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Allen Tate

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English Literature

Few poets embody the post-Civil War identity of the American South more than Allen Tate. Growing up in Kentucky and Tennessee, Tate’s identity as a Southerner dominated everything about his life, from his poetry to his literary criticism to his political views. Although he was born decades after the American Civil War, Tate firmly believed in the Confederate cause. His views on race make him a complicated literary figure.

Content warning: Contains themes of racism.

Allen Tate: Biography

American poet, critic, novelist, and teacher Allen Tate was born John Orley Allen Tate on November 19, 1899. The son of a Kentucky businessman and his Virginian wife, Tate was born and raised in Kentucky. His identity as a Southerner consumed his lifestyle, poetry, and social commentary throughout his entire career.

Tate inherited his love of English literature from his mother, and he studied at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1918. At Vanderbilt, he became very close with an informal group of Southern intellectuals and poets, who called themselves “the Fugitives”. The Fugitives consisted of Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Merrill Moore, and Tate’s instructor, John Crowe Ransom. Tate was the first undergraduate student to be invited to join the group of poets as they read and commented upon their own poetry and that of others.

In 1922, the group began publishing The Fugitive, a poetry magazine that ran for three years. The magazine wanted to prove that southerners could provide valuable contributions to the genre of poetry. In Tate’s time and even today, there is a long-held belief that southerners are simple, ignorant, and dumb. In the American North, there was (and still is) a prejudice against southerners because of their dialect and the way they hold onto tradition. For much of American literary history, the Southern voice was largely ignored, which only escalated after the American Civil War. Tate and the Fugitives worked to combat that.

Allen Tate, Tate's poetry centered around his identity as a southerner, Allen Tate, StudySmarterTate’s poetry centered on his identity as a southerner. Other southerners pictured above, Pixabay

Tate graduated from Vanderbilt in 1922 and began working as a critic in 1924. The first magazine he worked for was the Nashville-based Tennessean, and he later worked for The Nation, Hound & Horn, Poetry magazine, and others. He moved to New York City in 1924 and began a friendship with fellow poet Hart Crane. Tate met novelist Caroline Gordon in 1924 and married her in May 1925. The two had their first daughter in September that year.

As a literary critic, Tate is considered a leading proponent of New Criticism. New Criticism dominated the world of American literary criticism in the middle of the twentieth century.

New Criticism is part of the formalist movement, which means that its focus is on finding meaning from the text itself. New Criticism emphasizes a “close reading” of the text where the reader examines the explicit and implicit meaning of the words on the page to understand the author’s intentions. New critics considered texts to be autonomous, meaning they can stand on their own without any background information on the author’s life, etc. According to New Criticism, all that the reader needs to understand a text can be found in the text itself.

New critics believed that the meaning of a literary work can be found predominately in its literary devices. There was a special focus on metaphor, irony, tension, and paradox. Tate himself was one of the foremost critics defining tension in poetry. He said all works needed some kind of tension to be complete. He defined tension as a mutually beneficial relationship between extension (the literal meaning of a work) and intension (the metaphorical meaning of a work).

In 1928, Tate published his first collection of poems, Mr. Pope and Other Poems, and his first biography, Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier. That same year, he and his family left the United States for two years to travel and live in Europe. Tate met Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein as well as his literary hero, T.S. Eliot, during his time abroad.

After he returned to the United States, Tate once again settled in the South in Tennessee. Tate taught at Southwestern College in Memphis from 1934 until 1936. He was named poet laureate of the United States from 1943 to 1944. Afterward, he joined The Sewanee Review, an American literary magazine, which became one of the foremost literary magazines in the United States under his editorship. He taught at the University of North Carolina, Princeton University, and finally at the University of Minnesota from 1951 until his retirement in 1968.

In 1970, Tate published The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems. In 1972, he was hospitalized for ten days with bronchitis and emphysema. His health never really improved, and he was hospitalized sporadically throughout the 1970s. His final collection, Collected Poems, 1916-1976, was published in 1977. Tate died on February 9, 1979, and was buried in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Allen Tate and Southern History

Tate’s primary argument throughout his work is that American southerners need to remember their history and return to their traditional way of life. Tate himself was deeply invested in Southern history and wrote extensively on the American Civil War, praising the Confederate soldiers for their bravery and heroism. Tate argued that the Confederates wanted to protect the traditional agrarian way of life in the South, while the Union wanted them to conform to the industrialization of the North. During his time, Tate mourned the loss of individualism, faith, and tradition of the American South while romanticizing Southern history and traditional culture.

Tate cared about Southern history so deeply that he wrote two biographies on Southern historical figures. He published Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier in 1928 and Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall in 1929. His 1938 novel, The Fathers, is generally considered to embody the modern image of the South. It captures the outbreak of the Civil War in Virginia as tensions mounted between Union sympathizers and Confederate sympathizers.

Allen Tate, The central argument in Tate's work is that Southerners need to relearn their history and their ancestor's culture and relationship to the land, Allen Tate, StudySmarterThe central argument in Tate’s work is that Southerners need to relearn their history and their ancestor’s culture and relationship to the land, Pixabay

Tate’s attitudes on race make him a complicated literary figure. He was poet laureate of the United States and highly esteemed in his own time, but he was also deeply racist. Tate was explicitly prejudiced against Black people in the 1930s and refused to associate with Black writers like Langston Hughes. Tate spoke out against interracial marriage and believed in white supremacy. He denounced lynching as a symptom of weak rule, while also stating it couldn’t be destroyed until white people felt that their power would not be taken from them. In his later career, Tate slightly modified his position and his rhetoric surrounding the Black community, but he would be forever remembered for his racist ideologies.

Tate’s attitudes on race make him a complicated literary figure. He was a poet laureate of the United States and highly esteemed in his own time, but he was also deeply racist. Tate was explicitly prejudiced against Black people in the 1930s, and refused to associate with Black writers like Langston Hughes. Tate spoke out against interracial marriage and believed in white supremacy. He denounced lynching as a symptom of weak rule while also stating it couldn’t be destroyed until white people felt that their power would not be taken from them. In his later career, Tate slightly modified his position and his rhetoric surrounding the Black community, but he would be forever remembered for his racist ideologies.

Allen Tate Poems

Below are some of Tate’s most influential poems.

“Ode to the Confederate Dead“ (1928)

Ode to the Confederate Dead” is Tate’s most well-known poem, included in his 1928 Mr. Pope and Other Poems collection. The poem is situated in a dilapidated Southern cemetery, where dead Civil War soldiers are laid to rest. The speaker notes that the dead soldiers had the same values and dreams as he did, and that modern Southerners have forgotten these heroes.

But the dead symbolize more than just lost Confederates because they come to represent the traditions of the past that connected the Southerners to the natural world. Now, modern Southerners (and in fact the entire world) have lost their respect for nature and replaced it with narcissism as they view the world as a commodity, valuable in how it can benefit them. The speaker ends the poem by warning his readers that death is ultimately an equalizer and treating the natural world without respect won’t save them from death – it will only serve to condemn them.

“Seasons of the Soul” (1948)

“Seasons of the Soul” was published in Tate’s 1948 poetry collection Poems 1922–1947. The poem was written during World War II and implies the speaker’s Dante-esque descent into hell as he ages. The poem starts off with Summer, which represents the current age. The speaker also uses pointed imagery to compare Summer to the age of antiquity when agriculture was the dominant economic force (a time that Tate himself argued Southerners should get back to).

The poem then shifts into Fall, which is representative of the speaker aging and losing his connection to the world around him. He says that he feels trapped and his own ancestors refuse to recognize him. This calls into question how the speaker’s identity changes over time.

In Winter, both the Christian God and pagan gods are dead, further deepening the speaker’s hopelessness. The speaker calls out to Venus, the goddess of love, for help, showcasing that only love can save the speaker from his hopelessness. Finally, in Spring, the speaker calls out for the “Mother of Silences,” who is implicitly connected to the Virgin Mary. He asserts that she is the only one who can save them when they begin to die.

“The Swimmers” (1960)

“The Swimmers” recounts Tate’s personal experience of seeing the body of a lynched Black man in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, when he was 11 years old. The poem starts out peacefully with the sounds of running water and nature. The speaker and his friends are idly spending a Summer day “chasing shade” when they witness 12 horses galloping past them. The boys follow and see a dead Black man. The speaker says he wishes he could get his innocence back.

The sheriff comes along and casually notes that he got there too late. The sheriff then treats the body irreverently, kicking it to get the noose loose and taking it back to town, more upset about the dust than the fact that the man has been murdered. The young speaker mourns his loss of innocence and notes that everyone in the town was responsible for the hate crime, but no one will claim responsibility.

“The Buried Lake” (1960)

“The Buried Lake,” like “Seasons of the Soul,” centers on the speaker’s realization that the only way to feel unrelenting love and truly free oneself from guilt is through spiritual transcendence. After a lifelong ambivalence toward religion, Tate converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1950s. “Seasons of the Soul” and “The Buried Lake” both examine how one becomes lost without spiritual guidance. “The Buried Lake” refers to the deepness of the speaker’s heart, which has been buried and hidden for years until he united with the “Lady of light” or the Virgin Mary. In his lifetime, critics set Tate’s “The Buried Lake” and “Seasons of the Soul” at odds with one another. Different critics claimed one poem was better than the other at revealing spiritual truths.

Allen Tate Books

Allen Tate published one novel, two biographies, and several collections of poetry in his lifetime. His novel, The Fathers, was published in 1938 and is about divisions in loyalties during the Civil War. The novel is about two brothers and their individual relationships with their father, Major Buchan, who is conservative and staunchly upholds tradition. He is pro-Union while his sons are pro-Confederate, leading to tension within the family. The novel explores shifts in loyalty in both the family and in Virginia during the Civil War.

Tate published two biographies on Civil War figures, Stonewall Jackson in 1928 and Jefferson Davis in 1929. He also published 15 poetry collections between 1923 and 1977 (including republished editions and revisions).

Allen Tate - Key takeaways

  • Allen Tate was born in 1899 in Kentucky. His identity as a Southerner dominated his contributions to the literary world.
  • Tate was a poet, literary critic, biographer, novelist, and longtime lecturer.
  • Tate’s most famous poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” was published in his first collection of poetry. It honors those who died to protect the independent, agrarian values of the South in the American Civil War.
  • Tate’s central argument throughout his work was that the American South needed to go back to its roots, revitalize the culture of its ancestors, and rebuild the fallen society of the past.

Allen Tate

Allen Tate wrote about Southern American history. He was deeply influenced by his connection to the South and wrote extensively on the need to get away from industrialization and back to a natural, agrarian lifestyle. 

Allen Tate was born in Winchester, Kentucky. He spent most of his youth in Kentucky, Nashville, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia because his family moved around so much.

Allen Tate believed that tension was needed for a work to be complete/whole. He believed a mutually beneficial relationship between extension (the literal meaning) and intension (the metaphorical meaning) created tension in literature.

Allen Tate was a twentieth-century poet, literary critic, novelist, biographer. He wrote primarily Southern poetry.

Yes, Allen Tate is considered a leading exponent of New Criticism. The New Critics emphasized close reading as the best way to understand a text. This formalist movement insisted on the intrinsic value of a work.

Final Allen Tate Quiz

Question

Who was Allen Tate? 

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Answer

Allen Tate was a 20th century poet, literary critic, novelist, biographer. He wrote primarily Southern poetry, his most notable being 'Ode to the Confederate Dead.'

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Question

What did Allen Tate write about?

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Answer

Allen Tate wrote about Southern American history. He was deeply influenced by his connection to the South, and wrote extensively on the need to get away from industrialization and back to a natural, agrarian lifestyle. 

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Question

What was important about where Allen Tate was raised? 

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Answer

Allen Tate was born in Winchester, Kentucky. He spent most of his youth in Kentucky, Nashville, Tennessee, and the District of Colombia because his family moved around so much. His identity as a Southerner was inherent in his literary contributions and social commentary. 

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Question

Why was his Southern identity important to Tate? 

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Answer

Tate was interested in proving that Southern poets could contribute to the genre. He also urged his fellow Southerners to go back to their roots and rebuild the golden, agrarian landscape of their past. 

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Question

What specific event in American history did Tate use as inspiration most often? 

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Answer

He used the Civil War as the inspiration behind much of his poetry. He believed that the Confederates were heroes who fought for freedom, and that contemporary Southerners needed to remember their old way of life. 

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Question

What is 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'? 

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Answer

That is Tate's most famous poem.  It honors the dead soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. It romanticizes the past and argues that contemporary Southern society lacks tradition and faith. 

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Question

What poems is Tate famous for? 

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Answer

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' (1928)
'Seasons of the Soul' (1948)
'The Swimmers' (1960)
'The Buried Lake' (1960)

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What kind of books did Tate write? 

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Tate wrote two biographies on Southern Civil War heroes: Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. He also wrote a novel that examined tensions between family members and between beliefs leading up to the Civil War. 

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What kind of criticism is Tate known for? 

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He is known for his contributions to New Criticism. New Criticism was a formalist literary movement that argued that everything needed to understand a text was contained within the text itself. It advocated for close reading. 

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What is Tate known for contributing to New Criticism? 

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Tate is known for his definition of the idea of tension in a literary work. 

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What is 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'? 

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'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is America poet Allen Tate's most famous poem, published in 1928.

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What kind of poem is 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'? 

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'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is a long lyric poem and a subtype of graveyard poetry. 

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Is 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' an ode? 

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It is an ode in name only. It doesn't address a particular event or person, instead of reflects on the more philosophical state of the world in comparison to the past and to death.   

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What historical event is 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' inspired by? 

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'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is inspired by dead Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War. The speaker viewed the soldiers as heroes who died fighting for their traditional way of life. 

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What is the poem really about? 

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Many people think the poem is literally a elegy for dead Confederate soldiers. It is actually much more philosophical in nature. The speaker uses the Confederate soldiers and graveyard as a metaphor for the traditional connection to nature and the ruined state of the cemetery for human narcissism. 

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What is 'Narcissus as Narcissus'? 


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'Narcissus as Narcissus' is an essay Tate published in 1938 that explains what he was attempting in 'Ode to the Confederate Dead.' In this essay, Tate states that the themes of the poem are solipsism and narcissism. The entire poem is a metaphor, and not a literal memorial. 

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How is the theme of narcissism depicted in the poem? 

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Narcissism is depicted entirely through metaphors, comparing the traditional Southern relationship to nature to contemporary society's relationship to nature. The cemetery is representative of the natural world, the dead soldiers are the old traditions, and the ruined state of the cemetery is modernity's neglect. Essentially, modern people are so focused on themselves and how the world can benefit them that they feel a sense of entitlement and only value the natural world in the ways it can help them. 

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What role does symbolism play in the poem? 

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Symbolism is used to depict death. First, the mummy and the hound are used as symbols for how humans attempt to control life and death. Finally, the serpent is a symbol for natural death which is indiscriminate and inevitable. 

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What role does personification play in the poem? 

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Personification is used to present nature as an active force that is mysterious and doesn't always benefit humans. The nature in the poem acts of its own accord, which pushes back against the narcissistic control humans feel they have over the world. 

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What are the themes of 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'? 

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Answer

Human Narcissism and Solipsism

Tradition vs. Modernity

Death as an Equalizer 

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