 (and reprinted in his The New Romantics: A Reappraisal of the New Criticism, Indiana University Press, 1962, pp. 107-29).

John M. Bradbury

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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 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.

The major themes of Tate's critical work are few, and their derivations clear; his ultimate value as a critic, therefore, must rest on the cogency and relevance of his applications. However, his firm championship of the principles he has espoused has largely determined his influence. Most importantly, Tate has stood for the autonomy of art and for the "new critical," or aesthetic formalist, basis of critical analysis. He has not, however, held this position consistently. (pp. 108-09)

Tate's most insistent and persistent motif has been his appeal to authority, though the seat of his authority has shifted more than once. In fact, we may view his progress as a theoretical critic in terms of an extended search for an adequate base of authority on which to support his literary and social positions. However, while his search has continued, he has treated each of his provisional bases as if it were final. As a result, his statements of judgment have often sounded with the ring of cathedral pronouncements. Tate has severely attacked other modern poets and critics; he has scored public education and modern intellectual apathy for the "obscurity" attributed to contemporary literature; he has derogated modern science and particularly scientific positivism; and he has finally deprecated the whole tradition of Western liberalism. Seldom has he sounded like one who has "conducted his education in public," as he described his activities in a recent book, but like one who has, like a taskmaster, unpleasant public duties to perform.

Tate's prepossessions, like those of the other major Fugitives, were essentially rationalistic. His original conceptions were those of Ransom; and when he broke with Ransom's philosophic dualism, it was in the interest of establishing a rational monistic system in which literary expression and religious as well as social imperatives were to be integrated into a hierarchical order. Through the years, Tate has been forced by the logic of his positions farther and farther beyond his original commitments into the area of metaphysical speculation. His theory of literature as "knowledge," annunciated in Reason in Madness, led to an invocation of myth and "mythic knowledge"; and from this resort he was induced to assume a highly subjective "power within us, the imaginative power of the relation of things" as the source of art's special insights. In his latest Catholic pronouncements, Tate has invoked "a higher unity of truth," or "Truth," which literature must ultimately reflect, or consent to be regarded as "only illusion." It would appear that Tate's relentless pursuit of a rational justification of the art to which he has dedicated his life has pressed him finally into suprarationalism.

On the level of practical criticism, Tate has proved himself from the start a highly perceptive reader with a sensitivity that guides him directly to the source of a writer's quality. His knowledge of the writer's problems and his own technical proficiency in verse and prose constantly enrich his insights. Often his strictures, under the promptings of theory, are harsh, but they are based as a rule on rigorous analyses. His generalizations, when they are not strained by the impositions of theory, are telling, despite their dogmatic tone and their persistent bias. Tate's range of appreciation is narrow, but within his provinces of metaphysical poetry and symbolic naturalism, he always illuminates the texts and broadens understanding. Outside this area, he is quick to discover local flaws and general limitations; yet his judgments here, with all their special weighting, are never impertinent nor imperceptive. When he speaks in purely literary terms. Tate is lucid and compelling. His natural propensities, however, are those of a moralist, even of a public censor. His criticism, therefore, is heavily burdened with the theories and pronouncements of the philosopher, the sociologist, the historian of ideas, and the public moralist. In these roles, Tate has exerted much influence and stimulated much controversy, but the critic in him has often been forced into the position of a supporting actor. (pp. 109-11)

John M. Bradbury, "Tate As Critic," in his The Fugitives: A Critical Account (copyright, 1958, by The University of North Carolina Press), University of North Carolina Press, 1958, pp. 108-25.

R. K. Meiners

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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 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. (pp. 16-17)

In the reviews of this period …, Tate repeatedly insists that order is both an achievement of the poet's form and a cultural affair. The two are constantly joined and are almost always connected in Tate's thought. Even in the early essay, "Poetry and the Absolute," a text often used to cite the extremity of Tate's formalism, he is merely concentrating more heavily on the relation of the poet to his medium; the essay cannot be isolated from his total point of view. The charge, presented in various ways, that Tate has "isolated poetry from life," or presented a doctrine of "life for art's sake," while certainly not incomprehensible, will not stand much examination. Still less, it seems to me, will Alfred Kazin's assertion that Tate made of literature a series of "isolated ecstacies" bear scrutiny…. Tate has worshipped as many strange things as most of us, and at times his reverence for the poem is almost mystical: but his "aestheticism" has often been misunderstood. Tate's "aestheticism" is not the reduction of life to the elusive pursuit of beauty and the willed neatness of iambic discourse. The aesthetic order is, for Tate, an independent order and the one in which he is most interested. It is an order of being that cannot be reduced to other orders of being. This is not to say that it is the only order of being, or that the aesthetic order nowhere impinges on other orders of being.

The point which Tate made at great length throughout his early critical work had two facets, though it remained a single point: (1) poetry was the unification of experience within the enigmatic dynamics of form and (2) the forms of the poet's art could not be frivolous or eccentric if great poetry was to result. Form had to depend on the poet's ability to perceive human experience whole, and he could not so perceive experience unless the society offered the artist settled forms of experience (though the experience itself, like Dante's, might be chaotic).

If we emphasize one of these facets in isolation, we will get either a sterile separation of the poem from the bewildering dilemmas of life, or an irrational reverence for tradition which results, finally, in a cultural determinism. To apprehend Tate clearly, it seems to me, one must reject both the first and the second of these alternatives and realize that both aspects are joined in a total strategy which, while sometimes as mysterious as the hypostatic union itself, is nevertheless an inseparable union.

It would be an entirely different matter, one amounting to a preposterous evasion of critical responsibility, to fail to balance against this assertion of union the recognition that Tate, in his early writing and throughout his career, has elevated the problem of form above all other issues. For form is order, and it is order for which Tate has constantly searched. Yet poetic form is not isolated, and can exist only through a larger order of the imagination and order of culture. The entire question is exceedingly complicated, and many of the debates of modern criticism have similar issues as their base.

One of Tate's important early essays on these questions I have already mentioned: "Poetry and the Absolute," first published in 1927. As essays go, it is not very impressive and he has never republished it. But it is important; it establishes issues that continued to work in Tate's continual struggle with poetics…. "Poetry and the Absolute" is still likely to repay some attention as long as it is recognized for what it is: Tate's first concerted attempt to resolve a paradox which informs all of his writing on poetics. (pp. 18-20)

The basic proposition of the essay is that poetic creation involves the poet's attempt to create an absolute, that is a static, order. This type of absolute is fundamentally different from the search for certainty in other approaches to experience, such as speculative philosophy. Philosophy may present metaphysical absolutes, such as Plato's Forms or Hegel's Absolute idea; these seek to describe an essential and ontological order of the universe. But the poetic absolute is created, not ontological; it is a matter of form: experience is formed into an achieved and permanent order. Thus, Tate says that the function of the poem is neither to express the poet's inner processes, nor to approximate the world-order. The function of the poem is to eliminate the helter-skelter, to banish the contingent, for the mind has "an irresistible need for absolute experience," for some ground of certainty which constantly retreats from mere philosophical speculation. The argument is undoubtedly shaky and could not bear a great deal of examination. If that "irresistible need" is removed the whole argument is shattered beyond mending. And though it is possible to sympathize with Tate's purpose, it seems to me that there is very little he could do if someone were to insist that the "irresistible need" is merely the peculiar way in which his mind functions. (pp. 20-1)

The dilemma which seems to lie at the heart of Tate's poetic theory is a reflection of his larger stance. In one version, it is the strain between culture and art. In another version, it is the strain between content and form. In still another, the alternatives of positivism and formalism present themselves. I know no neat vocabulary which will express the dilemma. It is at once a version of several of the problems to which we have been introduced in our textbooks of elementary philosophy: we have here the problem of the One and the Many, but also the ego-centric predicament, the mind-body problem, and several of those other edifying sources of confusion. Therefore, I will not label the paradox simply, but shall call it several things according to the direction in which Mr. Tate seems to approach it. What we must keep in mind is that one side of the dilemma is that approach to experience which tends to lose itself in the world; the other side tends to vanish into the self. One side dissipates into method; the other into an isolated form. The paradox is real enough, if difficult to name. (pp. 64-5)

A poetic unity is what Tate desires; a poetry of tension, held mysteriously between opposing perils. But how do we recognize such a poetry when we find it? How, if our society and history is such as Tate describes, is such a poetry ever written? The answer must be that the existence and apprehension of such a quality is mysterious. Mr. Tate offers us a criterion, but he does not tell us how to use it. Perhaps it is an accident of our culture or our personal history if we are able to use it at all. For it is only through that higher unity of truth that the poet may meet his responsibilities to his culture, that he may work the complete body of experience into his medium. The poet may not meet his responsibilities by advocating social platforms, or by retreating into the mistiness of a "poetic vision." He is responsible in time to bear witness to the unchanging source of truth which is beyond time, and he can do this only through the mastery of his medium. He will not master the medium unless he has a view of the world which allows him to do so.

Even with the higher unity of truth, there are likely those who feel that Tate's demands are still mysterious, that he gives too little instruction in their uses and applicability. A religious conversion seems to be the answer but that is a step which will be difficult for many. I cannot say how satisfactory Tate's judgments will be for others, though I have already indicated some of their defects and virtues. Perhaps our final disagreement or agreement on these matters will depend on a certain secret empathy at least as mysterious as some of Tate's judgments.

I suggest that Tate's position is not satisfactory, because it is not a "position." Tate, I believe, would agree, and would say further that a position will be of little use to us in these matters, because no position will stretch far enough to cover all the dark places of our experience. He may be condemned for this if we wish to do so. Yet no man in our time has devoted himself more single-mindedly to the problems of the humane intelligence in inhumane times. He has not solved those problems, but we must ask: "who has?" He has done something which is perhaps as valuable at the same time that it is irritating: he has kept the problems before us. If we realize that they exist and that they are grave, we shall probably have at least some chance to understand not only literature, but our experience as well. We may understand them only dimly, and we shall undoubtedly feel the pressures of this permanent war of the nerves, and we may curse the fact that Tate, or someone else, has not given us a better light with which to look at the situation. On the other hand, if we do not realize that the problems which Tate has raised exist, then our understanding will not be even partial. We will undoubtedly find ourselves permanent occupants, with Cratylus, of a darkness which cannot be illumined. (pp. 79-80)

There is a sense of desperation, in the best sense, surrounding everything Allen Tate writes, and he has written on many occasions for many purposes. He is capable of extravagance but not triviality. Few have so consistently forced their readers to face the last alternatives. "The true province of the man of letters is nothing less (as it is nothing more) than culture itself." The vigor and honesty with which he has surveyed his province give Tate the right to the title of the essay from which the statement comes: The Man of Letters in the Modern World. (pp. 198-99)

R. K. Meiners, in his The Last Alternatives: A Study of the Works of Allen Tate (© 1963 by R. K. Meiners; reprinted by permission of Ohio University Press, Athens), Alan Swallow, 1963, 217 p.


Tate, (John Orley) Allen (Vol. 14)


Tate, (John Orley) Allen (Vol. 4)