Langdon Hammer on the Opening Stanza of Tate's "Ode"
Tates array of formal effects introduces a poem that, in the rigor of its self-reference, in its predilection for turning back on itself as it moves forward, is unusually concerned to present itself as poetic language and not something else. These opening lines exemplify the poets will to present a self-sufficing structure.
The military graveyard, a clearly demarcated, semisacred site, suggests a metaphor for such a structure. Consider for a moment only the first two lines of the poem. "Row after row with strict impunity, / The headstones yield their names to the elements." Here the dignity of martial discipline points to the metrical strictures of the lines themselves, to the poems ordering of its own rows. In this context, "Row after row" describes a design comprehending both literary craftsmanship and military discipline: it is the form parts assume when they enter into a whole. What is lost in this form, evidently, is the name or individuality of each part, and this loss or defacement is seen here as nothing less than death, however willingly headstones or soldiers yield to "the element." (It is worth noting that between 1928 and 1937 Tate substituted "yield" for "barter" in line 2, in effect accenting the sense of deliberate sacrifice. These headstones, to the extent that they stand for the soldiers they commemorate, are also heads-turned-to-stone; they are emblems of the human transformation wrought by martial discipline, the stoic refusal of sentiment.) What, on the other hand, is gained in this extreme ascesis is the confirmation of a corporate order an articulation of the whole that depends upon the subordination of the parts. This economy obviously informs Tates definition of the unitary, organic society, instantiated in the heroic codes of the Confederate South, but it is just as obviously the economy of that other unitary structure, the organic text. For the process by which the dead give up their names also figures that process by which the personal enters and is effaced by the "element" of poetic form.
That process is one of defeat passively, or perhaps impassively, the headstones surrender their names and yet it is also one of victory, since the markers surrender "with strict impunity." That phrase neatly condenses the oxymoronic victory-in-defeat we are concerned with here, and it points to the kind of "unimpugnable" structure that Davidson speaks of in his letter to Tate. Throughout his poetry, Tates fascination with what is "strict," tight, or narrow, evokes a style of contained power, a kind of crabbed violence
from Langdon Hammer, "the Burial of the Confederate Dead" (Chapter 4) in Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-faced Modernism (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1993), 86.
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