Allen Tate (1899-1979)
Contributing Editor: Anne Jones
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It may be difficult to get students without some personal investment in/against the Confederacy or at least the American South to respond initially at all to a poem that presumes the identification of classical heroism with Confederate soldiery. Watching a segment from Ken Burns's popular PBS series, "The Civil War," which made much of the lives of ordinary soldiers from both sides, might help to get past initial alienation; so might a discussion of the place of the American South in contemporary ideology, especially in popular culture.
Once the distances of history and regional difference are addressed--and even if they aren't--the pairing of poem and essay makes it possible to teach close reading in an especially intimate and interesting way. Students can learn techniques of analysis from Tate's reading of his own poem, and they can at the same time sharpen their own skills by resisting specific claims of his reading. The pairing offers the opportunity as well to examine, address, and discuss the history and value of the New Criticism, of which Tate was a founder and his essay is, presumably, an example. What sorts of reading does he reject and why? What sorts does he simply fail to mention? Issues of gender and femininity in particular seem oddly and obscurely present in the essay; they invite a second look at the poem for its implicit gender stakes.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Tate lays out in "Narcissus as Narcissus" what he conceived to be the major themes of "Ode to the Confederate Dead": the conflict between a vanished heroic community of "active faith" and the anomie of contemporary reductionism and isolation. These themes will be familiar to students, especially those who have read T. S. Eliot and other conservative modernists. Tate represents the conflict as taking place within the consciousness of a man standing alone at a Confederate graveyard; the conflict thus is reshaped as a problem for the imagination. What can this man's (the poet's?) imagination take hold of and how? How, in fact, does the imagination work? Tate looked first to southern history and later to the Catholic church for answers. One might ask students, with Gertrude Stein, what is the question? This might encourage looking beyond Tate's own representations to other ways of framing the issues he is engaged in.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Tate, of course, addresses these issues in his essay. He compares (albeit self-disparagingly) the poem's structure to that of a Greek ode; he pays particular attention to questions of rhyme and rhythm. In short, he emphasizes poetic traditions. Yet he claims that the absence of these traditions is what shapes the "modern" side of the conflict in the protagonist's mind. Is Tate's understanding of his own formal and stylistic effects, his use and rejection of convention, adequate?
Tate worked on the first version of "Ode" during the winter of 1925, living in New York with his wife Caroline Gordon and, for a time, in a cramped apartment, with Hart Crane. That draft (the 1937 revision is not very severe) was published in the last collaboration of the Fugitives as a group, Fugitives, an Anthology of Verse (1928). It won him considerable national fame, which (in the words of Radcliffe Squires) he "took with him to Europe" on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928. The "Ode" has remained his best-known poem, though he is no longer thought of as the national figure he once was. Why not?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
T. S. Eliot's themes and images, especially in "The Waste Land" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," are rather clear influences on Tate's perhaps even more somber poem. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" makes an interesting pair with Tate's more self-deprecatingly named "Narcissus as Narcissus," as does Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition," to which Tate refers. Crane's name appears several times in the Tate essay; Wallace Stevens's does not, though "Sunday Morning" raises similar concerns, to resolve them differently. Both poets might well be read with Tate. And of course Tate's historical connections with the Fugitives, Agrarians, and New Critics--among them John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks-- provide a more regional and ideological context.