The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

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This ninety-two-line stream-of-consciousness meditation contrasts modern man with the heroes of the Civil War. Originally called an elegy, the poem’s form suggests John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1637), which is at once a lament for the dead Edward King and an examination of life in the 1630’s. Similarly, Allan Tate both eulogizes the fallen Confederate soldiers and analyzes the plight of those living in the twentieth century. Written largely in iambic pentameter, the poem also employs hexameter, tetrameter, and trimeter. The poem oscillates between the regularity and formality associated with the sections portraying antique heroism and irregular rhythms reflecting the collapse of that world. Like the rhythm, the rhyme scheme varies. The second stanza, for example, begins with a quatrain, and the third with a couplet; rhymes recur at unpredictable intervals. Thus, “tomorrow” in the third stanza echoes “grow,” “row,” and “below” in the second.

In his essay “Narcissus as Narcissus” (1938), Tate remarks of the poem, “Figure to yourself a man stopping at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon.” Standing outside the cemetery, he sees the ordered rows of tombstones being worn away by time; the regular iambs of the first line break down before the elements in the second. The wind blows leaves about the neglected graveyard, and the fallen foliage impresses the onlooker with “the rumor of mortality.” As he thinks about the soldiers who fell like leaves, he tries to derive consolation from the thought that the memory of those men endures, but he can summon only the cycle of nature. Tate describes the stanzas as “a baroque meditation on the ravages of time.”

In the third stanza, the spectator addresses the soldiers directly as “you.” Those men understood heroism; theirs was the complete vision of the Greek philosophers who could distinguish reality from illusion. Wanting to fuse himself with that world, the onlooker momentarily imagines that the leaves are soldiers, but he cannot sustain the illusion. Historical evocation of Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson and of notable battles also fails to remove him from his own time; he is left with only the wind and death.

The image of the dying hound ends the first part of the ode, the strophe. The antistrophe begins in midline, posing the question of what remains for the spectator, representative of modern man, to do. How can he even speak of the dead, let alone become part of the past? The penultimate stanza suggests that he cannot, that creativity is impossible. All that remains is silent speculation culminating in self-destruction. The last lines offer another, only slightly more promising alternative—the worship of death—setting “up the grave/ In the house,” implying a backward-looking poetic that imitates antebellum literature. “The ravenous grave” suggests not only death but also Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” representative of older versification and, because of its refrain, of doom.

The question of creativity remains unresolved. The spectator departs, and in his place Tate leaves “the gentle serpent” to guard the graves. Even here the ambiguity endures. The green color and the mulberry bush implying the silkworm (as Tate himself noted) suggest life, especially since the snake reminds the reader of Tate’s “Mr. Pope,” also published in 1928. In that poem Pope is likened to a snake, a symbol of creativity. Yet, as Tate remarks, the serpent “is the ancient symbol of time, andtime is also death.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

The poem abounds in animal imagery that comments on the spectator. The first animal, “the blind crab,” appears at the end of the second stanza. Again Tate’s gloss clarifies the symbol: The crab “has mobility but no direction, energy but from the human point of view, no purposeful world to use it in.” Moreover, with its hard exoskeleton, the crab is walled within itself. The Confederate soldiers also lie within a wall, but one that unites them in a common frame. The spectator, like the crab, is trapped in his own world. The crab also lacks vision, being blind, just as the spectator is cut off from the heroic image of the past.

The onlooker also resembles the hound bitch waiting for death. He has lost his vigor and his purpose. The hunt, like battle, is deadly but ritualistic, unifying and purposeful. The hound, a hunting dog, no longer engages in the activity for which it was born; instead, it lies motionless, as the onlooker remains stationary at the cemetery gate.

Tate next introduces the spider and owl, both associated with death. The former suggests as well the thin Confederate soldiers in their gray uniforms, and their heroic if doomed struggle resembles that of Arachne, who challenged Athena to a fatal spinning contest. The spider is like the onlooker, too, for like the crab it has an exoskeleton, and it lives within its own web. The jaguar and serpent conclude the catalog of animals. The jaguar that leaps into the pool represents Narcissus, yet another figure locked within himself. Like the crab, this jaguar has energy that lacks proper direction and so destroys itself.

The myths of Narcissus and Arachne are the most obvious classical allusions in the poem but not the only ones. Twice Tate suggests the paralyzing gaze of Medusa. The first reference appears in the second stanza when the stare of the stone angels on the tombstones petrifies the viewer. This image recurs in the penultimate stanza; Tate writes of “mute speculation, the patient curse/ That stones the eyes.” This latter allusion links Narcissus and Medusa, for in the root of speculation is the Latin speculum, mirror. The means of slaying the Gorgon becomes the instrument of self-destruction as the inward searching of modern man deprives him of feeling and isolates him from the heroism of a Perseus.

Yet another series of references derives from Christianity. The cemetery is a walled garden with a serpent, suggesting that the old world of the Confederacy is an Eden, but a decaying one because no one tends it in this fallen world. Even the angels charged with guarding paradise are crumbling. The word “election” in the first stanza carries religious weight: The soldiers, unlike the observer, were among the chosen, the blessed, who have been absolved through the “shrift of death.” Whereas those men had vision, for the spectator night (darkness) rather than the divine (light) “is the beginning and the end,” the alpha and the omega. Hence the wind, the spirit, fails to move him and is outside him, not within.