Tate was born John Orley Allen Tate in Winchester, Kentucky, and educated at Vanderbilt University. His roommate was Robert Penn Warren. After active participation in the Agrarian movement that advocated traditional Southern values and a nonindustrial agricultural economy, Tate went on to write a number of elegiac poems regretting the loss of heroic ideals in the contemporary world. He was also active in introducing modernist verse to readers more accustomed to Victorian style; Vanderbilt's The Fugitive, a poetry-only bi-monthly magazine, took on that project from 1921 to 1925, with Tate writing under the name "Henry Feathertop" in its early issues. Tate also wanted literature to be uncompromisingly serious, capable of taking on large philosophical issues, with its sobriety only broken with touches of the driest irony.
Much of this program is evident in "Ode to the Confederate Dead," its first version completed when Tate was only 29. Tate sought to evoke a certain emptiness, a lack of direction, that he associated with modernism's technological advances and with the social disruption caused by shifts in authority. He was sympathetic to T. S. Eliot's tone but felt poetry retained vestiges of moral authority if the poet could but evoke them. The "Ode" dramatizes this fundamental conflict, so that from passage to passage we are never quite sure whether past greatness will be fully submerged or will re-emerge to press back upon the present moment.