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Seasons of the Soul

Seasons of the Soul

What happens to a human soul after death? If you were to ask the Italian poet Dante (1265‐1321), the answer would come in the form of an endlessly elaborate set of three books of poetry describing nine circles of hell, seven stages of purgatory, and nine spheres of heaven. The American poet Allen Tate (1899‐1979) takes a more personal and simplified approach to Dante's ideas, closely and cleverly exploring themes of human death and the need for salvation in his poem "Seasons of the Soul" (1944).

"Seasons of the Soul" Poem Overview
Poet:Allen Tate (1899‐1979)
Year Published:1944
Allusions:Dante's Inferno, The Virgin Mary, St. Monica, Venus, Balaam and his donkey
Themes:Human death and the need for salvation

Seasons of the Soul Poem: Context

"Seasons of the Soul" is a long poem by the American Southern poet, critic, and editor, Allen Tate. Tate's most famous poem is "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1928).

"Seasons of the Soul" is dedicated to the American poet John Peale Bishop (1892‐1944). Allen Tate edited John Peale Bishop's posthumously published Collected Poems (1948).

For most of his life, Allen Tate was a self-proclaimed atheist with a strong interest in God and religion. The poet converted to Roman Catholicism in 1950. He was drawn to Catholicism much earlier but did not convert because he knew it would have been a purely intellectual conversion rather than a spiritual one. "Seasons of the Soul" reflects Tate's search for redemption and hope beyond the intellectual mind and state of humanity.

"Seasons of the Soul" was heavily influenced by The Divine Comedy (1472) by Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy is a three-book narrative poem that consists of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Like The Divine Comedy, "Seasons of the Soul" tells the story of a soul's descent into hell in search of the light of God.

Allen Tate wrote the poem during World War II (1939‐1945). Tate's poem clearly shows the impact of the violence, fear, and death that characterized this period of time.

Seasons of the Soul, WWI Generals, StudySmarterFig. 1 ‐ Allen Tate wrote "Seasons of the Soul" during World War II.

"Seasons of the Soul": Structure and Form

"Seasons of the Soul" is a 280-line poem split into four sections named after the four seasons:

I. Summer

II. Autumn

III. Winter

IV. Spring

The poem is entirely made up of ten-line stanzas. Each section consists of 6 highly structured stanzas.

"Seasons of the Soul": Meter and Rhyme Scheme

Understanding the form of Allen Tate's poem is crucial to grasping its meaning. Although the poem is long, the verse is tightly woven and highly structured. Each ten-line stanza features a consistent rhyme scheme and follows a gist of iambic trimeter. Though all the lines do not follow iambic trimeter perfectly, the poem continuously falls into this rhythm of three stresses per line.

Iambic trimeter is a line of poetry that contains six syllables in an alternating pattern of unstressed followed by stressed syllables.

In the following example of the first stanza of the poem, stressed syllables are underlined and the rhyme scheme pattern is colored and labeled at the end of the lines:

Summer, this is our flesh, A

The body you let mature; B

If now while the body is fresh A

You take it, shall we give C (example of perfect iambic trimeter)

The heart, lest heart endure B

The mind's tattering D

Blow of greedy claws? E

Shall mind itself still live C

If like a hunting king D

It falls to the lion's jaws? E

(1-10)

The irregular trimeter of the poem creates a sense of strain in the short lines. This adds to the speaker's tension in his illustration of human struggles and desires. The tightly structured lines and stanzas evoke the idea of the consistent climb and search for salvation that characterizes human existence.

The ABACBDECDE rhyme scheme links the stanzas together in a way that creates subtle continuity and aids the resolution of the refrain. While each line has its rhyming pair, many of the rhymes are delayed (notice the C rhymes are four lines apart) and not highly evident. Through this clever use of rhyme, Allen Take evokes the speaker's waiting for redemption and relief.

A refrain is a repeated line or phrase in a poem, particularly used at the end of a stanza.

Each section features a different refrain. In the poem's first section, each stanza ends with the word "jaws," emphasizing how humanity falls prey to many evils. The fact that the word "jaws" completes the final rhyming pair in each line ties everything back to the same reoccurring idea.

Seasons of the Soul, Shark Jaws, StudySmarterFig. 2 ‐ The repetition of the word "jaws" enforces the idea that humans fall prey to evil, death, and violence.

Seasons of the Soul: Summary

"Seasons of the Soul" begins with an epigraph from Canto 13, lines 31 to 33 of Dante's Inferno.

An epigraph is a quotation or saying that begins a text and suggests its themes.

The quote, written in a Tuscan dialect of Italian, translates to:

Puzzled, I raised my hand a bit and slowlyBroke off a branchlet from an enormous thorn:And the great trunk of it cried: “Why do you break me?” 1

To place this quote in the context of the Inferno, the protagonist Dante is being led through hell by a guide named Virgil. He is passing through a dark forest where the souls of people who have committed suicide are trapped in the trees. Virgil asks Dante to snap one of the branches, and it begins to bleed as the trapped soul cries out and speaks to him. This scene from Inferno is alluded to in Tate's poem and introduces the ideas of hell and the human soul.

I. Summer

The poet writes about the human flesh, body, heart, and mind struggling in the heat of the summer, which symbolizes hell. The speaker addresses the greedy nature of the human mind, which he compares to a prideful hunter always at risk of falling "to the lion's jaws" (10). The poet writes that the "soul cannot endure" the "summer's blast" unless it makes a conscious effort to deny itself and “make the eye secure” (12, 11, 15).

In the Bible, the eyes are said to be the gateway to the soul. Thus, Tate implies that humans must consciously strive for virtue and avoid temptations to avoid hell.

The speaker addresses “Brothers-in-arms” (fellow soldiers) and emphasizes the circular pattern of life and death which sweeps over life like the wind. The speaker explains that it was a “gentle sun” during the “June solstice” when “France was overrun / With caterpillar feet” (21, 22, 23-24). He emphasizes how subtly and unexpectedly war comes upon a place and takes the hearts of men to a “Green field in burning season” (29).

"Caterpillar feet" can refer to soldiers marching in a line, mimicking a caterpillar. It could also allude to a tank's treads, known as "caterpillar treads" because they move the tank similarly to how a caterpillar walks.

The speaker says, "The southern summer dies / Evenly in the fall” (31-32). People raise their “tired eyes” into an unpromising, empty, and endless “sky of glass” (33, 34). The justice of laws burns as a deceptive non-Israelite Old Testament prophet, Balaam stands with his donkey above “the invalid dead” (40). The speaker ponders how quickly times and seasons change for no apparent reason.

The poem's final stanza describes “Two men of our summer world” in hell where they spot a centaur whose beard parts to reveal its jaws.

Seasons of the Soul, Centaur Statue, StudySmarterFig. 3 ‐ A centaur is a creature with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse.

II. Autumn: Summary

The speaker shifts entirely to the first person perspective in this section that begins, “It had an autumn smell / And that was how I knew / That I was down a well” (61-63). The speaker describes himself as aged with “numb and blue” lips (65). The air is rough like sand and he stands in “the empty hall” (70).

“The empty hall” is the refrain that ends each stanza in this section. The hall has high ceilings, “grey light,” and no rugs or details to focus on. The wall consists of numerous closed doors “Through which a shade might slide” (79).

In Dante’s Inferno, a shade is the soul of a dead person in hell.

The speaker says he is going to leave the house and head towards the town “where men fear together” (85). He walks towards the door for what feels like ”years” (88). The door has no lock or key, and the speaker says that all of his time running has only brought him back where he began. He sees one door open a crack and a fat man enters the hall.

The speaker sees his “father in a gray shawl,” who squints into the distance and walks into another room, leaving the speaker alone once again (107). He begins to see all sorts of people he knows walking from one room to another without making eye contact. He sees his “downcast mother” with “her blue eyes long and small,” but remains frozen in the empty hall (115, 117).

III. Winter: Summary

The speaker addresses Venus, the Roman god of love, fertility, beauty, and desire. He cries out for her to “Return into the sea” of hell and “Leave the burnt earth” (122, 126).

Seasons of the Soul, White Sea Foam, StudySmarterFig. 4 ‐ Venus was born from sea foam in Roman mythology.

He explains that those in hell no longer have any gods to “bear for us / The living wound of love” (129‐130). The refrain in this section alternates between the repetition of the “living wound of love” and the “livid wound of love,” indicating the human need for redemptive love (130, 150).

The poet describes this frozen sea version of hell: "Shivering flakes, and shove / Bodies that wheel and drop- / Cold soot upon the snow” (157-159). “Beyond the undertow” of the waves, he describes an animal in a cage that represents the trap of lust and carnal love (161).

The speaker returns to the forest depicted in the epigraph from Inferno. He breaks a branch and hears “the speaking blood / (From the livid would of love)” (179-180). The voices of men who died by suicide call out to him, and he feels their blood drip on his hair.

IV. Spring: Summary

The poet characterizes spring as ”irritable,” as it burns out quickly and cannot stay to comfort the “unease” of the soul (191, 197).

The speaker reflects on his past when he lived in “a pleasant land / Where even death could please” (206-207).

The refrain of this section is “the mother of silences,” alluding to the Virgin Mary. The speaker addresses her to implore help in times of hopelessness and despair. The speaker implies that in a time of “bloody war,” death can come about at any time (211). He points to the “burning arrogance” of men who hide from the light that “reveals the slave, / Who rests when sleeps with us / The mother of silences” (222, 228-230).

The speaker calls out, “Come, old woman, save / Your sons who have gone down / Into the burning cave” (231-233). He advocates that they “gaze through” a window’s “light frame” to see the truth and acknowledge their own faults to attain salvation (236).

The speaker implores the Virgin Mary to “Speak, that we may hear; / Listen, while we confess / That we conceal our fear” (241-243). He asks her to keep them in mind regarding their judgment day, even if her "kindness" is simply silence (149).

Seasons of the Soul: Quotes and Analysis

"Seasons of the Soul" is a challenging poem because it contains many allusions. Below are some notable quotes from the poem with explanations of their allusions and meanings.

An allusion is an unexplained reference to a person, place, thing, or event from a separate context. Commonly used allusions in literature include allusions to the Bible and allusions to Greek mythology.

The final stanza from the "Summer" section references Dante's Inferno and Greek Mythology. The "Two men of our summer world" allude to Dante and Virgil, the main characters of Inferno. In Canto XII of the poem, Vigil leads Dante through the seventh circle of hell, where there is a river of blood where the souls of those who have committed sins of violence boil. Centaurs guard the blood river. The men encounter a centaur named Chiron who moves his beard aside using an arrow.

Although in Inferno the centaurs serve as guides for the two men, the imagery Allen Tate paints to emphasize the centaur's jaws in hell creates a menacing feeling. Through this allusion and imagery, the poet emphasizes the violence of humanity that is met with more severe violence in hell. The "jaws" imply that the violence of humankind makes souls prey to being eaten up in the horrors of hell.

Two men of our summer world

Descended winding hell

And when their shadows curled

They fearfully confounded

The vast concluding shell:

Stopping, they saw in the narrow

Light a centaur pause

And gaze, then his astounded

Beard, with a notched arrow,

Part back upon his jaws." (51-60)

The first stanza of the "Winter" section of the poem features significant allusions to Roman mythology and Jesus Christ. This section cries out in desperation to Venus, the Roman goddess of love. In Dante's book Paradiso, the heavens are formed of 9 concentric circles around the earth, one of which is the Heaven of Venus. The speaker turns to her as a last resort for hope. He explains that "the drying God above"—the crucified Christ—"No longer bears for us / The living wound of love" (127, 129-130).

Seasons of the Soul, Jesus Christ Crucifixion, StudySmarterFig. 5 ‐ The "living wounds of love" evoke the wounds of Christ's crucifixion (130).

In Christianity, Jesus Christ bears the cross and the torturous wounds of crucifixion for the sins of humanity. However, those already in hell have chosen to turn away from his example of love and sacrifice and can no longer be saved. The speaker's plea to a pagan goddess to save him from a Christian hell only points back to humanity's need for hope, salvation, and for someone to "bear" their wounds and sufferings—Jesus Christ.

Goddess sea-born and bright,

Return into the sea

Where eddying twilight

Gathers upon our people-

Cold goddess, hear out plea!

Leave the burnt earth, Venus,

For the drying God above,

Hanged in his windy steeple,

No longer bears for us

The living wound of love." (122-130)

The final two stanzas from the "Spring" section of the poem contain significant allusions to St. Monica and the Virgin Mary. St. Monica is a Catholic saint who was the mother of St. Augustine. In St. Augustine's famous autobiography The Confessions (1470), he speaks of how he and his mother leaned into the light of a window shortly before her death. St. Monica prayed intensely for her son's conversion, as he lived a worldly, sinful life prior to becoming religious.

Allen Tate emphasizes the capacity of mothers to save their children through prayer and God's grace, which is most clearly recognized in the Virgin Mary. In the Catholic faith, many titles refer to Mary, one of which is the 'Mother of Silences.' This title refers to Mary's wise moderation of speech and her ability to embody God's will and God's grace without words.

Seasons of the Soul, Virgin Mary Statue, StudySmarterFig. 6 ‐ Catholics view the Virgin Mary as the mother of all people, who understands suffering and aids people undergoing it.

In the Hail Mary prayer, Catholics recite that Mary prays for them at the hour of their death. She is also the figure who guides souls from purgatory into heaven. At the end of "Seasons of the Soul," the speaker begs for Mary's quiet love and comfort in their weakness.

Come, old woman, save

Your sons who have gone down

Into the burning cave:

Come, mother, and lean

At the window with your son

And gaze through its light frame

These fifteen centuries

Upon the shirking scene

Where men, blind, go lame:

Then, mother of silences,

Speak, that we may hear;

Listen, while we confess

That we conceal our fear;

Regard us, while the eye

Discerns by sight or guess

Whether, as sheep foregather

Upon their crooked knees,

We have begun to due;

Whether your kindness, mother,

Is mother of silences." (231-250)

Seasons of the Soul: Themes

"Seasons of the Soul" revolves around the themes of human death and the need for salvation.

Death

Allen Tate emphasizes death through frequent references to war, violence, and allusions to Dante's Inferno, which depicts a man's journey through the nine circles of hell. The poet uses frequent imagery of swirling, circular motions to evoke these circles of hell and suggest that all actions are met with a similar end—those who commit violence face violence in hell.

Salvation

The entire poem conveys the speaker's awareness of the sinfulness, emptiness, and desperation of life without the salvation of Jesus Christ. In Christianity, hell is a place of complete separation from God. The speaker longs for a way to see the light of Christ and be united with God. In the final section of the poem, he finally cries out to the Virgin Mary, 'The Mother of Silences,' for the intercession of her love and kindness on his darkened soul.

Seasons of the Soul - Key takeaways

  • "Seasons of the Soul" is a poem by the American Southen poet Allen Tate.
  • The poem was influenced by Catholicism, Dante's Inferno, and World War II.
  • The poem is split into four sections named after the seasons.
  • The poem is written in ten-line stanzas that follow the rhyme scheme ABACBDECDE and iambic trimeter.
  • "Seasons of the Soul" revolves around the themes of human death and the need for salvation.

References

  1. Dante Alighieri, "Inferno, a verse rendering by John Ciardi," 1954.

Frequently Asked Questions about Seasons of the Soul

"Season of the Soul" is a poem about humanity's desire and need for salvation from sinfulness, violence, and injustice.

The main themes in "Seasons of the Soul" are human death and the need for salvation.

The American poet, Allen Tate, wrote "Seasons of the Soul."

"Seasons of the Soul" was written during the period of World War II.

The poem "Seasons of the Soul" was influenced by Catholicism, Dante's Inferno, and World War II. 

Final Seasons of the Soul Quiz

Question

Who is the author of "Seasons of the Soul"?

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Answer

Allen Tate

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Question

Which of the following was not a strong influence on the poem?

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Answer

The Vietnam War

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Question

In the epigraph of the poem from Inferno, what happens when Dante breaks the branch of the tree?

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Answer

It bleeds and cries out

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Question

True or False: The poem is split into four sections named after the four seasons. 

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Answer

True

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Question

What is Venus the goddess of?

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Answer

Love

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Question

Who is the "mother of silences"?

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Answer

The Virgin Mary

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Question

True or False: The poem is written in free verse.

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Answer

False

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Question

What are the main themes of the poem?

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Answer

Human death and the need for salvation

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Question

Which literary device does the poet frequently use in the poem?

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Answer

Allusion

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Question

What does the repetition of the word "jaws" in the first section of the poem suggest?

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Answer

Humanity easily falls prey to sin, death, violence, and evil.

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