Lillian Feder: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

The "Ode to the Confederate Dead," Tate says, is about "solipsism." (All the critical comments quoted in connection with the "Ode to the Confederate Dead" are from Tate's essay "Narcissus as Narcissus.") In the "Ode" Tate suggests, as he does in "The Mediterranean" and "Aeneas at Washington," that the solipsism of modern man results from the fact that contemporary society denies him his traditional right to fulfillment through a heroic goal. This is the positive quality of the "Ode." The dual themes of solipsism and the need for the virtutis opus, which are, of course, really one, are developed more fully and more deeply in the "Ode" than they are in the two poems discussed above, and again they are expressed through the imagery of the ancient world.

Tate remarks on the general form of the poem: it is an ode ". . . even further removed from Pindar than Abraham Cowley. I suppose in so calling it I intended an irony: the scene of the poem is not a public celebration, it is a lone man by a gate." Though Tate does not say so. he implies that the contrast between the personal quality of his ode and the public nature of the Pindaric expresses the solipsism of modern man. The man at the gate has the "secret need" of the wanderers on the Mediterranean, and like them he makes a lonely journey into the past. Obviously, Tate expects his readers to be aware of the nature of the traditional odes, the Pindarics, not of the specific details of their contents, but their tone, which always implies that the poet speaks to and for a society united in triumph. The Pindarics are not simply victory odes: they are poems in which a particular hero is regarded as the worthy bearer of a great tradition. Tate's adaptation of the ode form implies that if modern man is trapped by his personal conception of the world, so is the very character of the ode transformed by this view. The lone man speaks for himself, and, if what he says represents the thoughts of others, it is their defeat which he expresses, for they, like him, are cut off from the heroic past and the actual present.

This defeat is symbolized most intensely in the leaf image, which Tate uses not only in the refrain but in the first and last strophes. The image is an extremely interesting and important one. In the first strophe Tate says of the leaves: "They sough the rumors of mortality." The leaves, "of nature the casual sacrament / To the seasonal eternity of death," remind man of his own mortality. "Autumn and the leaves are death," says Tate in "Narcissus as Narcissus." The leaf image replies with finality to the cry for an "active faith," which constitutes the second theme of the poem.

*    *    *

There is a striking similarity between Tate's and Homer's use of the leaf image. Homer's passage containing this image is perhaps one of the best known in the Iliad. Diomede and Glaucus meet on the battlefield, and Diomede asks Glaucus who he is. Glaucus replies: "Great-souled son of Tydeus, why do you ask about my lineage? Just as the generation of leaves, so is that also of men. The wind scatters the leaves upon the earth, but the forest as it flourishes, puts forth others when spring comes. So one generation of men springs up while another passes away. However, if you want to, you may know my lineage. There are many who do know it" (VI, 145-51). In this passage the contrast between man's struggle to live heroically, between his justified pride in his past and present achievements and his tragic destiny is clearly set forth. Man is like a leaf but he is also man. The agony of his tragic end is all the more terrible because, unlike a leaf, he struggles to perform heroic deeds, yet like a leaf he passes away to extinction. The very points at which the simile is inadequate contain its greatest emotional force.

In Homer the leaf image provides a commentary on the constant feats of heroism which his heroes demand of themselves and which it is assumed they owe their society. "Be a man," says one warrior to another. In other words, act nobly; perform the heroic deeds which offer man his one chance of redemption, his chance to snatch from life a glory which defines it. That the very act which may destroy a man is what offers him a measure of release from his doom is the tragedy of human life.

Tate's repeated references to the leaves in the "Ode to the Confederate Dead" recall the leaf image in the Iliad. In the "Ode" the image of the leaves provides the answering strain to the quest for heroism in history, in man himself, and vainly, in society. Like the Iliad, the "Ode" is "a certain section of history made into experience." Tate uses history both literally and symbolically, fusing with ease the recent American past with antiquity. Before discussing the leaf image in the "Ode," it is necessary to observe how Tate develops "the theme of heroism," which he himself says is the second theme of the poem.

Tate says that the strophe beginning "You know who have waited by the wall" contains "the other terms of the conflict. It is the theme of heroism, not merely moral heroism but heroism in the grand style, elevating even death from mere physical dissolution into a formal ritual: this heroism is a formal ebullience of the human spirit in an entire society, not private, romantic illusion—something better than moral heroism, great as that may be, for moral heroism, being personal and individual, may be achieved by certain men in all ages, even ages of decadence." He goes on to quote Hart Crane's definition: "the theme of chivalry . . . active faith." He describes an ideal way of life based upon conduct, and the heroic code of conduct he speaks of is that clearly defined in the Iliad and the Aeneid, the code which could make Aeneas "disinterested," which makes Glaucus, even after he has expressed the tragic irony of man's doom, go on to tell his enemy of his ancestors, prepared to fight as bravely as they did and as nobly as the code of his society demands that he fight and live. Both his desire to fight Diomede and his subsequent acceptance of his friendship are motivated not by personal whim but by the code of his society.

Tate tells us that the passage in the "Ode" beginning "you know who have waited by the wall" is "meant to convey a plenary vision, the actual presence of, the exemplars of an active faith." This plenary vision appears in two main symbols: the warrior and the ancient philosophers, Zeno and Parmenides, The warrior is the traditional symbol of heroism. Though Tate concretizes his warrior through his list of names connected with the Civil War, he does not limit him to this particular time, for he is the warrior whose heroism results from a view of the world represented by the philosophical system of Parmenides and Zeno. His warrior is once again the man who lives by a heroic code of conduct. "Muted Zeno and Parmenides" represent the world view which makes such a code possible.

Of those who have the heroic vision, Tate says:


    You know the rage,

The cold pool left by the mounting flood,

Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.


Parmenides and his disciple, Zeno, were the first to separate existence into being and becoming. Theirs is a philosophical system which makes a distinction between the objective and unchanging world of being and the subjective world of becoming. Parmenides (in Frag. VI) warns against the "way of seeming" (the state of solipsism, Tate would say). He warns against the subjective blindness of mere dependence on the senses for knowledge of the world. Thus, Parmenides and Zeno represent for Tate an objective, "whole" view of life. Moreover, Zeno, not only in his thought but also in his conduct, exemplifies the heroic way of life. According to tradition, when captured by the tyrant he was opposing, he bit off his tongue rather than give the information demanded by his enemy. "Muted Zeno," therefore, has a double meaning: Zeno made mute by his own act of heroism and Zeno, the heir and exponent of a philosophical system which regards the universe as whole and knowledge as objective, muted in what Tate calls the, "fragmentary cosmos of today."

The heroic vision, as Tate presents it poetically, is composed of heroic action based on a view of the world which is objective, whole, and unchanging. Moreover, it is a vision created out of the ancient past combined with the recent one. It is a vision which suggests a continuity in human thought, conduct, and feeling, broken only in the world of today.

"In contemplating the heroic theme," says Tate, "the man at the gate never commits himself to the illusion of its availability to him. The most that he can allow himself is the fancy that the blowing leaves are charging soldiers, but he rigorously returns to the refrain: 'Only the wind'—or the 'leaves flying.'" The wind-leaf refrain provides the answering strain. The lone man, striving to be one with those who waited by the wall, tries even to transform the leaves into fighting men. But, as in Homer, we are struck by the dissimilarity. In the Iliad the simple quality of the leaf is contrasted with the complex and tragic nature of man, doomed to the same end. In Tate's poem man's inability to transform the leaf into a symbol of heroism suggests that the certainty of man's tragic fate overpowers any thought of his potential heroism. The man at the gate cannot identify himself with the leaves ''as Keats and Shelley too easily and too beautifully did with nightingales and west winds." The leaf is a symbol of his mortality and his aloneness.

In both Homer and Tate, the leaf image, with its implications of death, is combined and contrasted with a scene of heroism in warfare. In Homer, Glaucus, even as he sees these implications, suggests by his very conduct that through heroism man can redeem himself if only partially and tragically. Tate, looking back on the history of his own nation with the traditionally epic view, finds that in the present there is not even the possibility of tragic redemption. Thus, his departure from Homer is as important as his echo of him, for the very contrast between the two poets' use of the leaf image suggests the theme of Tate's poem.

Tate's last use of a classical allusion in the "Ode" is an entirely ironical one. The jaguar, he tells us, is substituted for Narcissus. Of course, Narcissus by his very absence is immensely important. Replaced by the jaguar, the destructive and self-devouring elements of the Narcissus figure are made explicit. As the "jaguar leaps" we see the lovely boy Narcissus for what he really is. In giving solipsism this concrete form, Tate reveals its ugliness and brutality, and he adds a dimension to the myth he adapts.

"Ode to the Confederate Dead" cannot be understood without the framework of the classical world. Here, as in "The Mediterranean" and "Aeneas at Washington," Tate speaks of the present only in relation to the past, and his view of the past is the epic view, heroic, exalted, the poet's past rather than the historian's.


Title Lillian Feder: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Lillian Feder Criticism Target Allen Tate
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Allen Tate's Use of Classical Literature
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