Allen Tate Essays

John Orley Allen Tate (November 19, 1899 – February 9, 1979), known professionally as Allen Tate, was an American poet, essayist, social commentator, and Poet Laureate from 1943 to 1944.


Early years[edit]

Tate was born near Winchester, Kentucky, to John Orley Tate, a businessman, and Eleanor Parke Custis Varnell. In 1916 and 1917 Tate studied the violin at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Vanderbilt University, Rhodes College, Kenyon College and The Fugitives[edit]

He began attending Vanderbilt University in 1918, where he met fellow poet Robert Penn Warren. Warren and Tate were invited to join an informal literary group of young Southern poets under the leadership of John Crowe Ransom; the group were known as the Fugitives. Tate contributed to the group's magazine The Fugitive. The aim of the group, according to the critic J. A. Bryant, was "to demonstrate that a group of southerners could produce important work in the medium [of poetry], devoid of sentimentality and carefully crafted," and they wrote in the formalist tradition that valued the skillful use of meter and rhyme.[1]

When Robert Penn Warren left Rhodes College to accept a position at Louisiana State University, he recommended Tate to replace him. Tate accepted the position, and spent 1934-36 as Lecturer in English at Rhodes.

Tate also joined Ransom to teach at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Some of his notable students there included the poets Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell. Lowell's early poetry was particularly influenced by Tate's formalist brand of Modernism.


In 1924, Tate moved to New York City where he met poet Hart Crane, with whom he had been exchanging correspondence for some time. Over a four-year period, he worked freelance for The Nation, contributed to the Hound & Horn, Poetry magazine, and others. To make ends meet, he worked as a janitor. (Some years later, he would also contribute articles to the conservative National Review.)[citation needed]

During a summer visit with the poet Robert Penn Warren in Kentucky, he began a relationship with writer Caroline Gordon. The two lived together in Greenwich Village, but moved to "Robber Rocks", a house in Patterson, New York, with friends Slater Brown and his wife Sue, Hart Crane, and Malcolm Cowley.

Tate married Gordon in New York in May 1925. Their daughter Nancy was born in September. In 1928, along with others New York City friends, he went to Europe. In London, he visited with T. S. Eliot, whose poetry and criticism he greatly admired, and he also visited Paris.

In 1928, Tate published his first book of poetry, Mr. Pope and Other Poems, which contained his most famous poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (not to be confused with "Ode to the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery" by the Civil War poet Henry Timrod). That same year, Tate also published a biographyStonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier.

Just before leaving for Europe in 1928, Tate described himself to John Gould Fletcher as "an enforced atheist".[2] He later told Fletcher, "I am an atheist, but a religious one — which means that there is no organization for my religion." He regarded secular attempts to develop a system of thought for the modern world as misguided. "Only God," he insisted, "can give the affair a genuine purpose."[3] In his essay "The Fallacy of Humanism" (1929), he criticized the New Humanists for creating a value system without investing it with any identifiable source of authority. "Religion is the only technique for the validation of values," he wrote.[4] Although he was attracted to Roman Catholicism, he deferred converting. Louis D. Rubin, Jr. observes that Tate may have waited "because he realized that for him at this time it would be only a strategy, an intellectual act".[5]

In 1929, Tate published a second biography Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall.


After two years abroad, he returned to the United States, and in 1930 was back in Tennessee. Here he took up residence in an antebellum mansion with an 85-acre estate attached, that had been bought for him by one of his brothers, "who had made a lot of northern money out of coal." [6] He resumed his senior position with the Fugitives.

Along with fellow Fugitives, Warren and Ransom, as well as nine other Southern writers, Tate also joined the conservative political group known as the Southern Agrarians.[7] The group was made up of 12 members who published essays on their political philosophy in the book I'll Take My Stand published in 1930. Tate contributed the essay, "Remarks on the Southern Religion" to I'll Take My Stand. This book was followed in 1938 by Who Owns America?, the Southern Agrarians' response to The New Deal.

During this time, Tate also became the de facto associate editor of The American Review, which was published and edited by Seward Collins. Tate believed The American Review could popularize the work of the Southern Agrarians. He objected to Collins's open support of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and condemned Fascism in an article in The New Republic in 1936. Much of Tate's major volumes of poetry were published in the 1930s, and the scholar David Havird describes this publication history in poetry as follows:

By 1937, when he published his first Selected Poems, Tate had written all of the shorter poems upon which his literary reputation came to rest. This collection--which brought together work from two recent volumes, Poems: 1928-1931 (1932) and the privately printed The Mediterranean and Other Poems (1936), as well as the early Mr. Pope--included "Mother and Son," "Last Days of Alice," "The Wolves," "The Mediterranean," "Aeneas at Washington," "Sonnets at Christmas," and the final version of "Ode to the Confederate Dead."[8]

In 1938 Tate published his only novel, The Fathers, which drew upon knowledge of his mother's ancestral home and family in Fairfax County, Virginia.


Tate and Gordon were divorced in 1945 and remarried in 1946. Though devoted to one another for life, they could not get along and later divorced again.

Tate was a poet-in-residence at Princeton University until 1942. He founded the Creative Writing program at Princeton, and mentored Richard Blackmur, John Berryman, and others. In 1942, Tate assisted novelist and friend Andrew Lytle in transforming The Sewanee Review, America's oldest literary quarterly, from a modest journal into one of the most prestigious in the nation. Tate and Lytle had attended Vanderbilt together prior to collaborating at The University of the South.


In 1950, Tate converted to Roman Catholicism.[9] He also married the poet Isabella Gardner in the early 1950s.


While teaching at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, he met Helen Heinz, a nun enrolled in one of his courses and began an affair with her.[citation needed] Tate divorced Gardner and married Heinz in 1966. They moved to Sewanee, Tennessee. In 1967, Tate became the father of twin sons. The youngest died at eleven months from an accident. A third son was born in 1969. Tate died in Nashville, Tennessee ten years later. His papers are collected at the Firestone Library at Princeton University.

Attitudes on race[edit]

Literary scholars have questioned the relationship between the cultural attitudes of Modernist poets on issue such as race and the writing produced by these poets. The decade of the 1930s saw Tate's most notable stances on matters that may or may not be connected to literary craft. For example, though Tate spoke well of the work of fellow Modernist poet Langston Hughes, in 1931, Tate pressured his colleague Thomas Mabry into canceling a reception for Hughes, comparing the idea of socializing with the black poet to meeting socially with his black cook.[10]

From the 1930s until as late as the 1960s, Tate held prejudices against both blacks and Jews. He expressed views against interracial marriage and miscegenation and refused to associate with Black writers (like the aforementioned Langston Hughes).[11][12] Up until the 1960s, Tate also believed in white supremacy.[13][14][15]

In 1933, Tate wrote a letter for Hound & Horn explaining his views on interracial sex. "The negro race is an inferior race....miscegenation due to a white woman and a negro man" threatened the white family. "Our to keep the negro blood from passing into the white race."[16]

According to the critic Ian Hamilton, Tate and his co-agrarians had been more than ready at the time to overlook the anti-Semitism of the American Review in order to promote their 'spiritual' defence of the Deep South's traditions. In a 1934 review, "A View of the Whole South"[17] Tate reviews W. T. Couch's "Culture in The South: A Symposium by Thirty-one Authors" and defends racial hegemony: "I argue it this way: the white race seems determined to rule the Negro race in its midst; I belong to the white race; therefore I intend to support white rule. Lynching is a symptom of weak, inefficient rule; but you can't destroy lynching by fiat or social agitation; lynching will disappear when the white race is satisfied that its supremacy will not be questioned in social crises." [18][19]

According to the poetry editor of The New Criterion, David Yezzi, Tate held the conventional social views of a white Southerner in 1934: an "inherited racism, a Southern legacy rooted in place and time that Tate later renounced."[20] Tate was born of a Scotch-Irish lumber manager whose business failures required moving several times per year, Tate said of his upbringing ""we might as well have been living, and I been born, in a tavern at a crossroads."[21] However, his views on race were not passively incorporated; Thomas Underwood documents Tate's pursuit of racist ideology: "Tate also drew ideas from nineteenth-century proslavery theorists such as Thomas Roderick Dew, a professor at The College of William and Mary, and William Harper, of the University of South Carolina — "We must revive these men, he said."[22]


Poetry collections[edit]

  • Poems, 1928-1931, 1932.
  • The Mediterranean and Other Poems, 1936.
  • Selected Poems, 1937.
  • The Winter Sea, 1944.
  • Poems, 1920-1945, 1947.
  • Poems, 1922-1947, 1948.
  • Two Conceits for the Eye to Sing, If Possible, 1950.
  • Poems, 1960.
  • Poems, 1961.
  • Collected Poems, 1970.
  • The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems, 1970.

Prose collections[edit]

  • Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier, 1928.
  • Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall, 1929.
  • Robert E. Lee, 1932.
  • Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas, 1936.
  • The Fathers, 1938.
  • Reason in Madness, 1941.
  • On the Limits of Poetry: Selected Essays, 1928-1948, 1948.
  • The Hovering Fly, 1949.
  • The Forlorn Demon, 1953.
  • The Man of Letters in the Modern World, 1955.
  • Collected Essays, 1959.
  • Essays of Four Decades, 1969.
  • Memoirs and Opinions, 1926-1974, 1975.


External links[edit]

  1. ^A Brief Guide to the Fugitives. Academy of American Poets website
  2. ^Thomas A. Underwood, Allen Tate: Orphan of the South, Princeton University Press, p. 154. ISBN 0-691-06950-6
  3. ^Underwood, Allen Tate, p. 157.
  4. ^Underwood, Allen Tate, p. 155
  5. ^Louis D. Rubin, Jr., The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South, Louisiana State University Press, 1978, p. 125. ISBN 0-8071-0454-X
  6. ^Ian Hamilton, Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth Century Poets, Viking, 2002, p. 134. ISBN 0-670-84909-X
  7. ^The Twelve Southerners. I'll Take My Stand. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1930.
  8. ^Havird, David. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.[1]
  9. ^Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., "Three Catholic Writers of the South", The Christian Century, 26 February 1986, pp. 216-17.
  10. ^Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 231.
  11. ^Thomas Underwood. Allen Tate: Orphan of the South, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 291.
  12. ^Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 231.
  13. ^Allen Tate, "A View of the White South," The American Review 2:4 (February 1934).
  14. ^See also Hamilton, Against Oblivion, pp. 135-36.
  15. ^Allen Tate: Orphan of the South, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 151.
  16. ^Thomas Underwood. Allen Tate: Orphan of the South, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 291.
  17. ^Allen Tate, The American Review 2:4 (February 1934)
  18. ^Allen Tate, "A View of the White South," The American Review 2:4 (February 1934).
  19. ^See also Hamilton, Against Oblivion, pp. 135-36.
  20. ^Yezzi, David. "The Violence of Allen Tate". The New Criterion. 20 (September 2001): 66. 
  21. ^Paul V. Murphy, The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought. University of North Carolina Press, 2001, p. 32
  22. ^Allen Tate: Orphan of the South, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 151.

Allen Tate was a well-known man of letters from the American South, a central figure in the fields of poetry, criticism, and ideas. In the course of a career spanning the middle decades of the twentieth century, Tate authored poems, essays, translations, and fiction. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor James T. Jones wrote that his "influence was prodigious, his circle of acquaintances immense." Tate relished his "man of letters" reputation—he consistently held for the highest standards of literature, feeling that the best creative writing offers the most cogent expressions of human experience. Sewanee Review's J. A. Bryant, Jr. called Tate a "sage" who "kept bright the instrument of language in our time and . . . made it illuminate as well as shine."

Tate was born and raised in Kentucky, the youngest of three sons of John Orley and Eleanor Varnell Tate. His family moved frequently when he was young, and his elementary education was erratic. Influenced by his mother's love of literature, however, he read extensively on his own, and he was admitted to Vanderbilt University in 1918. Tate proved an excellent student, earning top honors and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. More importantly, while an undergraduate he became aware of the special circumstances of Southern culture and sensibility. Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist James A. Hart wrote, "With a Border background [Tate] had to face the question of whether he was a Southerner or an American. Affirming the first, he had to confront the dominant positivist and materialistic Yankee values which were supplanting the older values of the South." Under the influence of his teachers Walter Clyde Curry, Donald Davidson, and John Crowe Ransom, Tate began to analyze his inheritance from a critical, but respectful, perspective.

Tate was the only undergraduate to be admitted to membership in the Fugitives, an informal group of Southern intellectuals that included Ransom, Davidson, Merrill Moore, and Robert Penn Warren. The Fugitives met once a week to discuss poetry—their own and others'—and to mount a defense against the notion that the South did not possess a significant literature of its own. In the periodical the Fugitive, and later in an important anthology called I'll Take My Stand, Tate argued that the Southern agrarian way of life reflected the artistic beauty, intelligence, and wit of the ancient classic age. Hart explained that Tate and his fellow Fugitives "believed that industrialism had demeaned man and that there was a need to return to the humanism of the Old South." The Agrarian movement, Hart added, "would create or restore something in 'the moral and religious outlook of Western Man.'" Whatever its beliefs, the Fugitive group exerted an enormous influence on American letters in the 1920s and on into the Depression era. A number of its members, including Tate, became the literary spokesmen for their generations.

Although Tate spent several years between 1928 and 1932 in France, he continued to write almost exclusively about the South. While he socialized with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the other expatriate American writers in Paris, Tate still explored his own personal philosophical and moral ties to his homeland. He wrote two biographies of Southern Civil War heroes, Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier and Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall, began his most important poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," and worked on his only novel, The Fathers.Southern Literary Journal contributor George Core maintained that Tate was aware of the failings of the Old South, but it still remained "his chief model for his whole life. . . . Hence Tate's connections with the South—by inheritance, kinship, custom, and manner—have furnished him with . . . a central allegiance. Out of the tension between Tate's personal allegiance and his awareness of what he has called 'a deep illness of the modern mind' has come the enkindling subject of his work as a whole."

Not surprisingly, Tate's poetry has seemed to come from "a direct sensuous apprehension . . . of the Southern experience—the Southern people, animals, terrain, and climate," said Donald E. Stanford in the Southern Review. In many of his poems, Tate confronted the relationship between an idealized past and a present deficient in both faith and tradition. New York Times Book Review correspondent Hilton Kramer found the author "deeply immersed in the materials of history, and there could never be any question of separating his literary achievements from their attachment to the historical imagination." Kramer added that the particular history upon which Tate drew was "the history of a lost world carried in the mind of a Southerner, a classicist and an artist exiled to a Northern culture in which the imperatives of industrialism, philistinism, and bourgeois capitalism reinforce a sense of irretrievable defeat." Southern Review essayist Alan Williamson wrote that the stance in Tate's poetry "is that the individual is deeply unworthy, and should desire only to bring himself closer . . . to the destiny and the standards of the ancestors." Williamson concluded, however, that in some of Tate's later work "there is an undercurrent of contrary feeling: a bitter suspicion that the domination of the past, rather than the deficiencies of modern thought, is responsible for the sense of suffocation and unreality in present experience."

The Old South was semifeudal, agrarian, backward-looking, and religious, much like the European communities of the Middle Ages. Some critics have detected in Tate's work a return to somewhat medieval patterns of thought. In Renascence, Sister Mary Bernetta wrote, "In the Middle Ages there was one drama which took precedence over all other conflict . . . the Struggle of Everyman to win beatitude and to escape eternal reprobation. Tate recognizes the issue as a subject most significant for literature." Furthermore, like Dante, a poet he admired, Tate employed the most demanding poetic forms, which became "a compelling ritual to which the reader must submit in order to approach this poet's meaning," according to Robert B. Shaw in Poetry.

One of Tate's preoccupations was indeed "man suffering from unbelief." His modern Everyman, however, faced a more complex situation than the simple medieval morality tale hero. Michigan Quarterly Review contributor Cleanth Brooks explained, "In the old Christian synthesis, nature and history were related in a special way. With the break-up of that synthesis, man finds himself caught between a meaningless cycle on the one hand, and on the other, the more extravagant notions of progress—between a nature that is oblivious of man and a man-made 'unnatural' utopia." Even though he had periods of skepticism himself, Tate felt that art could not survive without religion. Pier Francesco Listri wrote in Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations, "In a rather leaden society governed by a myth of science, [Tate's] poetry conducts a fearless campaign against science, producing from that irony a measure both musical and fabulous. In an apathetic, agnostic period he [was] not ashamed to recommend a Christianity to be lived as intellectual anguish."

Tate expounded upon many of the same themes in his criticism. Because he believed in the autonomy of art and the aesthetic formalist basis of critical analysis, he was classified among the "New Critics" of the mid-twentieth century. In On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, Alfred Kazin observed that in order to save criticism from the "scientists," Tate "disengaged literature itself from society and men, and held up the inviolate literary experience as the only measure of human knowledge. Literature in this view was not only the supreme end; it was also the only end worthy of man's ambition." Ferman Bishop claimed in his book Allen Tate, that for the author, "the distinctively literary quality of a poem, play, or novel is the manner of its presentation." Sewanee Review essayist Eliseo Vivas wrote, "At the heart of [Tate's] criticism, informing it throughout and giving it remarkable consistency and force, is his protest against the meaning of the present and of the probable future."

Having had a classical education himself, Tate employed numerous classical allusions in his work; he also often wrote intensely personal poetry that would not reveal itself instantly to a reader. In the Sewanee Review, Cowan called Tate "the most difficult poet of the twentieth century," and other critics have offered similar assessments. Brooks, for one, noted, "Tate puts a great burden upon his reader. He insists that the reader himself, by an effort of his own imagination, cooperate with the poet to bring the violent metaphors and jarring rhythms into unity." Georgia Review contributor M. E. Bradford also maintained that Tate, with "his preference for the lyric and for the agonized persona in that genre—along with the admiration which his ingenuities in the employment of all manner of strategies have together inspired—have confirmed his reputation for obscurity, allusive privacy, and consequent difficulty. Were it not for his politics, his poetics, and his honesty about them both, he could have become the object of coterie enthusiasms."

Monroe K. Spears offered some reasons why Tate never became merely the object of coterie enthusiasms. In the Sewanee Review, Spears praised Tate for his "independence and common sense and avoidance of cant" as well as for "his stubborn honesty and candor; his ideal of poise, integrity, and intelligence." New Republic contributor James Dickey also found Tate to be more than a "Southern writer." Dickey wrote, "[Tate's] situation has certain perhaps profound implications for every man in every place and every time. And they are more than implications; they are the basic questions, the possible solutions to the question of existence. How does each of us wish to live his only life?" Bishop concludes that Tate's place in American letters "is secure," adding, "He is one of a very small number of American writers who have had the ability to present the intellectual as well as the emotional side of the American experience. In a culture which has seemed so often to encourage and even depend on the anti-intellectual, he has emphasized the opposite. Ultimately . . . he will be proved to have dealt with the truly significant elements in our experience."


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *