A reader who comes across a volume of poetry by Allen Tate will probably read only a few pages before words such as “obscure” and “rigid structure” from literature survey courses make him put it back on the shelf. Tate is not, in fact, an easy poet to understand. There are four principle reasons why his poetry is not at first as engaging as that of several of his contemporaries; the heirs of our literary tradition will perhaps give these same reasons to explain why his works have survived. Certainly Tate will survive in the myth he has created; four interrelated, yet distinct, aspects of his poetry are component parts of that myth.
Tate himself has commented on the common charge that modern poetry is obscure: in his famous essay, “Tension in Poetry,” he says that poetry is bound to be impenetrable and obscure if the reader does not share the poet’s feeling. Tate does not, for example, share the feeling of “sentimental” poets, and therefore calls their work “obscure,” even though the poems are technically very simple. One of Tate’s feelings is evident in his concern with history, man’s closest link with the past. He believes that history should be a matter of myth rather than patterns and systems. “The Swimmers” recalls a young boy’s feelings as he saw a Negro hanged by a posse. He could not run, but watched what he felt was a matter which concerned the whole town, even though no one would acknowledge the fact. But history is more personal than statistical, as Tate makes it in “Ode to Our Young Pro-Consuls of the Air” with its images taken from the Revolution and the Civil War. History is not as big a thing as war; it is, rather, as small as one man in a war. Or it is a man, like Tate, observing the results of war.
John Orley Allen Tate, who was born in 1899 in Kentucky, began his career through association with the Fugitives, a group of Southern writers including John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren (his professor and roommate at Vanderbilt), Andrew Lytle, and Donald Davidson. In a literary journal, THE FUGITIVE, and a book, I’LL TAKE MY STAND, this group sought, or at least advocated, the re-establishment of the Old South in opposition to the New. Although this theme of disenchantment with the new was not unusual for the times, Tate’s concern was not only for the waste and despair of one world war; his despair went back to and sought relief in the days of the Old South, which became his symbol of the lost tradition of America. Perhaps not many can share his feeling for the Old South, but an understanding of the symbols Tate has structured from his past certainly will help release him from the charge of obscurity.
Some critics feel Tate’s poetry indicates that he would have been happier had he been born early enough to be a Confederate soldier in order to fight for his Old South rather than being forced to brood inactively over its death. That view is a literal interpretation of his symbols: the Old South is merely a representative for him of the better tradition which has been replaced by the less noble, less alive, less “human” condition he sees today. “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” as Donald Davidson has said, does not eulogize dead soldiers as much as Tate’s dead emotion. The “modern” world of science has a nightmarish wasteland quality to men of sensitivity, as implied in “Sonnets at Christmas.” In fact, when “Euthenasia” was published in 1922, Harte Crane...
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