Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 461 words.)