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On "Ode to the Confederate Dead"


Edward Hirsch

Tate's most important single poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," is a kind of Southern analogue to The Waste Land. As opposed to Ransom, who thought The Waste Land "seemed to bring to a head all the specifically modern errors," Tate defended the way Eliot's poem embraced "the entire range of consciousness" and impersonally dramatized the tragic situation of those who live in modern times. Tate's "Ode" treats that situation in specifically Southern terms. The poem presents the symbolic dilemma of a man who has stopped at the gate of a Confederate graveyard. He is trapped in time, isolated, alone, self-conscious, caught between a heroic Civil War past, which is irrecoverable, and the chaotic, degenerate present. In his essay "Narcissus as Narcissus, " Tate argues that "the poem is 'about' solipsism, a philosophical doctrine which says that we create the world in the act of perceiving it, or about Narcissism, or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature and society." As the poem develops, it becomes a drama of "the cut-offness of the modern 'intellectual man' from the world." The situation of the speaker is symptomatic of the crisis of his region—the crisis of the Old and the New South after World War I. In its diagnosis of that historical situation, the "Ode" is an Agrarian poem. It universalizes from the situation of the South in the middle and late twenties to the larger condition of the modern world.

from A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Ed. Jack Myers and David Wojahan. Copyright 1991 by Southern Illinois UP.


Francesco Mei

Born in Winchester, Kentucky, in 1899, Tate belongs to that group of American intellectuals and artists deriving from the agrarian aristocracy of the South, such as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks, who under the name of Fugitives reacted against the culture of the industrialized and pragmatic North, reaffirming the value of tradition, of form, and of artistic discipline. Shaping itself afresh through recourse to the classics, this movement affirmed the importance of literature as an autonomous expression of a need of the spirit. In the poetry of Tate one feels the influence of the Latin poets, especially in his spirited and stinging satire, basically political, in the mode of Persius and Martial, no less than the influence of Dante and Donne, in his ability to sustain his verse upon a rich basis of thought. The return to the closed forms of sonnet and terza rima does not prevent him from experimenting in even more complex rhythms, in which the verses are linked stanza to stanza by recurrent rimes and the images are sustained by a coherent logical structure. But upon this passionately intellectual ground there developed in Tate another source of inspiration: the hallucinated world of the South, peopled with memories of his boyhood and with the phantasms of the Civil War. The warm and luxurious landscape alternates, in his poems, with evocations of ambiguous states of soul in which one seems to halt listening to catch the faint voices that swarm in a dusk filled with shades and specters. In this sense, Tate moves in the same sphere as other symbolist writers of the South, such as Faulkner and Poe. In "Mother and Son," for example, is represented with great dramatic force a troubled spirit's struggle for salvation on the brink of damnation and death. In "Ode to the Confederate Dead," a poem on the dead of the Civil War ("The people—people of my kind, my own / People but strange with a white light / In the face"), the prodigious formal virtuosity and the perfect accord of the images serve to focus a vision broken by infernal flashes and celestial lightnings, in which the paean of glory for the dead soldiers is linked with the sense of bodily decay and the realistic notation is made one with the metaphysical breath.

from Il Quotidiano, (1954)


Thomas Daniel Young

In 1925 to 1926 Tate was deeply involved in writing "Ode to the Confederate Dead," which he revised for the next ten years. (During this period he wrote two biographies: Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier [1928] and Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall [1929], as well as many of the poems that appeared in his first collection, Mr. Pope and Other Poems.) Although it was far from his favorite, it remains his best-known poem. While the poem carries "Ode" in its title, Tate insisted that he wrote it to demonstrate that the form is no longer accessible to the modem poet. "Fragmentary chaos" has succeeded the "active faith" of the traditional society, the poem reiterates, and try as he may, the protagonist of the poem, standing at the gate of the Confederate cemetery, cannot imagine that the falling leaves are the "charging soldiers" of the Confederacy who lie buried in the graves before him. He is aware of the changing seasons—he can see the falling leaves of autumn—but he has lost the faculty of explaining mystery through myth. Modern man is like a blind crab who has "energy but no purposeful world in which to use it." Like the "hound bitch / Toothless and dying" in the cellar, modern man can hear the wind only. He has lost his creative imagination, the means by which he could transcend the knowledge circumscribed by reason and sensory perception.

from The History of Southern Literature. Ed. Louis B. Rubin et al. Copyright 1985 by Louisiana State UP.


Lillian Feder

The "Ode to the Confederate Dead," Tate says, is about "solipsism." (All the critical comments quoted in connection with the "Ode to the Confederate Dead" are from Tate's essay "Narcissus as Narcissus.") In the "Ode" Tate suggests, as he does in "The Mediterranean" and "Aeneas at Washington," that the solipsism of modern man results from the fact that contemporary society denies him his traditional right to fulfillment through a heroic goal. This is the positive quality of the "Ode." The dual themes of solipsism and the need for the virtutis opus, which are, of course, really one, are developed more fully and more deeply in the "Ode" than they are in the two poems discussed above, and again they are expressed through the imagery of the ancient world.

Tate remarks on the general form of the poem: it is an ode ". . . even further removed from Pindar than Abraham Cowley. I suppose in so calling it I intended an irony: the scene of the poem is not a public celebration, it is a lone man by a gate." Though Tate does not say so. he implies that the contrast between the personal quality of his ode and the public nature of the Pindaric expresses the solipsism of modern man. The man at the gate has the "secret need" of the wanderers on the Mediterranean, and like them he makes a lonely journey into the past. Obviously, Tate expects his readers to be aware of the nature of the traditional odes, the Pindarics, not of the specific details of their contents, but their tone, which always implies that the poet speaks to and for a society united in triumph. The Pindarics are not simply victory odes: they are poems in which a particular hero is regarded as the worthy bearer of a great tradition. Tate's adaptation of the ode form implies that if modern man is trapped by his personal conception of the world, so is the very character of the ode transformed by this view. The lone man speaks for himself, and, if what he says represents the thoughts of others, it is their defeat which he expresses, for they, like him, are cut off from the heroic past and the actual present.

This defeat is symbolized most intensely in the leaf image, which Tate uses not only in the refrain but in the first and last strophes. The image is an extremely interesting and important one. In the first strophe Tate says of the leaves: "They sough the rumors of mortality." The leaves, "of nature the casual sacrament / To the seasonal eternity of death," remind man of his own mortality. "Autumn and the leaves are death," says Tate in "Narcissus as Narcissus." The leaf image replies with finality to the cry for an "active faith," which constitutes the second theme of the poem.

*    *    *

There is a striking similarity between Tate's and Homer's use of the leaf image. Homer's passage containing this image is perhaps one of the best known in the Iliad. Diomede and Glaucus meet on the battlefield, and Diomede asks Glaucus who he is. Glaucus replies: "Great-souled son of Tydeus, why do you ask about my lineage? Just as the generation of leaves, so is that also of men. The wind scatters the leaves upon the earth, but the forest as it flourishes, puts forth others when spring comes. So one generation of men springs up while another passes away. However, if you want to, you may know my lineage. There are many who do know it" (VI, 145-51). In this passage the contrast between man's struggle to live heroically, between his justified pride in his past and present achievements and his tragic destiny is clearly set forth. Man is like a leaf but he is also man. The agony of his tragic end is all the more terrible because, unlike a leaf, he struggles to perform heroic deeds, yet like a leaf he passes away to extinction. The very points at which the simile is inadequate contain its greatest emotional force.

In Homer the leaf image provides a commentary on the constant feats of heroism which his heroes demand of themselves and which it is assumed they owe their society. "Be a man," says one warrior to another. In other words, act nobly; perform the heroic deeds which offer man his one chance of redemption, his chance to snatch from life a glory which defines it. That the very act which may destroy a man is what offers him a measure of release from his doom is the tragedy of human life.

Tate's repeated references to the leaves in the "Ode to the Confederate Dead" recall the leaf image in the Iliad. In the "Ode" the image of the leaves provides the answering strain to the quest for heroism in history, in man himself, and vainly, in society. Like the Iliad, the "Ode" is "a certain section of history made into experience." Tate uses history both literally and symbolically, fusing with ease the recent American past with antiquity. Before discussing the leaf image in the "Ode," it is necessary to observe how Tate develops "the theme of heroism," which he himself says is the second theme of the poem.

Tate says that the strophe beginning "You know who have waited by the wall" contains "the other terms of the conflict. It is the theme of heroism, not merely moral heroism but heroism in the grand style, elevating even death from mere physical dissolution into a formal ritual: this heroism is a formal ebullience of the human spirit in an entire society, not private, romantic illusion—something better than moral heroism, great as that may be, for moral heroism, being personal and individual, may be achieved by certain men in all ages, even ages of decadence." He goes on to quote Hart Crane's definition: "the theme of chivalry . . . active faith." He describes an ideal way of life based upon conduct, and the heroic code of conduct he speaks of is that clearly defined in the Iliad and the Aeneid, the code which could make Aeneas "disinterested," which makes Glaucus, even after he has expressed the tragic irony of man's doom, go on to tell his enemy of his ancestors, prepared to fight as bravely as they did and as nobly as the code of his society demands that he fight and live. Both his desire to fight Diomede and his subsequent acceptance of his friendship are motivated not by personal whim but by the code of his society.

Tate tells us that the passage in the "Ode" beginning "you know who have waited by the wall" is "meant to convey a plenary vision, the actual presence of, the exemplars of an active faith." This plenary vision appears in two main symbols: the warrior and the ancient philosophers, Zeno and Parmenides, The warrior is the traditional symbol of heroism. Though Tate concretizes his warrior through his list of names connected with the Civil War, he does not limit him to this particular time, for he is the warrior whose heroism results from a view of the world represented by the philosophical system of Parmenides and Zeno. His warrior is once again the man who lives by a heroic code of conduct. "Muted Zeno and Parmenides" represent the world view which makes such a code possible.

Of those who have the heroic vision, Tate says:

    You know the rage,
The cold pool left by the mounting flood,
Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.

Parmenides and his disciple, Zeno, were the first to separate existence into being and becoming. Theirs is a philosophical system which makes a distinction between the objective and unchanging world of being and the subjective world of becoming. Parmenides (in Frag. VI) warns against the "way of seeming" (the state of solipsism, Tate would say). He warns against the subjective blindness of mere dependence on the senses for knowledge of the world. Thus, Parmenides and Zeno represent for Tate an objective, "whole" view of life. Moreover, Zeno, not only in his thought but also in his conduct, exemplifies the heroic way of life. According to tradition, when captured by the tyrant he was opposing, he bit off his tongue rather than give the information demanded by his enemy. "Muted Zeno," therefore, has a double meaning: Zeno made mute by his own act of heroism and Zeno, the heir and exponent of a philosophical system which regards the universe as whole and knowledge as objective, muted in what Tate calls the, "fragmentary cosmos of today."

The heroic vision, as Tate presents it poetically, is composed of heroic action based on a view of the world which is objective, whole, and unchanging. Moreover, it is a vision created out of the ancient past combined with the recent one. It is a vision which suggests a continuity in human thought, conduct, and feeling, broken only in the world of today.

"In contemplating the heroic theme," says Tate, "the man at the gate never commits himself to the illusion of its availability to him. The most that he can allow himself is the fancy that the blowing leaves are charging soldiers, but he rigorously returns to the refrain: 'Only the wind'—or the 'leaves flying.'" The wind-leaf refrain provides the answering strain. The lone man, striving to be one with those who waited by the wall, tries even to transform the leaves into fighting men. But, as in Homer, we are struck by the dissimilarity. In the Iliad the simple quality of the leaf is contrasted with the complex and tragic nature of man, doomed to the same end. In Tate's poem man's inability to transform the leaf into a symbol of heroism suggests that the certainty of man's tragic fate overpowers any thought of his potential heroism. The man at the gate cannot identify himself with the leaves ''as Keats and Shelley too easily and too beautifully did with nightingales and west winds." The leaf is a symbol of his mortality and his aloneness.

In both Homer and Tate, the leaf image, with its implications of death, is combined and contrasted with a scene of heroism in warfare. In Homer, Glaucus, even as he sees these implications, suggests by his very conduct that through heroism man can redeem himself if only partially and tragically. Tate, looking back on the history of his own nation with the traditionally epic view, finds that in the present there is not even the possibility of tragic redemption. Thus, his departure from Homer is as important as his echo of him, for the very contrast between the two poets' use of the leaf image suggests the theme of Tate's poem.

Tate's last use of a classical allusion in the "Ode" is an entirely ironical one. The jaguar, he tells us, is substituted for Narcissus. Of course, Narcissus by his very absence is immensely important. Replaced by the jaguar, the destructive and self-devouring elements of the Narcissus figure are made explicit. As the "jaguar leaps" we see the lovely boy Narcissus for what he really is. In giving solipsism this concrete form, Tate reveals its ugliness and brutality, and he adds a dimension to the myth he adapts.

"Ode to the Confederate Dead" cannot be understood without the framework of the classical world. Here, as in "The Mediterranean" and "Aeneas at Washington," Tate speaks of the present only in relation to the past, and his view of the past is the epic view, heroic, exalted, the poet's past rather than the historian's.

from "Allen Tate's Use of Classical Literature." The Centennial Review (1960)


Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan

Tate's greatest achievement in dramatizing our loss of faith in and our passion for heroism is best exemplified in his famous "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Often revised over a ten-year period, it became an emblem of modernist pessimism. Tate's intent in this poem is to dramatize the clash between solipsism, which he defines in "Narcissus as Narcisscus" as "a philosophical doctrine which says that we create the world in the act of perceiving it," and "active faith," a collective faith "not private, romantic illusion" in the nobility of the human spirit as manifested in its chivalrous public deeds. The conflict arises in the mind of a solitary man at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon, and it remains an internal debate between past and present, between objective and subjective realities, between faith and grim resignation and defeat.

Initially the speaker can only envision this late afternoon autumn graveyard scene filled with its whirring, wind-driven leaves as a "casual sacrament" of death, whose music sounds "the rumour of mortality." As Tate states in the Narcissus essay, the speaker is barely able to proclaim the traditional praise for the physical and historical continuance of the Confederate dead and their sacrifices: "these memories grow / From the inexhaustible bodies that are not/ Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row." Caught in his own naturalistic vision of existence, the speaker presents images illustrating the ravages of time, eventually ending the first strophe with his blind crab image of the "Locked-in ego," signifying his inability to move beyond his solipsism and reconnect himself with the objective world: "You shift your sea space blindly / Heaving, turning like the blind crab." Tate in the Narcissus essay explains that the crab has mobility and energy but "no direction and no purposeful world to use it in." Lacking a sense of purpose, the speaker begins the first of his naturalistic refrains that speak to the failure of imagination and human insight: "Dazed by the wind / only the wind / The leaves flying plunge."

The countertheme of active faith is advanced in the next strophe as the speaker momentarily recovers and is able to imagine the blowing leaves as heroic charging soldiers, who

. . . know the unimportant shrift of death
And praise the vision
And praise the arrogant circumstance
Of those who fall
Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision--
Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

These heroes of an "immoderate past," however, cannot become a permanent part of the modernist vision or poem. The speaker's awareness of mortality, his naturalistic views, ensure "they will not last" and "that the salt of their blood / Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea." Nor can the modernist celebrate the perpetual cycle of existence, a central theme of romantic poets. "We shall say only the leaves / Flying, plunge and expire" for "Night is the beginning and the end." Separated from both society and nature, we can engage only in "mute speculation," abstraction, and narcissism; thus "the jaguar leaps / For his own image." Our knowledge has been "Carried to the heart"; it has destroyed our relationship to life itself, and our most hopeful prospect is that "The ravenous grave" may become our theme, for it is "the grave who counts us all!"

Traditionally an ode publicly celebrates, in stately and exalted lyrical verse, an aspect of human existence; Tate's ode is not celebrative, public, or exalted. It is a pessimistic, solitary, and, given its form and theme, grimly ironic dramatization of the modernist temper. At times its imagery is quite private and its allusions and arguments overly complex; however, it remains one of the most representative and compelling poems of the twentieth-century wasteland.

From Modern American Poetry, 1865-1950. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Copyright 1989 by G..K. Hall & Co.


 Richard Gray

The distance between Tate and Ransom is measured with particular force in Tate's most famous poem, 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'. In some ways, 'Ode' operates within the same series of assumptions as 'Antique Harvesters'. It, too, is a profoundly traditionalist poem which attempts to create a myth, an ideal version of the past, as a corrective to the present. It, too, is a poem that dramatises the mythologising process, the creation of an idea, a complex of possibilities, out of historical fact. The narrator, a man who characterises the modern failure to live according to principle (or what Tate, in his essay on his own work, calls 'active faith'), stands by the monuments raised to those killed fighting for the South during the Civil War; and as he describes their lives, or rather what he imagines their lives to have been, the description is transmuted into celebration. The past is reinvented, just as place, landscape is in 'Antique Harvesters'; the soldiers being remembered are transformed into an heroic alternative to the plight of the person remembering them. That is the drama of the poem, accounting for the poignancy of lines like the following:

Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth - they will not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of hemp,
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run,
Lost in that orient of the thick-and-fast
You will curse the setting sun.
Cursing only the leaves crying
Like an old man in a storm
You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

And yet these lines suggest how unlike Ransom Tate is, even while he appears to echo him. The voice of 'Antique Harvesters' is the voice of all Ransom's poems: accomplished, witty, serene - the voice of someone who can, apparently, fathom and perform his nature. The voice of 'Ode' is, by contrast, uncertain, feverish, disoriented - the voice of the 'locked-in ego' as Tate puts it elsewhere, of a man unable to liberate himself from a sense of his own impotence and fragmentation. The narrator of Ransom's poem remains triumphantly detached: sometimes helping to gauge the failure of his subjects and sometimes, as in 'Antique Harvesters', helping to endow his subjects' achievements with articulate shape. The narrator of the 'Ode" however, is like the narrator of most of Tate's poetry: a person obsessed with his failure to attain unity of being, whose introversions, tortured idiom, clotted imagery, and convoluted syntax register what Tate has called 'the modern squirrel cage of our sensibility, the extreme introspection of our time.'

For all its nervous intensity, though, 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' does not degenerate into hysteria: a measure of control is retained, so as to give dramatic force to the narrator's feelings of isolation and waste. Tate remains a traditionalist in this respect, too, that his poems are tightly organised; his narrators may disperse their energies, scattering themselves piecemeal, but he tries to ensure that his poetic forms never do. 'Ode' is, in fact, structured according to classical precepts, with a Strophe (establishing the themes of the poem), an Anti-strophe (answering the themes of the Strophe), and an Epode (gathering up the opposing themes). In addition, it is carefully arranged into verse paragraphs, separated by a refrain that provides (to use Tate's phrase) 'occasions of assimilation'; it demonstrates a cunning use of rhyme; and there is a dominant metre of iambic pentameter with varying six, four, and three stressed lines. The result is a constant tension between texture and structure: the language, packed and disruptive, the multiple levels of allusion and bitter ironies of feeling, are barely kept in control by the formal patterns of the verse. Like the narrator who turns his eyes to the immoderate past, the poet seems to be trying to will himself into a discipline, to force upon himself the rigours of an inherited form; and on this level, at least, the level of manner rather than matter, the pursuit of traditionalism is not entirely unsuccessful.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright 1990 by Longman Gourp UK Limited.


William Pratt

In his most famous poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," Tate pays his tribute to the historical South, those kinsmen who had fought bravely to defend their land and had been honorably defeated, but in so doing he does not draw closer to them; rather, he finds himself farther from them after meditating on their graves, for the heroic failure has been translated into the "verdurous anonymity" of death, and the speaker feels conscious of his own morbidity in trying to memorialize them. He is trapped more than ever in his mind, with "mute speculation, the patient curse / that stones the eyes," and subconsciously thinks of the image of the jaguar leaping "For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim"—Narcissus come to life in an image of suicide, as the speaker tries but fails to find objective reality in the past. The end of Tate’s "Ode" is as complete an image of isolation as can be found in modern poetry, as the speaker leaves the Confederate cemetery behind him, with its "shut gate and . . . decomposing wall" and thinks of his own death in the shape of a "gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush, . . . Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!"

Tate's alienation is even more final and desolate than Davidson's, and though Tate wrote somewhat more hopeful poems later, the "Ode" still stands at the center of his work, like Eliot’s Waste Land, a masterpiece that could not be transcended and that dominates his achievement as a poet.

from Singing the Chaos: Madness and Wisdom in Modern Poetry. Copyright 1996 by the Curators of the University of Missouri


Robert S. Dupree

. . . two polarities—death and the self—are the tensional basis for the kind of conflict between deterministic pessimism and radical solipsism Tate depicts in "Ode to the Confederate Dead." The first stanza shows a natural order that is dominated by the closed system of "the seasonal eternity of death." The whole passage is a picture of a world with a kind of Spenglerian destiny that ignores the presence of man. There are suggestions of a system of rewards and punishments, such as might make up some mythical order of justice, but nature offers only the salvation that comes with total effacement. What is lacking is any sense of individual continuity that might break out of the terrible cycle. The stone memorials placed over the graves "yield their names" with "strict impunity." Their loss of memory will go unpunished and uncorrected. The wind shows no signs of "recollection"—the poet puns on the scattering effect of wind on the leaves in the "riven troughs" as well as the mindless energy of its whirr. The leaves themselves are "splayed," never again to be made whole; they are part of nature's "casual sacrament," an accidental rather than an intentional communion. (The word "casual" suggests the "fall" of the leaves by association with Latin casus.) The falling leaves have long been images of human mortality, from Homer, Virgil, and Dante to Shelley; but these leaves also take on the imagined quality of damned beings. Part of the whole of things, they lose all individuality as they are "driven . . . to their election in the vast breath." Like "The Subway," "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is a grim parody of traditional religious ideas of salvation tinged with overtones of predestinarian determinism.

If death dominates the first stanza, the self is prominent in the second. The protagonist of the poem attempts to breakout of the terror of this organic cycle by thinking "of the autumns that have' come and gone," but memory itself takes on the quality of the grass that feeds analogically on the dead bodies. The alternative to the closed temporal system that he views resides in some sort of spatial suspension, represented in part by the sculptured angels on the tombs. There is surely a suggestion in this passage of what Tate was later to call "the angelic imagination," an ability to penetrate into the essence of things without recourse to their sensual manifestations. The "brute curiosity of an angel's stare," which like the Gorgon's turns those who look on it to stone, is trapped in decaying matter, the "uncomfortable" statue assaulted by "the humors of the year." The split between body and mind is embodied in the art of the grave sculptor's angels as much as in the sensibility of the protagonist. Like the falling leaves, he too is "plunged to a heavier world below," a kind of mental hell in which, like Dante's damned shades, he exerts directionless and purposeless energies. (Tate's description of Phelps Putnam's heroes also comes to mind.)

The grim wit of Tate's language—the multiple shadings of words like "impunity," "recollection," "sacrament," "scrutiny," "rumor," "inexhaustible," "zeal," or "brute"—gives these first two stanzas an astonishing compactness and power. Their dense network of analogies denies poetically the assertion in the following refrain that the protagonist is seeing nothing more than fall leaves. What he knows that nature does not know is history and the pattern of things that comes through the memory as man's refusal to submit to mere despair. For unlike the fallen leaves, man continues to believe that he has a future.

You who have waited for the angry resolution
Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,
ou know the unimportant shrift of death
And praise the vision
And praise the arrogant circumstance
Of those who fall
Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision—
Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

"Ambitious November" is answered by the arrogance of man himself; he will rush to his death without waiting for his place in the natural cycle of decay. It is this "immoderate past" that makes man "inscrutable," in answer to the mindless but "fierce scrutiny" of the sky. Though man cannot possess the stony detachment of the angelic self depicted on the statues, he does have a strange demonic energy that pulls him out of the earth. He knows the empty paradoxes of the mind—the puzzles of "muted Zeno and Parmenides" as they contemplate the nature of time and being. But he also knows the "twilight certainty of an animal." If Zeno's paradox would never allow the arrow to hit the target, death's efficacy in drawing all things to their destruction is indubitable. The struggle between self and death has reached an equilibrium in the protagonist's thoughts.

The late autumnal season of the poem and the setting sun that dominates its main scenes are traditional symbols of history and death. (Besides his correlation of the seasons and stages of historical growth and decay, Spengler's title—literally "Sunset of the West"—offers an obvious parallel.) What history provides is a memory of "that orient of the thick-and-fast" where action begins; but since the protagonist has been reduced to paralysis, "stopped by the wall" (death) and the "angel's stare" (self), he can only hover over the decaying transition point of the "sagging gate," the threshold of initiation into another life or state. Sight and sound, like time and space, are confused in him:

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

The mummy is a particularly interesting image, since it can stand both for the ineffectiveness of a man wrapped in his embalming shroud and for the limited immortality of the body. Like the "old man in a storm," it is surrounded by the ravages of time yet remains a captive of space. Outside of time, like the mummy, the self has no freedom. This section of the poem is brought to a close by the image of the "hound bitch," a reminder of the ancient action of the hunt. She should be a symbol of vitality; now, however, she too is the quarry of death, lying "in a musty cellar. " The end of the hunt is another manifestation of that loss of heroic energy which once drove the soldiers to their graves. The soldiers and the hound bitch live for the event and decay once the event is concluded. Still, their fate is better than the mummylike existence in time that has rendered the protagonist immobile.

What remains for modern man is that blank oneness of the universe which dissolves all into a "malignant purity" and a salty "oblivion" (examples of Tate's startling use of oxymoron). There is a radical shift, however, in the sixth stanza, and Tate himself has spoken of it as the beginning of the second main division of the poem, in "Narcissus as Narcissus." The progression is evidenced by the metrical movement, as he points out, but also by a shift in the pronoun from "you" to "we." Tate's final question to Spengler, "How shall we set about restoring the values that have been lost?" is already posed in this poem. The poet asks it of the young man who stands by the gate. For it is at this point that one becomes aware of some sort of community standing behind the protagonist, those "who count our days and bowl Our heads with a commemorial woe" during the public ceremonies offered for the dead. The ritualistic gestures are still carried on, though perhaps as a "grim felicity" that is a distinct decline from heroic action. What has changed in the perception the poem offers, however, is the image of nature: Before, nature was the inhuman cycle of a world without past or future. Now there is the suggestion of something in nature that recalls man's heroic energies:

In a tangle of willows without light
The singular screech-owl's tight
Invisible lyric seeds the mind
With the furious murmur of their chivalry.

This is an image different from the "brute curiosity" of the angel's stare and the mere sound of the wind. In the darkness where space has vanished, there is an aural suggestion of an energy with more direction than that of the "blind crab." It is crucial to see what has occurred in this and the following stanza.

The question that has been asked—"what shall we say of the bones?"—is answered in the refrain—"We shall say only the leaves / Flying, plunge and expire." Those who merely go through the motions of the ritual of "grim felicity" can see nothing more than that "Night is the beginning and the end." They cannot speak because there is nothing to speak about. Birth and death are but "the ends of distraction," and between them is the "mute speculation" of Zeno and Parmenides and the angel's gorgonic stare, that "patient curse / That stones the eyes." The toothless dog is replaced by the energetic jaguar who "leaps / For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim." The cycle of nature has been replaced by the solipsistic self. The "mute speculation" is part of the "jungle pool" (a play on the Latin word for mirror, speculum, is hidden in the phrase). Vision and space, the counting of days, abstract stare, the setting sun, all these Spengler-like images are part of the symbolic paralysis that must be rejected for an acceptance of the aural and temporal dimensions of the memory, the understanding, and the will. The critical question is transformed at the end of the poem in a phrase that has become famous:

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?

This solution is the one Spengler seems to embrace, for his impressive array of organically growing and dying cultures adds up to nothing more than worship of the grave. By giving no final meaning to human history, Spengler falsifies his own premises. If human memory serves only as a means of collecting man's actions around the central fact of death, then human history has no significance at all. In Spengler the West has indeed begun to set up the grave in its own house.

The protagonist in "Ode to the Confederate Dead" stands between two communities, the city of the living and the city of the dead; but he does not know how to bring them together in any meaningful fashion. He has the kind of intuitive knowledge that has been "carried to the heart," but he is also haunted by the specter of abstract rationalism—"muted Zeno and Parmenides," who, like the jaguar, stare into the "cold pool" of a method that removes them from life and action. He never enters the cemetery; the gate remains shut to him at the end. He cannot participate in the kind of space occupied by the dead, and he is himself smothered in time. He is typical of the modern man in his mummylike condition. The only kind of immortality the modern mind can grasp is one that is a stopping of the natural cycle, an immobilization of all life processes.

The poem ends, as Tate emphasizes in his essay, with an image that complements the owl, that of the serpent. Like the ouroboros—that ancient figure of the snake biting its tail—it is a symbol of the relation of time to eternity. Equally significant is the command to the protagonist to leave the "shut gate and the decomposing wall." For he is not the poet, this man at the gate, but the skeptical historian who meditates on the past of Western civilization as though he were looking at a graveyard. The gate and the wall separate the living from the dead, but the two important "sounds" in the poem—the screech-owl's call and the rioting "tongue" of the "gentle serpent"—are appeals to some kind of life. That life is not the simple organic cycle of nature but something beyond it. As the figure of the serpent makes plain, it is the life of myth, of speech through the imagination that is neither mutely paralyzed like the mummy nor rendered as a meaningless noise in the buffeting of the leaves. By yielding to time and participating in the past through memory, man can at least survive through the makeshift devices of his secular imagination, even in a declining civilization. Nevertheless, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" does not offer, as Tate explains in his essay, a "practical solution . . . for the edification of moralists," but it does imply that such a solution is possible. As Tate goes on to say, "To those who may identify the man at the gate with the author of the poem I would say: He differs from the author in not accepting a 'practical solution,' for the author's personal dilemma is perhaps not quite so exclusive as that of the meditating man." It is the exclusive character of the dilemma that makes it difficult to resolve, for the alternative of science or religion at least offers the promise of a practical solution to the problem of acting in an alien universe. Unless the man at the gate can learn to see the choice between a nature dominated by mortality and a self locked in solipsism as a false presentation of alternatives, he cannot act in any decisive way.

from Allen Tate and the Augustinian Imagination: A Study of Poetry. Copyright 1983 by Louisiana State UP.


Thomas A. Underwood

The Tates' poverty was so extreme that Allen's twenty-seventh birthday passed in November without celebration. He was depressed and dissatisfied with New York City. Yet it was in this state of mind—and to some degree because of it—that he conceived and wrote his most famous, and perhaps his finest, poem, Ode to the Confederate Dead. By Christmas of 1926, he had completed a first draft of the poem, originally titled ELEGY for the Confederate Dead. The earliest version began:

Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones barter their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs broken leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
Against the sinkage of death,
While in uncertainty of their election,
Of their business in the vast breath,
They sought the rumor of mortality.

"Figure to yourself a man stopping at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon," Tate explained many years later. "The leaves are falling; his first impressions bring him the 'rumor of mortality.'" But the poem, Tate added, was not simply about the modern Southerner's difficulty in coming to terms with his own traditions and bringing them back to life. It was, he said, "'about' solipsism or Narcissism, or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function properly in nature and society." Although set in the South, the poem's larger theme was "the cut-off-ness of the modern 'intellectual man ' from the world." Such a man, who was obviously Tate, was trapped between a need for religious faith and the reality of the "fragmentary cosmos" surrounding him.

In an article Tate thought "the best" ever written about him, critic Lillian Feder observed that the Ode, rich in allusions to the ancients, must be interpreted within "the framework of the classical world." Tate's poetry, she observed, "speaks of the present only in relation to the past, and his view of the past is the epic view, heroic, exalted, the poet's past rather than the historian's." For Tate, the Ode not only explored these complex views of the present but marked the beginning of the twelve-year period recognized by many scholars as the era in which he was absorbed by Southern culture and the history of his own family. Indeed, he told Davidson that writing the poem had been so wrenching for him personally that it dredged "up a whole stream of associations and memories, suppressed, at least on the emotional plane, since my childhood." Years later he still believed he had let go emotionally "only once: in the Ode." In the first published version of the poem, later to be revised considerably, he asked

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?
                                                                Leave now
The turnstile and the decomposing wall:
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush—
See him what he knows—he knows it all!

In time, the final line would become "Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!"

Tate's Southern friends were mystified. Davidson admired the poem, but was annoyed at his friend for reducing the grand themes of Southern history to "personal poetry." "Your Elegy," he observed, "is not for the Confederate dead, but for your own dead emotion." It did not appear to Davidson that the poem had much to do with Confederate soldiers. "Where, O Allen Tate," he asked, "are the dead? You have buried them completely out of sight—with them yourself and me." Even Robert Penn Warren referred to the poem as "the Confederate morgue piece." Yet after the Fugitives examined the Ode more closely, they abandoned their early reservations. They came to agree with subsequent critics who placed the Ode among the major poems of the century. It would be reprinted countless times.

from Allen Tate: Orphan of the South. Princeton UP.


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