ALLEN TATE (1927) "Ode to the Confederate Dead," Allen tate's most anthologized and best-known poem, brought modernism more fully to bear on American poetry, especially in the South, where a pervasive sentimental/romantic poetics was giving way to the agrarian aesthetics of the Fugitives (see fugitive/agrarian school). First published in 1927 and revised over the next 10 years, the poem describes, in second-person address, a man who has stopped beside a dilapidated Confederate graveyard. The reader is encouraged to contemplate the scene by observing the many signs and symbols of death and the possibilities of regeneration.
Tate technically and philosophically explained his own poem in an essay entitled "Narcissus as Narcissus" (1968), indicating that the poem was "'about' solipsism or Narcissism, or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function properly in nature and society" (595). The verse is saturated with a stoic yet apocalyptic tone and deals unflinchingly with the conflicting modern themes of nature, history, death, and alienation. The poem responds to what T. S. eliot promoted in his prose work, The Sacred Wood (1920), employing "depersonalization" and an "objective correlative," which reveals emotion through the removed (often imperative) voice, the specific event, and oddly juxtaposed images.
In Tate's essay "Homage to T. S. Eliot" (1975), Tate claims that he "never tried to imitate [Eliot] or become a disciple" (90). Still a modernist influence pervades the poem, and the debt to Eliot is clear. The fallen, decaying leaves in the first stanza and throughout the poem recall the "grimy scraps / Of withered leaves" that wrap around the feet of the addressee in Eliot's "Preludes" (1917). Tate's startling images of a blind crab, leaping jaguar, and spiders are reminiscent, respectively, of Eliot's "ragged claws" in "the love song of j. ALFRED prufrock" (1915) and the springing tiger and spiders in "Gerontion" (1920). The strangely unpunctuated two-line refrain reappearing four times in Tate's poem echoes Eliot's use of refrains. The abstractions in the poem are as startling as the images: "[S]trict impunity," "casual sacrament," "seasonal eternity of death," "fierce scrutiny," and "rumour of mortality" thicken the first stanza (a nine line sentence) of the poem with intellectual rigor.
The poem is "agrarian" in that it resurrects the history of the South and tries to restore a sense of stoic pride to the heirs of its troubled past. Yet, doubting memory's comforts, the poet shows restraint in its conclusions about how to proceed in a death-drenched world. The penultimate stanza begins with a suggestion to speak to the mortal predicament, but the stanza ends in a series of bleak questions. Tate finally suggests, "Leave now / and shut the gate." We are left with an image of a serpent who, much like the poet confounded by death, "Riots with his tongue through the hush."
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