The Modern Mind and the Discovery of Enduring Love
by john v. glass iii
the catholic university of america, 376 pages, $59.95
I well remember sitting up half the night annotating Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” in my Norton anthology. As do I remember reading for the first time Tate’s most accessible poem, “The Swimmers”—an autobiographical narrative about boys out for a summer swim who come upon the body of a lynched black man—and sensing I was in the presence of true poetic and moral power.
But during these last two decades, Tate has been studied less for the poetry that won him early fame and more as one of the brightest of the Southern agrarians who sought to take a conservative intellectual stand against the secularizing and atomizing “industrialism” of American culture. Many scholars have treated his biography and prose works, but they keep their distance from his difficult poetry. Their monographs have been, perhaps, the more readable for it.
The same can be said for the handful of writers who have studied Tate for his part in the mid-century Catholic literary revival. When he converted in 1950, it seemed confirmation that Catholicism was taking an ascendant role in American philosophical and literary—if not theological—discourse. Tate became a representative Catholic “man of letters in the modern world.” Peter Huff’s account of Tate’s conversion, for instance, does not quote from his poems even once.
John V. Glass seeks to correct this oversight in his study of Tate’s achievement as a poet. Though Glass finds himself pulled off the trail at several points into prefatory throat-clearing and extended digressions on Tate’s biography (one of them a chapter in length), it is good finally to have a book on Tate the poet.
Tate’s poems depict the interior lives of solipsistic and fragmented modern personalities, those that had lost the ability to perceive the world as meaningful, to trust in the veracity of inherited religious and historical myths, and to act heroically in light of those beliefs. In the early “Death of Little Boys,” for instance, the mourners at a wake feel intense grief at the loss of a child, but their feeling issues forth in exaggerated, pathetic, and incoherent images. The guests “come in to look, [and] turn down / Their palms,” Tate writes. This apparently meaningless gesture, Glass argues, is the meaning: Modern persons still feel strong emotions but have no system of belief to give them adequate outward expression.
In Tate’s best-known poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” a man stands at the gate of a Confederate cemetery, trying and failing to believe that the past can inform the present with a significance that might guide his life. He wants to believe in the lost cause of the South, or that the divine speaks to us through the book of nature; he requires a credible myth that inspires him to real action in the world. But the refrain, “Dazed by the wind, only the wind / The leaves flying, plunge,” reveals the man’s incapacity to see any meaning in the “Rank upon rank” of Confederate soldiers fighting and dying in battle. The only myth that impresses him is that of materialism, telling him that nothing has any meaning.
After reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Tate concluded that the modern world had fallen apart, and that persons in our age were alienated. We have all suffered what Eliot called a “dissociation of sensibility,” in which our thought becomes rationalistic and dry, while our hearts search vainly for purpose and fulfillment. Paralysis of spirit bred a paralysis of noble action. Yet in depicting “typical” modern personae rather than his own formidable personality, Tate’s poems often engage in a kind of hyperbole that resembles more a caricature of the modern condition than genuine insight about it. His early sonnet “The Subway,” for instance, offers some fascinating and powerful lines, but on reflection we see that Tate has depicted a man being driven insane by the “mathematical” mastering and possession of nature as manifest in the construction of a subway tunnel. As Glass notes, Tate himself quite enjoyed traveling forty miles an hour on an underground train; perhaps his own admiration of such a feat of civil engineering should have given him pause before he turned it into the great symbol of modern rationalism “plunging” us all into private madness.
In any case, Tate would not rest content with expressing subjective discontentment for long. In poems such as “Aeneas at Washington” and “The Mediterranean,” he tried to conjure what Rémi Brague has called “Romanity,” the deep coherence of Western civilization that finds its first expression in Virgil’s Aeneid. Yet he still felt that America had lost this legacy. Tate wanted to right civilization by calling it back to its Roman roots of noble soldier-farmers, but to do so without indulging in the untenable sentimentalities he knew well from his Kentucky childhood.
Almost from the beginning, he could see this was not going to work. “Remarks on the Southern Religion” argues that the Old South was a traditional, feudal society, its manners inherited from aristocratic Europe and ancient Rome. But from its founding, it was already infected with the rationalistic and utilitarian spirit of modernity, such that, first, greed led to the slave economy, and, second, the post–Civil War South had no intellectual resources to preserve the best aspects of its way of life against the encroachments of the industrializing North through that insidious modern power, the Chamber of Commerce.
Tate had followed the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925 and seen his native region caricatured in the press as a clan of backward, ignorant fundamentalists. He did not approve of Southern Protestantism either, but not because it was a relic from a benighted past. Rather, the Southern religion was just one more expression of modern rationalism, which reduced everything to crude and simple “geometrical” lines.
What the South had always lacked, and what it most needed, was a “feudal” religion. It needed Catholicism. So he argued in 1930, and so he wrote a year earlier, to fellow agrarian poet Donald Davidson, confessing that he was “more and more heading towards Catholicism.” Only the philosophy of life and external authority of the Church could respond to modern rationalism with a superior intellectuality. As he would suggest in a late essay, only the Catholic “sacramental imagination” could look at those leaves in the Confederate graveyard and affirm that they bear within them an analogical, spiritual, but not merely imaginative, significance. What “looks to us today like metaphor,” Tate wrote, was in the Catholic view “a generally accepted relation between the physical world and the invisible.” Only in the Church could the interior life be reintegrated with the rest of nature and the rich subjective experience of the world as symbolic be affirmed, not as imaginative or sentimental indulgence, but ontological fact.
Beginning in the 1930s, Tate’s poems depict men who sense that the cross of Christ must be the last alternative left to them, if their lives are to be redeemed from the futility of history. These are not, however, poems of consolation. Their narrators look on the cross with dismay, seeing Christianity—as both Nietzsche and Karl Barth did—as a terrible, crushing eruption in history. They perceive the necessity of embracing it even as they lack the spiritual strength to do so. The difficulty of Tate’s poetry stems in no small part from its straining effort to depict the interior life of someone who knows he ought to believe but cannot.
Only in the few poems written in the years before and just after his conversion does Tate’s voice take a new turn. Rather than rue the incapacity for belief, these poems plead for mercy. “Seasons of the Soul” is Tate’s most ambitious poem and depicts the cyclical, endless necessity of material history before proposing an escape made possible only through the intercession of a Dantesque (and Eliotic) “mother of silences,” into the life of Christian humility and faith.
In a series of three poems written in Dante’s terza rima, Tate examines his conscience. In “The Maimed Man,” he confesses his need for redemption. In “The Swimmers,” a lynched black man becomes a figure of Christ. If Tate had once hoped for a synthesis of the Roman culture of the South and the Roman Catholic Church, he now sees the former as complicit in crucifying the latter. The sequence breaks off with “The Buried Lake,” where Tate acknowledges that his long unbelief had nothing to do with modern theories of history and instead resulted from his own sin and arrogance. So, here, his poetic career concludes with a prayer for mercy, in response to which comes St. Lucy, patroness of the blind and intercessor of Tate’s predecessor, Dante: “The dream is over and the dark expired. / I knew that I had known enduring love.”
James Matthew Wilson is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University.