Ode to the Confederate Dead Analysis

Allen Tate

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 565 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 513 words.)