Thomas A. Underwood: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

The Tates' poverty was so extreme that Allen's twenty-seventh birthday passed in November without celebration. He was depressed and dissatisfied with New York City. Yet it was in this state of mind—and to some degree because of it—that he conceived and wrote his most famous, and perhaps his finest, poem, Ode to the Confederate Dead. By Christmas of 1926, he had completed a first draft of the poem, originally titled ELEGY for the Confederate Dead. The earliest version began:

Row after row with strict impunity

The headstones barter their names to the element,

The wind whirrs without recollection;

In the riven troughs broken leaves

Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament

Against the sinkage of death,

While in uncertainty of their election,

Of their business in the vast breath,

They sought the rumor of mortality.

"Figure to yourself a man stopping at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon," Tate explained many years later. "The leaves are falling; his first impressions bring him the 'rumor of mortality.'" But the poem, Tate added, was not simply about the modern Southerner's difficulty in coming to terms with his own traditions and bringing them back to life. It was, he said, "'about' solipsism or Narcissism, or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function properly in nature and society." Although set in the South, the poem's larger theme was "the cut-off-ness of the modern 'intellectual man ' from the world." Such a man, who was obviously Tate, was trapped between a need for religious faith and the reality of the "fragmentary cosmos" surrounding him.

In an article Tate thought "the best" ever written about him, critic Lillian Feder observed that the Ode, rich in allusions to the ancients, must be interpreted within "the framework of the classical world." Tate's poetry, she observed, "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." For Tate, the Ode not only explored these complex views of the present but marked the beginning of the twelve-year period recognized by many scholars as the era in which he was absorbed by Southern culture and the history of his own family. Indeed, he told Davidson that writing the poem had been so wrenching for him personally that it dredged "up a whole stream of associations and memories, suppressed, at least on the emotional plane, since my childhood." Years later he still believed he had let go emotionally "only once: in the Ode." In the first published version of the poem, later to be revised considerably, he asked

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?

                                                                Leave now

The turnstile and the decomposing wall:

The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,

Riots with his tongue through the hush—

See him what he knows—he knows it all!

In time, the final line would become "Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!"

Tate's Southern friends were mystified. Davidson admired the poem, but was annoyed at his friend for reducing the grand themes of Southern history to "personal poetry." "Your Elegy," he observed, "is not for the Confederate dead, but for your own dead emotion." It did not appear to Davidson that the poem had much to do with Confederate soldiers. "Where, O Allen Tate," he asked, "are the dead? You have buried them completely out of sight—with them yourself and me." Even Robert Penn Warren referred to the poem as "the Confederate morgue piece." Yet after the Fugitives examined the Ode more closely, they abandoned their early reservations. They came to agree with subsequent critics who placed the Ode among the major poems of the century. It would be reprinted countless times.


Title Thomas A. Underwood: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas A. Underwood Criticism Target Allen Tate
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Allen Tate: Orphan of the South
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