Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

Tate’s own comments provide a good place to begin to understand his intent. The poem, he writes in “Narcissus as Narcissus,” deals with solipsism—with modernity’s lack of cohesion and the isolation of the individual. The world of the Confederate dead was unified. The soldiers knew “midnight restitutions,” rage, heroism, the...

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Tate’s own comments provide a good place to begin to understand his intent. The poem, he writes in “Narcissus as Narcissus,” deals with solipsism—with modernity’s lack of cohesion and the isolation of the individual. The world of the Confederate dead was unified. The soldiers knew “midnight restitutions,” rage, heroism, the entire range of emotions that the spectator unsuccessfully attempts to evoke; the older society understood and believed what the twentieth century can only analyze. The soldiers acted, but moderns are merely onlookers. In the third stanza, the man at the gate assumes the guise of a sociologist, and later he becomes a historian recalling the old battles, but the tradition he seeks is dead. He can mummify it and so preserve the memory, but he cannot revitalize the heritage. Just as modernity has lost the unified vision of Parmenides and Zeno, so it has lost their heroism. Zeno’s voice is muted in the present, but Tate also alludes to the philosopher’s biting off his tongue so that he could give no information to his captors.

Tate’s confrontation with modernity is at once universal and personal. Everyone living in the twentieth century, Tate says in the poem, is a Narcissus, but for the Southerner this problem is particularly acute. Shortly after Tate completed the first version of this poem, he sent copies to various other writers for comments. His fellow Fugitive writer Donald Davidson wrote back,The Confederate dead become a peg on which you hang an argument whose lines, however sonorous and beautiful in a strict proud way, leave me wondering why you wrote a poem on the subject at all, since in effect you saythat no poem can be written on such a subject.

Divorced from his past, Tate was asking how the Southerner, how Tate himself, could continue to create. The Fugitives rejected modernity, but Davidson sensed that Tate was abandoning the effort to link himself with the agrarian world of the Old South. However desirable that fusion, Tate believed that it no longer was possible.

The poem is an elegy not only for the Confederate dead but also for the unusable past and for Tate’s former belief in the viability of the Confederate tradition. Tate wrestled with the poem for a decade, and his ability to complete it marks a triumph. The Southerner could write about his heritage, could draw on the past, but he had to do so as a person of his own time. Tate proved Davidson wrong: A poem could be written on the subject, but it could not be a nineteenth century poem. Tate had come to recognize that by living in the past one creates rhetoric; by wrestling with it in the present, one produces poetry.

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