Richard Gray: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

The distance between Tate and Ransom is measured with particular force in Tate's most famous poem, 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'. In some ways, 'Ode' operates within the same series of assumptions as 'Antique Harvesters'. It, too, is a profoundly traditionalist poem which attempts to create a myth, an ideal version of the past, as a corrective to the present. It, too, is a poem that dramatises the mythologising process, the creation of an idea, a complex of possibilities, out of historical fact. The narrator, a man who characterises the modern failure to live according to principle (or what Tate, in his essay on his own work, calls 'active faith'), stands by the monuments raised to those killed fighting for the South during the Civil War; and as he describes their lives, or rather what he imagines their lives to have been, the description is transmuted into celebration. The past is reinvented, just as place, landscape is in 'Antique Harvesters'; the soldiers being remembered are transformed into an heroic alternative to the plight of the person remembering them. That is the drama of the poem, accounting for the poignancy of lines like the following:

Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,

Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising

Demons out of the earth - they will not last.

Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of hemp,

Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run,

Lost in that orient of the thick-and-fast

You will curse the setting sun.

Cursing only the leaves crying

Like an old man in a storm

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point

With troubled fingers to the silence which

Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

And yet these lines suggest how unlike Ransom Tate is, even while he appears to echo him. The voice of 'Antique Harvesters' is the voice of all Ransom's poems: accomplished, witty, serene - the voice of someone who can, apparently, fathom and perform his nature. The voice of 'Ode' is, by contrast, uncertain, feverish, disoriented - the voice of the 'locked-in ego' as Tate puts it elsewhere, of a man unable to liberate himself from a sense of his own impotence and fragmentation. The narrator of Ransom's poem remains triumphantly detached: sometimes helping to gauge the failure of his subjects and sometimes, as in 'Antique Harvesters', helping to endow his subjects' achievements with articulate shape. The narrator of the 'Ode" however, is like the narrator of most of Tate's poetry: a person obsessed with his failure to attain unity of being, whose introversions, tortured idiom, clotted imagery, and convoluted syntax register what Tate has called 'the modern squirrel cage of our sensibility, the extreme introspection of our time.'

For all its nervous intensity, though, 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' does not degenerate into hysteria: a measure of control is retained, so as to give dramatic force to the narrator's feelings of isolation and waste. Tate remains a traditionalist in this respect, too, that his poems are tightly organised; his narrators may disperse their energies, scattering themselves piecemeal, but he tries to ensure that his poetic forms never do. 'Ode' is, in fact, structured according to classical precepts, with a Strophe (establishing the themes of the poem), an Anti-strophe (answering the themes of the Strophe), and an Epode (gathering up the opposing themes). In addition, it is carefully arranged into verse paragraphs, separated by a refrain that provides (to use Tate's phrase) 'occasions of assimilation'; it demonstrates a cunning use of rhyme; and there is a dominant metre of iambic pentameter with varying six, four, and three stressed lines. The result is a constant tension between texture and structure: the language, packed and disruptive, the multiple levels of allusion and bitter ironies of feeling, are barely kept in control by the formal patterns of the verse. Like the narrator who turns his eyes to the immoderate past, the poet seems to be trying to will himself into a discipline, to force upon himself the rigours of an inherited form; and on this level, at least, the level of manner rather than matter, the pursuit of traditionalism is not entirely unsuccessful.


Title Richard Gray: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Richard Gray Criticism Target Allen Tate
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Poetry of the Twentieth Century
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