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.)