Louis D. Rubin on "Ode to the Confederate Dead"
Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
That 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."
That poem, as Tate goes on to say about the "Ode to the Confederate Dead," is also about "a man stopping at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon." Thus the man at the cemetery and the graves in the cemetery become the symbol of the solipsism and the Narcissism:
Autumn is desolation in the plot
Of a thousand acres where these memories grow
From the inexhaustible bodies that are not
Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
Think of the autumns that have come and gone!
A symbol is something that stands for something else. What I want to do is to point out some of the relationships between the "something" and the "something else."
Richard Weaver has written of the Nashville Agrarians that they "underwent a different kind of apprenticeship for their future labors. They served the muse of poetry." In a certain sense that is true, but the word "apprenticeship" is misleading in Tate's instance. Allen Tate did not become a poet merely in order to learn how to be an Agrarian. He was a poet while he was an Agrarian; he continued to be a poet after his specific interest in Agrarianism diminished, and now he has become an active communicant of the Roman Catholic Church and he is still a poet. One must insist that for Allen Tate poetry has never been the apprenticeship for anything except poetry.
"Figure to yourself a man stopping at the gate of a Confederate cemetery . . . ," Tate writes in his essay "Narcissus as Narcissus." He continues: ". . . he pauses for a baroque meditation on the ravages of time, concluding with the figure of the 'blind crab.' This creature has mobility but no direction, energy but from the human point of view, no purposeful world to use it in. . . . The crab is the first intimation of the nature of the moral conflict upon which the drama of the poem develops: the cut-off-ness of the modern 'intellectual man' from the world."
The brute curiosity of an angel's stare
Turns you, like them, to stone,
Transforms the heaving air
Till plunged into a heavier world below
You shift your sea-space blindly
Heaving, turning like the blind crab.
If the Confederate Ode is based upon a moral conflict involving "the cut-off-ness of the modern 'intellectual man' from the world," why did Tate choose as his symbol the Confederate graveyard? The answer lies in the history of the region in which Allen Tate and his fellow Fugitives and Agrarians grew up. Tate was born and reared in the Upper South, and he attended college in Nashville, Tennessee, and there was a symbolism in the South of his day ready for the asking. It was the contrast, and conflict, between what the South was and traditionally had been, and what it was tending toward. "With the war of 1914-1918 the South re-entered the world," Tate has written, "but gave a backward glance as it stepped over the border: that backward glance gave us the Southern renascence, a literature conscious of the past in the present."
What kind of country was the South upon which Tate and his contemporaries of the early 1920s looked back at as well as observed around them? It was first of all a country with considerable historical consciousness, with rather more feeling for tradition and manners than existed elsewhere in the nation. There had been a civil war just a little over a half-century before, and the South had been badly beaten. Afterwards Southern leaders decided to emulate the ways of the conqueror, and called for a New South of cities and factories. Such Southern intellectuals as there were went along with the scheme. Men of letters like Walter Hines Page and John Spencer Bassett preached that once the provincialism of the Southern author was thrown off, and the Southern man of letters was willing to forget Appomattox Court House and Chickamauga, then Southern literature would come into its own. When it came to forecasting a literary renascence in the South. Bassett and his friends were absolutely right, but they could not have been more mistaken about the form that it would take. What brought about the renascencewhat there was in the time and place that made possible an Allen Tate and a William Faulkner and a Donald Davidson and a John Ransom and a Robert Penn Warren and an Andrew Lytle and three dozen other Southern writerswas not the eager willingness to ape the ways of the Industrial East, but rather the revulsion against the necessity of having to do so in order to live among their fellow Southerners. By 1920 and thereafter the South was changing, so that Tate's modern Southerner standing at the gate of a Confederate military cemetery was forced to compare what John Spencer Bassett had once termed "the worn out ideas of a forgotten system" with what had replaced that system.
And what had taken its place was what Tate and his fellow Agrarians have been crying out against ever since: the industrial. commercially-minded modern civilization, in which religion and ritual and tradition and order were rapidly being superseded by the worship of getting and spending.
Thus the Confederate graveyard as the occasion for solipsism, and the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature and society, because for Tate there could be no question about where the young Southern writer should stand in the matter. The agrarian community that had been the Southern way of life was with all its faults vastly preferable to what was taking place now. As he wrote in 1936, "the Southern man of letters cannot permit himself to look upon the old system from a purely social point of view, or from the economic view; to him it must seem better than the system that destroyed it, better, too, than any system with which the modern planners, Marxian or any color, wish to replace the present order." Surveying the heroic past and the empty present, the young Southerner could only feel himself in isolation from what were now his region's ways. In the words of the Confederate Ode,
What shall we say who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say to the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
The gray lean spiders come, they come and go;
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.
We shall say only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire
We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing. . . .
We are, that is, inadequate, cut off, isolated; we cannot even imagine how it was. All we can see is the leaves blowing about the gravestones. So Mr. Tate's modern Southerner felt.
The "Ode to the Confederate Dead" dates from about 1926, and that was the year, Tate recalls, that he and john Crowe Ransom began toying with the idea of "doing something" about the Southern situation, a project which soon led to plans for the book entitled I'll Take My Stand, in which Tate, Ransom, and ten other Southerners set forth Agrarian counsels for what they felt was an increasingly industrialized, increasingly misled South. The central argument was stated in the first paragraph of the introduction, which Ransom composed and to which all the participants gave assent: "All the articles bear in the same sense upon the book's title-subject: all tend to support a Southern way of life as against what may be called the American or, prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial."
The problem that the twelve Agrarians felt confronted the modern South was the same problem, then, as that which Mr. Tate's modern man at the graveyard gate faced. And in a very definite sense, I'll Take My Stand represented their recommendations for a solution, in a particular time and place, of the central moral problem of the "Ode to the Confederate Dead."
The Agrarians declared in their symposium that industrialism was predatory, in that it was based on a concept of nature as something to be used. In so doing, industrialism threw man out of his proper relationship to nature, and to God whose creation it was. The Agrarian quarrel, they declared, was with applied science, which in the form of industrial capitalism had as its object the enslavement of human energies. Since all activity was measured by the yardstick of financial gain, the industrial spirit neglected the aesthetic life. It had the effect of brutalizing labor, removing from it any possibility of enjoyment.
It must be remembered that most of the Agrarians were speaking not as economists or sociologists or regional planners or even as professional philosophers; they were speaking as men of letters. They believed that an Agrarian civilization was the way of life which permitted the arts to be an integral and valuable social activity, and not, as Ransom put it, "intercalary and non-participating experiences." Donald Davidson wrote of the Agrarians that "they sought to force, not so much a theory of economics as a philosophy of life, in which both economics and art would find their natural places and not be disassociated into abstract means and abstract ends, as the pseudo-culture of the world-city would disassociate them."
In an Agrarian community aesthetic activity would not be subordinate to economics. The artist would be a working member of society, not a person somehow set apart from the everyday existence of his neighbors. Nature, religion and art would be honored activities of daily life, and not something superfluous and outmoded, to be indulged when business permitted. Knowledgeletters, learning, taste, the integrated and rich fullness of emotion and intellectwould be "carried to the heart," as Tate said in the Confederate Ode, and not an unassimilated, discordant conglomerate of fragments. In the words of the poem,
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?
Shall we, he is asking, who still possess this full knowledge and who live in a world from which we are increasingly cut off by its insularity and isolation, in which we have mobility but no direction, energy but no outletshall we wait for death, or better still, court it?
In one sense, the program put forward in I'll Take My Stand constituted an answer to that question. But for all the book's effectiveness (and 23 years later it is receiving more attention from young Southerners than ever before in its history), it would be a mistake to believe that the Agrarian program was the only, or even the most important, statement of the problems of modern man as Tate and his colleagues saw them. One must always remember that Tate, Ransom, Davidson and Warren were poets primarily, not social scientists. The place to look for Allen Tate's ultimate statement of views is in his poetry.
Cleanth Brooks has pointed out the relevance of Tate's poetry to this central moral problem. Not only is this so in regard to subject matter, however; we find it implicit in the poetics as well. What is the most obvious characteristic of the poetry 0f Tate and his colleagues? I think we find it stated, and recognized, from the very outset, in the first reviews of the anthology, Fugitives, published in 1928. "Fugitive poetry makes one distinctly feel that one of the serious and fundamental defects of nineteenth century poetry was that it was too easy," one critic wrote. "Mr. Ransom, Mr. Tate and Miss [Laura] Riding are not for those who read and run," another reviewer asserted. The poet John Gould Fletcher, himself soon to join the Agrarians in the symposium, declared in a review that the Fugitive poets had become the main impulse in America in the leadership of "a school of intellectual poetry replacing the free verse experiments of the elder school."
The kind of poetry that Allen Tate was writing, then, represented a disciplined, intellectual, difficult poetry, requiring of the reader, in Tate s own words, "the fullest co-operation of all his intellectual resources, all his knowledge of the world, and all the persistence and alertness that he now thinks of giving to scientific studies." It was therefore a direct challenge to the attitude that aesthetic concerns were a subordinate, harmless activity "for those who read and run." It claimed for art as important and as demanding a role in human affairs as that played by science and business. As Ransom wrote, art "is a career, precisely as science is a career. It is as serious, it has an attitude as official, it is as studied and consecutive, it is by all means as difficult, it is no less important."
Another characteristic of Tate's poetry is its concentrated use of image and metaphor, as in the concluding lines of the Confederate Ode:
The shut gate and the decomposing wall:
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush
Sentinel of the grave who counts us all
Of those lines Tate says that "the closing image, that of the serpent, is the ancient symbol of time, and I tried to give it the credibility of the commonplace by placing it in a mulberry bushwith the faint hope that the silkworm would somehow be explicit. But time is also death. If that is so, then space, or the Becoming, is life; and I believe there is not a single spacial symbol in the poem. . . "
Why, though, if that is all that Tate "meant," did he not write something like the following:
Let us leave the graveyard now.
Time runs riot there
And time brings death to bear
And wears it on its brow.
The answer is that those lines are simply the abstract statement of what Tate was sayingand not even that, because Tate was not simply declaring that one should not remain in a graveyard because it reminds one of time and time brings death. Such a statement represents merely the "message" of the lines. Its purpose would be to give instruction concerning the course of action to be followed at a cemetery gate. One may decide that it is "true," which is another way of saying that the idea expressed is in accord with the findings of science; or that it is "false," in which case the advice is non-scientific and not an advantageous basis for action. If the former, the poet is not saying anything startling, and certainly a clinical psychologist could present much more convincing proof of the validity of the action than the poet would be doing. And if one decides that the advice is not scientifically plausible, then what else remains? The lines contain nothing but the advice; the "meaning" represents the lines' sole reason for being.
Tate's lines, however, do not simply give "advice"; they do not base their appeal on their adaptability to counsel. They are not dependent upon any scientific "proof" of their correctitude. Both alone and in the context of the Ode they create their own validity. They do not pretend to be representative of scientific knowledge and proof; they are their own knowledge and proof. They are about serpents and mulberry bushes and shut gates and decomposing walls, and not advice to graveyard visitors. Tate's poem isn't a mere pseudo-scientific statement, and it doesn't depend upon a paraphrase of a scientific statement, and its validity is neither confirmable nor refutable by scientists. It mayor may not contain a statement of scientific truth, but that would at most be a portion, only one of a number of parts, involved in the whole creation of the poem. The poem, therefore, does not depend upon science; science plays only a relatively minor role. The relationship is obvious to the Agrarian belief in the equality of the aesthetic pursuits with the scientific.
Tate and his colleagues have insisted in their poetry and criticism that the image possesses a priority over the abstract idea. They have taken over the pioneering work done by the Imagists and gone further. They have been instrumental in reviving contemporary interest in the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, constructed as that poetry is with complex imagery and metaphor. An idea, Ransom has written, "is derivative and tamed," whereas an image is in the wild state: "we think we can lay hold of image and take it captive, but the docile captive is not the real image but only the idea, which is the image with its character beaten out of it." The image, Ransom declared, is "a manifold of properties, like a field or a mine, something to be explored for the properties." The scientist can use the manifold only by singling out the one property with which he is concerned: "It is not by refutation but by abstraction that science destroys the image. It means to get its 'value' out of the image, and we may be sure that it has no use for the image in its original state of freedom."
A poetry of abstract ideas, Tate and Ransom held, is a poetry of science, and as such it neglects the manifold properties of life and nature. Just as an economist used only the special interests of economics to interpret human activity, so the poetry of ideas was concerned with only one part of the whole. This led to specialization and isolation, fragmenting the balance and completeness of man and nature into a multitude of special interests, cutting off men from the whole of life, destroying the unity of human existence. And here we come again to Tate's main theme in the Confederate Ode, "the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature and society," "the cut-off-ness of the modern 'intellectual man' from the world." It is a constant refrain in Tate's work. In 1928, for instance, we find these two sentences in a review by Tate 0f Gorham Munson's Destinations, in the New Republic: "Evasions of intellectual responsibility take various forms; all forms seem to be general in our time; what they mean is the breakdown of culture; and there is no new order in sight which promises to replace it. The widespread cults, esoteric societies, amateur religions, all provide easy escapes from discipline, easy revolts from the traditional forms of culture." And 25 years later he is still saying just that, as in his recent Phi Beta Kappa address at the University 0f Minnesota: "the man of letters must not be committed to the illiberal specializations that the nineteenth century has proliferated into the modern world: specializations in which means are divorced from ends; action from sensibility, matter from mind, society from the individual, religion from moral agency, love from lust, poetry from thought, communion from experience, and mankind in the community from men in the crowd. There is literally no end to this list of dissociations because there is no end, yet in sight, to the fragmenting 0f the western mind."
Modern man of the dissociated sensibility, isolated from his fellows, caught up in a life of fragmented parts and confused impulses; thus Allen Tate's Southerner waiting at the gate of the Confederate cemetery contemplates the high glory of Stonewall Jackson and the inscrutable foot-cavalry of a day when ancestors of that Southerner knew what they fought for, and could die willingly for knowing it:
You know who have waited by the wall
The twilight certainty of an animal,
Those midnight restitutions of the blood
You knowthe immitigable pines, the smoky frieze
Of the sky, the sudden call: you know the rage,
The cold pool left by the mounting flood,
Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.
You who have waited for the angry resolution
Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,
You 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.
Times are not what they were, Tate's Southerner at the gate realizes; it has become almost impossible even to imagine such days:
You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.
Even the title of the poem stems from the irony of the then and now; "Not only are the meter and rhyme without fixed pattern," Tate wrote, "but in another feature the poem is even further removed from Pindar than Abraham Cowley was: a purely subjective meditation would not even in Cowley's age have been called an ode. 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."
from Rubin, Southern Renascence. Copyright © 1953 by the Johns Hopkins UP.
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