About the Poet
A teacher, biographer, poet, and leader of the New Criticism movement, John Orley Allen Tate joined his peers at Vanderbilt University in defaming modernity and encroaching technology, which he feared compromised humanity. He was born on December 19, 1899, in Winchester, Kentucky, and he sparked wonder and speculation in his parents. Visitors examined his oddly bulging head, which they identified as a sign of mental retardation. Tate studied at Tarbox School in Nashville for one year before entering Cross School in Louisville; he then completed pre-college courses at Georgetown University Preparatory School.
Tate, one of John Crowe Ransom's gifted freshmen, entered the English program at Vanderbilt with a considerable reading background and familiarity with metaphysical poetry and the French symbolists. He made good on his early promise by publishing in The Fugitive and The Double-Dealer and composing "The Chaste Land," an irreverent parody of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. The onset of tuberculosis temporarily interrupted his graduating magna cum laude with the class of 1922. He taught high school in Lumberport, West Virginia, and worked briefly in his brother's coal office. Incapable of commercial thinking, he put his mind to literature, his life's work.
After moving to New York to edit Telling Tales, Tate married fiction writer Caroline Gordon in 1924 and resettled at a farmstead in Clarksville, Tennessee. The couple had a daughter, Nancy Meriwether. Late in their marriage, the Tates collaborated on The House of Fiction (1950), a standard composition text for English majors. Tate worked at various editorial posts while publishing increasingly mature verse. The recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships, he returned from a sojourn in Paris to contribute to Literary Review, Minnesota Review, Shenandoah, Partisan Review, Yale Review, Criterion, and Le Figaro Litteraire. He showcased his poetry in Mr. Pope and Other Poems (1928) and demonstrated Southern loyalties in biographies of two notable nineteenth-century Confederates, Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier (1928) and Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall (1929).
Tate was a consummate versifier and supporter of the Vanderbilt coterie known as the Fugitive Agrarians who sought a return to earth-based life and values; Tate was the group's only undergraduate member. He participated with Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and eight others in the symposium I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930). At the height of his literary career, he published Poems: 1928-1931 (1932), The Mediterranean and Other Poems (1935), and Selected Poems (1937), and co-edited Who Owns America (1936) with Herbert Agar. The Fathers (1938), a self-revelatory historical novel, detailed his family's role in American and Southern history. As a literary theorist, Tate issued criticism in Reactionary Essays in Poetry and Ideas (1936); Reason in Madness (1941), co-authored by H. Cairns and Mark Van Doren; The Language of Poetry (1942); On the Limits of Poetry: Selected Essays (1948); The Forlorn Demon: Didactic and Critical Essays (1953); and a compilation, Essays of Four Decades (1969).
Tate's major contribution to classroom teaching took him to Southwestern College, the Woman's College of the University of North Carolina (now UNC Greensboro), and Columbia. In 1939, he was named Princeton's first fellow in creative writing. Parallel to classroom brilliance, he served the Library of Congress as its 1943 poetry consultant. Before retirement, he edited and taught at the universities of Chicago and Minnesota, where he published Collected Essays (1959) and Poems (1960). After a divorce from Gordon, he was married to Isabella Gardner for eleven years and then for thirteen years to Helen Heinz, mother of his sons John Allen, Michael Paul, and Benjamin Lewis.
Tate's last titles include Memoirs and Opinions (1975) and two verse compendia, The Swimmers and Other Poems (1971) and Collected Poems 1919-1976 (1977), compiled two years before his death on February 9, 1979, in Nashville. His honoraria brought him numerous awards, including the Bollingen Prize and the National Medal for Literature.
Begun in the mid-1920s and completed in 1936, Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead," his most anthologized work, questions whether his contemporaries are capable of true honor to the past. The poem, a free-flowing, private meditation, opens on irony by employing the Pindaric ode, a lyric, metrically precise form intended for public reading to honor a single hero. Instead of narrowing his focus on one person, the poet broadens his scope to the unified body of war dead and to the spiritually dead community that suffers eroded ties with history. The unidentified cemetery visitor envies military casualties for their sense of purpose at "Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run," in part because he lacks their understanding of myth. His dislocation stems from a modern narcissism, expressed by the headlong self-destructive leap of the jaguar toward "his own image in a jungle pool, his victim." The physical separation symbolized by the cemetery gate shuts the timeless dead away from "The gentle serpent," an Edenic metaphor for time, which interlaces past and present, the dead and the living who are marked for the grave.
The text blends Greek form with Southern themes as the modern viewer attempts to empathize with the Civil War dead. Crucial to loose iambic lines are frequent interweavings of one-syllable rhyme (there/stare, plot/rot), slant rhyme (there/year), harsh sounds (hound bitch), repetition (Stonewall, Stonewall), alliteration (sagging gate), and assonance, as with the various oh and oo sounds of "you know the rage, / The cold pool left by the mounting flood, / Of muted Zeno and Parmenides." The flow of dense rhetoric reaches dramatic stopping points with the plunge of leaves in lines 25 and 26 and again in lines 41and 42.
Anchored to a passage of autumns, the poem focuses on physical decay, both in buried corpses and the chipped slabs that mark each plot. At the emotional height, the poet asks, "What shall we say of the bones, unclean, / Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?" The question makes its demand on the South as a whole, which must choose whether to carry its history in the heart or bury it along with the era's diminished sensibilities.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Determine from Tate's verse his concept of the Southerner and the South's purpose in retaining traditions, rituals, and customs dating to days of glory.
2. Compare Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead" with other modern verse rich in fragmentary chaos, particularly that of Hart Crane.
3. Discuss the imagery of branches and leaves in "Ode to the Confederate Dead." What do the branches and leaves symbolize?
4. Contrast Tate's regional images in "The Swimmers" with similarly localized word pictures in the verse of Joy Harjo and James A. Wright.