Robert S. Dupree: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

. . . two polarities—death and the self—are the tensional basis for the kind of conflict between deterministic pessimism and radical solipsism Tate depicts in "Ode to the Confederate Dead." The first stanza shows a natural order that is dominated by the closed system of "the seasonal eternity of death." The whole passage is a picture of a world with a kind of Spenglerian destiny that ignores the presence of man. There are suggestions of a system of rewards and punishments, such as might make up some mythical order of justice, but nature offers only the salvation that comes with total effacement. What is lacking is any sense of individual continuity that might break out of the terrible cycle. The stone memorials placed over the graves "yield their names" with "strict impunity." Their loss of memory will go unpunished and uncorrected. The wind shows no signs of "recollection"—the poet puns on the scattering effect of wind on the leaves in the "riven troughs" as well as the mindless energy of its whirr. The leaves themselves are "splayed," never again to be made whole; they are part of nature's "casual sacrament," an accidental rather than an intentional communion. (The word "casual" suggests the "fall" of the leaves by association with Latin casus.) The falling leaves have long been images of human mortality, from Homer, Virgil, and Dante to Shelley; but these leaves also take on the imagined quality of damned beings. Part of the whole of things, they lose all individuality as they are "driven . . . to their election in the vast breath." Like "The Subway," "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is a grim parody of traditional religious ideas of salvation tinged with overtones of predestinarian determinism.

If death dominates the first stanza, the self is prominent in the second. The protagonist of the poem attempts to breakout of the terror of this organic cycle by thinking "of the autumns that have' come and gone," but memory itself takes on the quality of the grass that feeds analogically on the dead bodies. The alternative to the closed temporal system that he views resides in some sort of spatial suspension, represented in part by the sculptured angels on the tombs. There is surely a suggestion in this passage of what Tate was later to call "the angelic imagination," an ability to penetrate into the essence of things without recourse to their sensual manifestations. The "brute curiosity of an angel's stare," which like the Gorgon's turns those who look on it to stone, is trapped in decaying matter, the "uncomfortable" statue assaulted by "the humors of the year." The split between body and mind is embodied in the art of the grave sculptor's angels as much as in the sensibility of the protagonist. Like the falling leaves, he too is "plunged to a heavier world below," a kind of mental hell in which, like Dante's damned shades, he exerts directionless and purposeless energies. (Tate's description of Phelps Putnam's heroes also comes to mind.)

The grim wit of Tate's language—the multiple shadings of words like "impunity," "recollection," "sacrament," "scrutiny," "rumor," "inexhaustible," "zeal," or "brute"—gives these first two stanzas an astonishing compactness and power. Their dense network of analogies denies poetically the assertion in the following refrain that the protagonist is seeing nothing more than fall leaves. What he knows that nature does not know is history and the pattern of things that comes through the memory as man's refusal to submit to mere despair. For unlike the fallen leaves, man continues to believe that he has a future.

You who have waited for the angry resolution

Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,

ou 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.

"Ambitious November" is answered by the arrogance of man himself; he will rush to his death without waiting for his place in the natural cycle of decay. It is this "immoderate past" that makes man "inscrutable," in answer to the mindless but "fierce scrutiny" of the sky. Though man cannot possess the stony detachment of the angelic self depicted on the statues, he does have a strange demonic energy that pulls him out of the earth. He knows the empty paradoxes of the mind—the puzzles of "muted Zeno and Parmenides" as they contemplate the nature of time and being. But he also knows the "twilight certainty of an animal." If Zeno's paradox would never allow the arrow to hit the target, death's efficacy in drawing all things to their destruction is indubitable. The struggle between self and death has reached an equilibrium in the protagonist's thoughts.

The late autumnal season of the poem and the setting sun that dominates its main scenes are traditional symbols of history and death. (Besides his correlation of the seasons and stages of historical growth and decay, Spengler's title—literally "Sunset of the West"—offers an obvious parallel.) What history provides is a memory of "that orient of the thick-and-fast" where action begins; but since the protagonist has been reduced to paralysis, "stopped by the wall" (death) and the "angel's stare" (self), he can only hover over the decaying transition point of the "sagging gate," the threshold of initiation into another life or state. Sight and sound, like time and space, are confused in him:

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point

With troubled fingers to the silence which

Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

The mummy is a particularly interesting image, since it can stand both for the ineffectiveness of a man wrapped in his embalming shroud and for the limited immortality of the body. Like the "old man in a storm," it is surrounded by the ravages of time yet remains a captive of space. Outside of time, like the mummy, the self has no freedom. This section of the poem is brought to a close by the image of the "hound bitch," a reminder of the ancient action of the hunt. She should be a symbol of vitality; now, however, she too is the quarry of death, lying "in a musty cellar. " The end of the hunt is another manifestation of that loss of heroic energy which once drove the soldiers to their graves. The soldiers and the hound bitch live for the event and decay once the event is concluded. Still, their fate is better than the mummylike existence in time that has rendered the protagonist immobile.

What remains for modern man is that blank oneness of the universe which dissolves all into a "malignant purity" and a salty "oblivion" (examples of Tate's startling use of oxymoron). There is a radical shift, however, in the sixth stanza, and Tate himself has spoken of it as the beginning of the second main division of the poem, in "Narcissus as Narcissus." The progression is evidenced by the metrical movement, as he points out, but also by a shift in the pronoun from "you" to "we." Tate's final question to Spengler, "How shall we set about restoring the values that have been lost?" is already posed in this poem. The poet asks it of the young man who stands by the gate. For it is at this point that one becomes aware of some sort of community standing behind the protagonist, those "who count our days and bowl Our heads with a commemorial woe" during the public ceremonies offered for the dead. The ritualistic gestures are still carried on, though perhaps as a "grim felicity" that is a distinct decline from heroic action. What has changed in the perception the poem offers, however, is the image of nature: Before, nature was the inhuman cycle of a world without past or future. Now there is the suggestion of something in nature that recalls man's heroic energies:

In a tangle of willows without light

The singular screech-owl's tight

Invisible lyric seeds the mind

With the furious murmur of their chivalry.

This is an image different from the "brute curiosity" of the angel's stare and the mere sound of the wind. In the darkness where space has vanished, there is an aural suggestion of an energy with more direction than that of the "blind crab." It is crucial to see what has occurred in this and the following stanza.

The question that has been asked—"what shall we say of the bones?"—is answered in the refrain—"We shall say only the leaves / Flying, plunge and expire." Those who merely go through the motions of the ritual of "grim felicity" can see nothing more than that "Night is the beginning and the end." They cannot speak because there is nothing to speak about. Birth and death are but "the ends of distraction," and between them is the "mute speculation" of Zeno and Parmenides and the angel's gorgonic stare, that "patient curse / That stones the eyes." The toothless dog is replaced by the energetic jaguar who "leaps / For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim." The cycle of nature has been replaced by the solipsistic self. The "mute speculation" is part of the "jungle pool" (a play on the Latin word for mirror, speculum, is hidden in the phrase). Vision and space, the counting of days, abstract stare, the setting sun, all these Spengler-like images are part of the symbolic paralysis that must be rejected for an acceptance of the aural and temporal dimensions of the memory, the understanding, and the will. The critical question is transformed at the end of the poem in a phrase that has become famous:

What shall we say who have knowledge

Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act

To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave

In the house? The ravenous grave?

This solution is the one Spengler seems to embrace, for his impressive array of organically growing and dying cultures adds up to nothing more than worship of the grave. By giving no final meaning to human history, Spengler falsifies his own premises. If human memory serves only as a means of collecting man's actions around the central fact of death, then human history has no significance at all. In Spengler the West has indeed begun to set up the grave in its own house.

The protagonist in "Ode to the Confederate Dead" stands between two communities, the city of the living and the city of the dead; but he does not know how to bring them together in any meaningful fashion. He has the kind of intuitive knowledge that has been "carried to the heart," but he is also haunted by the specter of abstract rationalism—"muted Zeno and Parmenides," who, like the jaguar, stare into the "cold pool" of a method that removes them from life and action. He never enters the cemetery; the gate remains shut to him at the end. He cannot participate in the kind of space occupied by the dead, and he is himself smothered in time. He is typical of the modern man in his mummylike condition. The only kind of immortality the modern mind can grasp is one that is a stopping of the natural cycle, an immobilization of all life processes.

The poem ends, as Tate emphasizes in his essay, with an image that complements the owl, that of the serpent. Like the ouroboros—that ancient figure of the snake biting its tail—it is a symbol of the relation of time to eternity. Equally significant is the command to the protagonist to leave the "shut gate and the decomposing wall." For he is not the poet, this man at the gate, but the skeptical historian who meditates on the past of Western civilization as though he were looking at a graveyard. The gate and the wall separate the living from the dead, but the two important "sounds" in the poem—the screech-owl's call and the rioting "tongue" of the "gentle serpent"—are appeals to some kind of life. That life is not the simple organic cycle of nature but something beyond it. As the figure of the serpent makes plain, it is the life of myth, of speech through the imagination that is neither mutely paralyzed like the mummy nor rendered as a meaningless noise in the buffeting of the leaves. By yielding to time and participating in the past through memory, man can at least survive through the makeshift devices of his secular imagination, even in a declining civilization. Nevertheless, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" does not offer, as Tate explains in his essay, a "practical solution . . . for the edification of moralists," but it does imply that such a solution is possible. As Tate goes on to say, "To those who may identify the man at the gate with the author of the poem I would say: He differs from the author in not accepting a 'practical solution,' for the author's personal dilemma is perhaps not quite so exclusive as that of the meditating man." It is the exclusive character of the dilemma that makes it difficult to resolve, for the alternative of science or religion at least offers the promise of a practical solution to the problem of acting in an alien universe. Unless the man at the gate can learn to see the choice between a nature dominated by mortality and a self locked in solipsism as a false presentation of alternatives, he cannot act in any decisive way.


Title Robert S. Dupree: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert S. Dupree Criticism Target Allen Tate
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Allen Tate and the Augustinian Imagination: A Study of Poetry
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

No Data
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media