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Mr. Tate and the Limits of Poetry

ISSUE:  Winter 1986

Poetry is one test of ideas; it is ideas tested by experience.
—Allen Tate

Allen Tate lived long enough not only to preside over the critical reception of his career but to inaugurate the first revival of interest in his published work (he died on Feb. 9, 1979). In his last years he arranged for the publication of Memoirs and Opinions (1975) and then, in rapid succession, Collected Poems 1919–1976 (1977) and The Fathers and Other Fiction (1977). (The yeoman laborer in these enterprises was Thomas Daniel Young, who wrote an introduction to The Fathers and who collected the poems.) Together with Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier (1928) and Essays of Four Decades (1969) these books constitute Tate’s principal achievements as a writer. His life as a man of letters can best be viewed in The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate (1974), The Republic of Letters in America: The Correspondence of John Peale Bishop and Allen Tate (1981), and The Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom (1984), all edited by Mr. Young. The full record remains unwritten: Tate abandoned his autobiography, and the authorized biography by Robert Buffington is proceeding slowly.

In this century only Ezra Pound was more cunning and able than Allen Tate as an American literary hodman. Tate found the publisher for I’ll Take My Stand and many other works by the Nashville Fugitives and Agrarians, and he encouraged and helped more American writers than anyone but Pound and Ford Madox Ford. More than any other writer but William Faulkner, Tate made it possible for the Southern renascence to have an informed critical reception. In the early 1940’s, with the help of Andrew Lytle, he revivified and remade the Sewanee Review and set it on its proper course (and over many years he gave shrewd counsel to the editors of many other major quarterlies, especially the Kenyon Review and the Hudson Review). It is Tate who has written some of the finest criticism of the past half-century, and it is Tate who, more than any other American of the past half-century, personifies the profession of letters.

No American writer in this century has received a more respectful, intelligent, and comprehensive hearing than Tate. His critics have included John Crowe Ransom, Edwin Muir, Mark Van Doren, Herbert Read, R.P. Blackmur, Francis Fergusson, Cleanth Brooks, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Howard Nemerov, Monroe K. Spears, Frank Kermode, and Denis Donoghue.(T.S. Eliot all but ducked his obligation for Tate’s 60th birthday, but many others have responded handsomely, often more than once.) There has been little left to comment upon in Tate’s work, and there is less now that Robert Dupree’s book is published. Skeptics may want to consult Allen Tate and His Work, edited by Radcliffe Squires (1972), and the fall 1976 issue of the Southern Review.

Allen Tate was always marked by his penetrating intelligence, his infectious wit, his graceful and winning manner, and his fierce (almost ungovernable) temper. In many ways he disarmed his critics and put them into his service, and the few recalcitrants (such as Alfred Kazin and John L. Stewart) have usually seemed petty and petulant. The few critics who have not felt genuine and enduring indebtedness and the other impulses of kinship perhaps feared the power of Tate’s own criticism and shuddered to think of its being brought to bear negatively—in public and in private—on their own work. Tate is a considerable presence, a lion in the path, who cannot be ignored or dismissed. One is always confronted by the force of his intellect and the integrity of his work. His career has a striking single-mindedness and consistency and wholeness: if the profession of letters had not existed Allen Tate would have invented it.

For this author the literary community was a realm more actual and significant than the mundane world of quotidian life. He turned purple with rage and could threaten in all seriousness to kill writers of his acquaintance who might betray this community. He was more loyal to this dominion than to any person, living or dead.(“There is only one thing in life to me, and that is the continual possibility of pursuing literature as an art, and I can therefore countenance no compromise. . . . If Jesus Christ should come upon earth and present me with a poem I sincerely thought inferior, I would tell him just that to his teeth,” Tate wrote Davidson in 1923.) The commitment was total and in many ways admirable if in others daft. This intensity of commitment carried Tate to a pinnacle that few of his contemporaries managed to ascend.


Despite his long and full life and the many successes of his career, Allen Tate did not write enough first-rate poetry to be judged a major poet. He did write just enough poetry in sheer bulk to be considered a major poet—almost as much in quantity as Eliot, one of his masters.(There are more than 100 titles but less than 200 pages in Tate’s Collected Poems, a book that has been inflated by early unpublished poetry and by translations of and by Tate.) Why Tate did not write more poetry is a matter impossible to determine, especially when he put so much stock in being a poet; but had he written markedly more, that fact alone would by no means have insured his achieving greater stature as a poet, the stature that he did achieve as a critic and a man of letters. It is obvious that Tate, unlike his other master, Ransom, did not deliberately set out to be a minor poet; and to this extent he was frustrated as a poet. In any case as a poet he never grew markedly beyond the early promise shown in Mr. Pope and Other Poems (1928), which includes “Death of Little Boys” and “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” Tate later wrote poetry as good or better—notably “Seasons of the Soul” (1944) and “The Swimmers” (1953); but he never experienced the sustained burst of creativity that marks a major poet writing at the height of his power in a vein that is broad and deep and uniquely his own.

The central documents for the evaluation of Tate’s temperament and writing exist in a miscellany entitled “And Others” in R.P. Blackmur’s Language as Gesture. In “The Experience of Ideas” (1936) and “Notes on Seven Poets” (1945) Blackmur puts his finger squarely on the difficulties that Tate confronts. “He writes to achieve the possession of experience in objective form. . . . He compels his work to the maximum point of self-critical scrutiny. Certainly that is why his critical essays, his biographies and his political excursions, are obsessed, no more than his poems but less conspicuously, with the problems of the modes of credible form and with the cognate ulterior problem of the insights which reveal credible forms.” Of the poetry Blackmur says: “He is dealing with material that is tractable only to the force of superior form and what is poetically viable only if it transgresses that form. No wonder he has been so much concerned with tension in poetry. The tension is the riches we feel in his obscurity, and the tension is secured by the tradition of form against which it struggles.”

The struggle is often all too obvious, and for that reason you are often put off by the cerebral nature of Tate’s poetry. You also often feel that his personae have—as he used to say of the heroines of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth—swallowed an unabridged dictionary; at the same time you wonder if the form is not at least occasionally an artificial barrier. Tate’s craft is equal to almost any formal occasion, but the formality of the occasion is frequently obtrusive. The poet’s energy seems dissipated by the battle to subdue and overcome the exigencies of form. When the struggle has ended, often little zest and playfulness remain. The restraints of form are more nearly a straitjacket than an enabling force.

The career of Allen Tate involved an unflagging and often desperate search for authority. His personal life was so little checked by authority that he seems to have obsessively sought a compensatory discipline and order in his writing. He compulsively submitted his experience and his profound knowledge of history, mythology, and philosophy to the most demanding technical forms of poetry, trying always to achieve a metaphysical and symbolic “poetry of the center.” This poetry was founded upon a deeply religious but equally skeptical view of the world, a view dominated by an overwhelming sense of man’s mortality and his subjection to time and history. Against this large historical background he regularly explored the theme of love (“The end of social man is communion in time through love, which is beyond time,” he observed in an essay). In his late life this refrain became almost a plaint: “Have I been wrong/To love you well who cannot love me long,” he asks in “Sonnet” (1970). Love is a great theme in the poetry, rivaled only by death, the governing theme of Tate’s poetry and fiction. In his old age Tate reaffirmed the poignance of Edwin Muir’s great line “Love gathers all.” In Tate, as in Yeats and Eliot and many other poets modern and unmodern, love is by no means only a personal impulse and relation.

Cleanth Brooks might have been thinking of Allen Tate in writing that “the decisive issue lying beneath the kinds of modern poetry has to do with that cloudy and difficult topic, religion.” Tate states the matter flatly: “We are a Christian civilization or we are nothing.” In the gathering darkness of a post-Christian world he often chafed, but he did not hedge on his religious commitment. It may be that the very strenuous and unflinching nature of that willed commitment undercuts the poetry. In his writing Tate makes his religion seem as exasperating as a hair shirt that he has been sewn into.

The poetry is more nearly a testing of ideas than of experience. Tate doesn’t carry his knowledge to the heart as often as he should. The contagious fury of which Ransom spoke is an impatience with life in its thorny complexity and dense contingency. Hence one seldom encounters any character in the poetry but another mask of Allen Tate, and hence the poetry usually does not embody an emotional dimension which is equal to the burden of its ideas.(Tate writes approvingly of poetry in which “the poet’s ideas . . .are pitted against one another like characters in a play.”) The emotion is thin and forced; the intellect strains to do the work of the imagination.

The best poems in the Tate canon are based directly upon the author’s experience—e.g., “The Mediterranean” and “The Swimmers.” Tate in these poems is not attempting to forge a poetry through the power of history and intellection alone: he is not taking up an impersonal burden too great for the given occasion. His poetry is less guarded and fretful and tortured than elsewhere. When Tate speaks of his own experience, the voice and idiom are his own, and one is not troubled by the ventriloquism—the clash of other voices (chiefly Eliot’s)—of which Denis Donoghue speaks in reviewing the collected poems (in the Times Book Review for Dec.11, 1977). Nor are these poems tinged by the sense of chaos and doom which Donoghue sees as characteristic of Tate’s frustration as a poet, a writer who can achieve nearly everything in his verse but the full realization of the poems’ possibilities as poetry.


Some of the same embattled sense—of the literary mind deep in irreconcilable conflict with its own most natural impulses and its fundamental ease—can be seen in Tate’s fiction. The Fathers has frequently—and quite properly— been described as a poet’s novel. We don’t encounter its cleanness of line, clarity of detail, and sharpness of theme in the novels of Faulkner or Warren or Eudora Welty. The Fathers is the work of a writer who was drenched in Southern history and who viewed that history against the private history of his own family as well as against his own preoccupations with the South and the modern world. It is therefore rewarding—and beguilingly easy—for the critic to measure the novel against Tate’s essays, beginning with “Religion and the Old South” (1930) and running through “Faulkner’s Sanctuary and the Southern Myth” (1968) and “A Lost Traveller’s Dream” (1972). The Fathers also bears a distinct and powerful relation to Tate’s poetry, especially “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (1927), “To the Lacedemonians” (1932), and “A Dream” (1932), the epigraph to the new edition of the novel.

Tate was already established as a poet, critic, and editor when the novel was written in 1937 during the famous (and brutally hot) summer that the Tates were visited in Clarksville, Tennessee, by the Ford Madox Ford entourage and by the brash youth Robert Lowell. Ford wrote to his editor at the time: “Consorting with the Tates is like living with intellectual desperados in the Sargoza Sea.” Ford, Arthur Mizener explains, “did not relish the prospect of the dramatic conflicts so often produced by the Tates’ uncompromising intellectual warfare.” In any event The Fathers was strongly affected by Ford’s example as novelist, especially in The Good Soldier. There are distinct echoes of James and of Ellen Glasgow as well.

The Fathers is a novel of manners conceived in the classic mold. George Posey is the intruder who wanders into a dying conventional society, a society which has produced its own seeds of destruction. Posey is the agent of change so far as the Buchan family is concerned, and in the larger symbolic sense he is a new man representing the acquisitive instinct. He is also a man who despite his presence, charm, and capability can find no place outside the modern world. As the author tells us in a note for this edition and as he makes plain in the new concluding paragraph, George Posey is in fact a modern romantic hero.

Lacy Buchan reports this action. When the novel ends, his initiation is complete: he has witnessed the aftermath of an apparent rape—the murders of George’s half-brother and of his own brother Semmes; he has nearly lost his own life; and he has heard of his father’s suicide and seen the ashes of his ancestral home. George Posey leaves the Confederate army to smuggle arms, but Lacy Buchan returns to spend four years with that army. One of the novel’s major ironies is that Major Buchan, a Unionist, is driven to suicide by Yankee troops (one of whom Posey humiliated earlier). Buchan can no more cope with his son-in-law than he can prevent the collapse of his world. Only Susan of all the Buchans tries directly to thwart her husband. But her victory is pyrrhic and leads to fratricide and to her madness. She resembles Tate’s Duchess of Malfi: “There was no pride like yours.”

The action dramatizes traditionalism vs. modernism, public responsibility vs. private and domestic obligation, egotistic will vs. selfless action, ongoing life vs. romantic morbidity, civilization vs. individualism, and, most obviously, Northerners (or Greeks) vs. Southerners (or Trojans). The myth supporting this action has been made famous by Faulkner, but as Tate has pointed out, it was the heritage of every Southerner between 1865 and 1940. Tate’s distinctive contribution in The Fathers is to show that the South was a dying civilization before 1861; and as he asserted elsewhere, the Southern identity probably persisted much longer in defeat than it would have in victory.

In its large outline—the mythic dimension—and in its use of concrete detail—of domestic usage, custom, and ritual— The Fathers is almost faultless; but the novel as a whole is marred by antiquarian and belletristic impulses. The author is betrayed by the desire to record social and domestic detail for its own sake and by his remarkable literary sense, which makes him too conscious of his themes. He is also unwilling to risk much, and so his action is consistently underplayed. It is underplayed more than the situation warrants, even if one takes into account the novel’s economy, concentration, and irony. The major scenes are not fully rendered, and the implications of the action are often evaded. When Major Buchan confronts his sons and his son-in-law over the issue of loyalty to the Union, he can only fumble with his shawl. The failure of communication seems to lie with the novelist rather than with his character. What Tate does accomplish with great skill—but too insistently—is the illumination of theme through imagery. Hence George’s agonized shout after Mrs. Buchan’s funeral—”I want to be thrown to the hogs”— echoes throughout the novel, as does his crude joke about cadavers. To a considerable extent the characters are dominated by their manners, and Tate has difficulty in showing morality issuing from behavior: he can only orchestrate his themes through the characters’ speech, especially Lacy’s reflections. The sequence that most reveals Tate’s struggles depicts Lacy’s stay in Georgetown at the Poësque establishment of the Poseys. The author presents a comic-pathetic ménage who have withdrawn from the world. One of them, Jane Posey, a vacuous Southern maiden with whom both Semmes and Lacy are in love, conceives an irrational dread of her half-brother Yellow Jim. On this improbable fear the subsequent action depends.

Throughout its course The Fathers is more closely allied to romance than to novel, and the strain is considerable, for it is conceived as a novel of manners with an historical underpinning. The characters occasionally lapse into stereotypes, and at such moments the historical scene is stronger than the plot it embodies. The author should have made his action denser and less contrived, surrendering himself fully to the conventions of his chosen form. At times he seems more inclined to symbolic romance than to the novel of manners, as the short story “Immortal Woman” (included with the revised edition of the novel) clearly shows. What prevents the novel’s failure is the consistency and the cogency of its style, the authority of its tone. The measured cadence of Lacy Buchan’s voice freezes the action as it unfolds in his memory. “The imaginative writer is the archeologist of memory,” Tate has observed.


Allen Tate is first and last a writer’s writer and a poet’s poet. Few writers of any time have been so emulated—and with such good reason. Tate has influenced not only subsequent generations but his own; he even affected older men such as Ransom. The example of his career as a writer wholly committed to being a man of letters will probably be more enduring than his poetry. In any case Tate’s behavior as poet has long since marked such writers as Lowell, Nemerov, and Dickey.

The ratio between Tate’s criticism (both his informal criticism in conversation and letters and his published work, much of which is by now almost classic) and his poetry is wrong. The criticism—unlike that of Yeats, Eliot, and perhaps Auden; of Warren, Ransom, and perhaps Jarrell—got the upper hand over the poetry even though Tate used it on more than one occasion to elevate and secure the poetry (the note to the new edition of The Fathers stands as the final example of this penchant).

This imbalance probably resulted from Tate’s restless search for authority and his uneasy willful commitment to Christianity.(He concludes “Last Days of Alice” with this invocation to an Old Testament God: “Return us to Your wrath.”) Eliot often poured his Christian urges undiluted into his criticism after 1926; in his criticism Tate was always more circumspect about his religious belief, but his poetry shows that he could not follow Eliot’s example in “Ash-Wednesday” and the late poems. Tate, not having put the force of his religiosity into his essays, was weak with the excess of its strength when he came to poetry—or he was until writing the great essays on the angelic and symbolic imaginations (1952) enabled him to gain the calm and ease of “The Swimmers” and “The Buried Lake” (1953).

At that moment we see him prepared for a major period as a poet, but then, almost immediately, the well ran dry.


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