Collected Poems, 1919-1976
Allen Tate, American man of letters, critic, commentator on the literary and social scene, is first and foremost a poet. Associated from the beginning of his career with the movement that created a truly modern American literature, he is one of the few still with us from that exciting time in the 1920’s and 1930’s when Hemingway and Faulkner in prose and Eliot, Ransom, Tate, and Warren in poetry broke new ground in the handling of language in imaginative literature. He has also been connected with two other movements which have, in greater or lesser ways, shaped our sense of ourselves and our society. The first was the New Criticism, which taught us to read our literature with great care and precision, and which taught us to discover in that literature the great riches of the English language. The second was the Southern Agrarian movement, which called to our attention the cost in social and personal terms of the technological revolution. Now, at the end of a long and distinguished career, during which he has received most of the honors which America can bestow on its men of literature, he has been given the opportunity to sum things up, to bring together his past achievements and indicate those things which he wishes to be remembered for. The most notable of these summary volumes is his recent Essays of Four Decades (1968), a compilation of those essays in literary criticism which he feels are worthy of preservation. His Memoirs and Opinions (1975) is a more relaxed volume, a collection of informal essays and memoirs, which gives us more of the reflective Tate, the great writer who is also a gentleman.
The present volume, however, is the central one, the one which informs the others, which makes clear the source and power of Tate’s reputation, his place in twentieth century American literature. For it is his poetry, after all, that has built Tate’s reputation, that has given his opinions on other matters their value and authenticity. And it is a tribute to Tate’s faith in the quality of his work, and in the perceptiveness of generations of readers to come, that for this volume, uniquely among his summary volumes, he has chosen to avoid the route of selectivity. Instead, he has taken the risk of giving us everything, a collected poems rather than a selected poems. All the familiar great works are here—“Ode to the Confederate Dead,” “Cold Pastoral,” “The Swimmers,” “Seasons of the Soul”—but there are all the minor poems and very early poems as well. In fact, the poems in this volume range in date from 1919 to 1976; to read them in order of their composition, which one can easily do since each poem is carefully dated, is to trace the development of one major poet in his sureness and confidence in handling his language, forms, and themes. Tate’s corpus is not large—in all about one hundred and twenty poems—but what strikes the reader is the high quality of so much of this work, a richness and a complexity of language and vision which we can ill afford to be without in our day.
If there is a central quality to all Tate’s work, it is what we might expect from a close student of T. S. Eliot and an associate of the New Critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren—a pervasive sense of irony . The New Critics taught us that irony is at the heart of poetic language, an irony which derives initially from a sense of the distance between the ideal and the real, and which usually expresses itself in Tate’s poetry in a juxtaposition of unlikely elements. In his “Mr. Pope,” the central figure strikes fear because his “tight back was rather a goat’s than man’s.” On broader, and more thematic level, Tate’s poems generate an irony of perspective by juxtaposing again and again the present with the past. In his most famous poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” the sacrifices of the past, and the agonies of defeat, are presented to challenge us to see ourselves in their light. In other poems, the...
(The entire section is 1,630 words.)