Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

Tate's greatest achievement in dramatizing our loss of faith in and our passion for heroism is best exemplified in his famous "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Often revised over a ten-year period, it became an emblem of modernist pessimism. Tate's intent in this poem is to dramatize the clash between solipsism, which he defines in "Narcissus as Narcisscus" as "a philosophical doctrine which says that we create the world in the act of perceiving it," and "active faith," a collective faith "not private, romantic illusion" in the nobility of the human spirit as manifested in its chivalrous public deeds. The conflict arises in the mind of a solitary man at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon, and it remains an internal debate between past and present, between objective and subjective realities, between faith and grim resignation and defeat.

Initially the speaker can only envision this late afternoon autumn graveyard scene filled with its whirring, wind-driven leaves as a "casual sacrament" of death, whose music sounds "the rumour of mortality." As Tate states in the Narcissus essay, the speaker is barely able to proclaim the traditional praise for the physical and historical continuance of the Confederate dead and their sacrifices: "these memories grow / From the inexhaustible bodies that are not/ Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row." Caught in his own naturalistic vision of existence, the speaker presents images illustrating the ravages of time, eventually ending the first strophe with his blind crab image of the "Locked-in ego," signifying his inability to move beyond his solipsism and reconnect himself with the objective world: "You shift your sea space blindly / Heaving, turning like the blind crab." Tate in the Narcissus essay explains that the crab has mobility and energy but "no direction and no purposeful world to use it in." Lacking a sense of purpose, the speaker begins the first of his naturalistic refrains that speak to the failure of imagination and human insight: "Dazed by the wind / only the wind / The leaves flying plunge."

The countertheme of active faith is advanced in the next strophe as the speaker momentarily recovers and is able to imagine the blowing leaves as heroic charging soldiers, who

. . . know the unimportant shrift of death

And praise the vision

And praise the arrogant circumstance

Of those who fall

Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision--

Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

These heroes of an "immoderate past," however, cannot become a permanent part of the modernist vision or poem. The speaker's awareness of mortality, his naturalistic views, ensure "they will not last" and "that the salt of their blood / Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea." Nor can the modernist celebrate the perpetual cycle of existence, a central theme of romantic poets. "We shall say only the leaves / Flying, plunge and expire" for "Night is the beginning and the end." Separated from both society and nature, we can engage only in "mute speculation," abstraction, and narcissism; thus "the jaguar leaps / For his own image." Our knowledge has been "Carried to the heart"; it has destroyed our relationship to life itself, and our most hopeful prospect is that "The ravenous grave" may become our theme, for it is "the grave who counts us all!"

Traditionally an ode publicly celebrates, in stately and exalted lyrical verse, an aspect of human existence; Tate's ode is not celebrative, public, or exalted. It is a pessimistic, solitary, and, given its form and theme, grimly ironic dramatization of the modernist temper. At times its imagery is quite private and its allusions and arguments overly complex; however, it remains one of the most representative and compelling poems of the twentieth-century wasteland.


Title Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan Criticism Target Allen Tate
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Modern American Poetry, 1865-1950
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