Allen Tate On His

"Ode" Essay, Research Paper

Here is Tate’s Full Essay

from Reason in Madness, 1938

On this first occasion, which will probably be the last, of my writing about my own

verse, I could plead in excuse the example of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote about himself in

an essay called "The Philosophy of Composition." But in our age the appeal to

authority is weak, and I am of my age. What I happen to know about the poem that I shall

discuss is limited. I remember merely my intention in writing it; I do not know whether

the poem is good; and I do not know its obscure origins.

How does one happen to write a poem: where does it come from? That is the question

asked by the psychologists or the geneticists of poetry. Of late I have not read any of

the genetic theories very attentively: years ago I read one by Mr. Conrad Aiken; another,

I think, by Mr. Robert Graves; but I have forgotten them. I am not ridiculing verbal

mechanisms, dreams, or repressions as origins of poetry; all three of them and more

besides may have a great deal to do with it. Other psychological theories say a good deal

about compensation. A poem is an indirect effort of a shaky man to justify himself to

happier men, or to present a superior account of his relation to a world that allows him

but little certainty, and would allow equally little to the happier men if they did not

wear blinders–according to the poet. For example, a poet might be a man who could not get

enough self-justification out of being an automobile salesman (whose certainty is a fixed

quota of cars every month) to rest comfortably upon it. So the poet, who wants to be

something that he cannot be, and is a failure in plain life, makes up fictitious versions

of his predicament that are interesting even to other persons because nobody is a perfect

automobile salesman. Everybody, alas, suffers a little … I constantly read this kind of

criticism of my own verse. According to its doctors, my one intransigent desire is to have

been a Confederate general, and because I could not or would not become anything else, I

set up for poet and beg an to invent fictions about the personal ambitions that my society

has no use for.

Although a theory may not be "true," it may make certain insights available

for a while; and I have deemed it proper to notice theories of the genetic variety because

a poet talking about himself is often expected, as the best authority, to explain the

origins of his poems. But persons interested in origins are seldom quick to use them.

Poets, in their way, are practical men; they are interested in results. What is the poem,

after it is written? That is the question. Not where it came from or why. The Why and

Where can never get beyond the guessing stage because, in the language of those who think

it can, poetry cannot be brought to "laboratory conditions." The only real

evidence that any critic may bring before his gaze is the finished poem. For some reason

most critics have a hard time fixing their minds directly under their noses, and before

they see the object that is there they use a telescope upon the horizon to see where it

came from. They are wood-cutters who do their job by finding out where ere the ore came

from in the iron of the steel of the blade of the ax that Jack built. I do not say that

this procedure is without contributory insights; but the insights are merely contributory

and should not replace the poem, which is the object upon which they must be focused. A

poem may be an instance of morality, of social conditions, of psychological history; it

may instance all its qualities, but never one of them alone, nor any two or three; never

less than all.

Genetic theories, I gather, have been cherished academically with detachment. Among

"critics" they have been useless and not quite disinterested: I have myself

found them applicable to the work of poets whom I do not like. That is the easiest way.

I say all this because it seems to me that my verse or anybody else’s is merely a way

of knowing something: if the poem is a real creation, it is a kind of knowledge that we

did not possess before. It is not knowledge "about" something else; the poem is

the fullness of that knowledge. We know the particular poem, not what it says that we can

restate. In a manner of speaking, the poem is its own knower, neither poet nor reader

knowing anything that the poem says apart from the words of the poem. I have expressed

this view elsewhere in other terms, and it has been accused of aestheticism or art for

art’s sake. But let the reader recall the historic position of Catholicism: nulla salus

extra ecclesiam. That must be religionism. There is probably nothing wrong with art

for art’s sake if we take the phrase seriously, and not take it to mean the kind of poetry

written in England forty years ago. Religion always ought to transcend any of its

particular uses; and likewise the true art for art’s sake view can be held only by persons

who are always looking for things that they can respect apart from use (though they may be

useful), like poems, fly-rods, and formal gardens. . . . These are negative postulates,

and I am going to illustrate them with some commentary on a poem called "Ode to the

Confederate Dead."


That poem is "about" solipsism, a philosophical doctrine which says that we

create the world in the act of perceiving it; or about Narcissism, or any other ism that

denotes the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature and society

. Society (and "nature" as modern society constructs it) appears to offer

limited fields for the exercise of the whole man, who wastes his energy piecemeal over

separate functions that ought to come under a unity of being. (Until the last generation,

only certain women were whores, having been set aside as special instances of sex amid a

social scheme that held the general belief that sex must be part of a whole; now the

general belief is that sex must be special.) Without unity we get the remarkable

self-consciousness of our age. Everybody is talking about this evil, and a great many

persons know what ought to be done to correct it. As a citizen I have my own prescription,

but as a poet I am concerned with the experience of "solipsism." And an

experience of it is not quite the same thing as a philosophical statement about it.

I should have trouble connecting solipsism and the Confederate dead in a rational

argument; I should make a fool of myself in the discussion, because I know no more of the

Confederate dead or of solipsism than hundreds of other people. (Possibly less: the dead

Confederates may be presumed to have a certain privacy; and as for solipsism, I blush in

the presence of philosophers who know all about Bishop Berkeley; I use the them here in

its strict etymology.) And if I call this interest in one’s ego Narcissism, I make myself

a logical ignoramus, and I take liberties with mythology. I use Narcissism to mean only

preoccupation with self; it may be either love or hate. But a good psychiatrist knows that

it means self-love only, and otherwise he can talk about it more coherently, knows more

about it than I shall ever hope or desire to know. He would look at me professionally if I

uttered the remark that the modern squirrel cage of our sensibility, the extreme

introspection of our time, has anything whatever to do with the Confederate dead.

But when the doctor looks at literature it is a question whether he sees it: the sea

boils and pigs have wings because in poetry all things are possible–if you are man

enough. They are possible because in poetry the disparate elements are not combined in

logic, which can join things only under certain categories and under the law of

contradiction; they are combined in poetry rather as experience, and experience has

decided to ignore logic, except perhaps as another field of experience. Experience means

conflict, our natures being what they are, and conflict means drama. Dramatic experience

is not logical; it may be subdued to the kind of coherence that we indicate when we speak,

in criticism, of form. Indeed as experience, this conflict is always a logical

contradiction, or philosophically an antinomy. Serious poetry deals with the fundamental

conflicts that cannot be logically resolved: we can state the conflicts rationally, but

reason does not relieve us of them. Their only final coherence is the formal re-creation

of art, which "freezes" the experience as permanently as a logical formula, but

without, like the formula, leaving all but the logic out.

Narcissism and the Confederate dead cannot be connected logically, or even

historically; even were the connection an historical fact, they would not stand connected

as art, for no one experiences raw history. The proof of the connection must lie, if

anywhere, in the experienced conflict which is the poem itself. Since one set of

references for the conflict is the historic Confederates, the poem, if it is successful,

is a certain section of history made into experience, but only on this occasion, and on

these terms: even the author of the poem has no experience of its history apart from the

occasion and the terms.

It will be understood that I do not claim even a partial success in the junction of the

two "ideas" in the poem that I am about to discuss. I am describing an

intention, and the labor of revising the poem–a labor spread over ten years fairly

exposes the lack of confidence that I have felt and still feel in it. All the tests of its

success in style and versification would come in the end to a single test, an answer, yes

or no, to the question: Assuming that the Confederates and Narcissus are not yoked

together by mere violence, has the poet convinced the reader that, on the specific

occasion of this poem, there is a necessary yet hitherto undetected relationship between

them? By necessary I mean dramatically relevant, a relation "discovered" in

terms of the particular occasion, not historically argued or philosophically deduced.

Should the question that I have just asked be answered yes, then this poem or any other

with its specific problem could be said to have form: what was previously a merely felt

quality of life has been raised to the level of experience–it has become specific, local,

dramatic, "formal"–that is to say, informed.


THE structure of the Ode is simple. Figure to yourself a man stopping at the gate of a

Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon. The leaves are falling; his first

impressions bring him the "rumor of mortality"; and the desolation barely allows

him, at the beginning of the second stanza, the conventionally heroic surmise that the

dead will enrich the earth, "where these memories grow." From those quoted words

to the end of that passage be pauses for a baroque meditation on the ravages of time,

concluding with the figure of the "blind crab." This creature has mobility but

no direction, energy but from the human point of view, no purposeful world to use it in:

in the entire poem there are only two explicit symbols for the locked-in ego; the crab is

the first and less explicit symbol, a mere hint a planting of the idea that will become

overt in its second instance-the jaguar towards the end. The crab is the first intimation

of the nature of the moral conflict upon which the drama of the poem develops: the

cut-off-ness of the modern "intellectual man" from the world.

The next long passage or strophe, beginning "You know who have waited by the

wall," states the other term of the conflict. It is the theme of heroism, not merely

moral heroism, but heroism in the grand style, elevating even death from mere physical

dissolution into a formal ritual: this heroism is a formal ebullience of the human spirit

in an entire society, not private, romantic illusion–something better than moral heroism,

great as that may be, for moral heroism, being personal and individual, may be achieved by

certain men in all ages, even ages of decadence. But the late Hart Crane’s commentary, in

a letter, is better than any I can make; he described the theme as the "theme of

chivalry, a tradition of excess (not literally excess, rather active faith) which cannot

be perpetuated in the fragmentary cosmos of today–’those desires which should be yours

tomorrow,’ but which, you know, will not persist nor find any way into action."

The structure then is the objective frame for the tension between the two themes,

"active faith" which has decayed, and the "fragmentary cosmos" which

surrounds us. (I must repeat here that this is not a philosophical thesis; it is an

analytical statement of a conflict that is concrete within the poem.) In contemplating the

heroic theme the man at the gate never quite commits himself to the illusion of its

availability to him. The most that he can allow himself is the fancy that the blowing

leaves are charging soldiers, but he rigorously returns to the refrain: "Only the

wind"–or the "leaves flying." I suppose it is a commentary on our age that

the man at the gate never quite achieves the illusion that the leaves are heroic men, so

that he may identify himself with them, as Keats and Shelley too easily and too

beautifully did with nightingales and west winds. More than this, he cautions himself,

reminds himself repeatedly of his subjective prison, his solipsism, by breaking off the

half-illusion and coming back to the refrain of wind and leaves-a refrain that, as Hart

Crane said, is necessary to the "subjective continuity"

These two themes struggle for mastery up to the passage,

We shall say only the leaves whispering

In the improbable mist of nightfall–

which is near the end. It will be observed that the passage begins with a phrase taken

from the wind-leaves refrain -the signal that it has won. The refrain has been fused with

the main stream of the man’s reflections, dominating them; an d he cannot return even to

an ironic vision of the heroes. There is nothing but death, the mere naturalism of death

at that–spiritual extinction in the decay of the body. Autumn and the leaves are death;

the men who exemplified in a grand style an "active faith" are dead; there are

only the leaves.

Shall we then worship death . . .

… set up the grave

In the house? The ravenous grave

that will take us before our time? The question is not answered, although as a kind of

morbid romanticism it might, if answered affirmatively, provide the man with an illusory

escape from his solipsism; but he cannot accept it. Nor has he been able to ha have in his

immediate world, the fragmentary cosmos. There is no practical solution, no solution

offered for the edification of moralists. (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.) The main intention of the poem has been to make

dramatically visible the conflict to concentrate it, to present it, in Mr. R. P.

Blackmur’s phrase, as "experienced form"–not as a logical dilemma.

The closing image, that of the serpent, is the ancient symbol of time, and I tried to

give it the credibility of the commonplace by placing it in a mulberry bush-with the faint

hope that the silkworm would somehow be implicit. But time is also death. If that is so,

then space, or the Becoming, is life; and I believe there is not a single spatial symbol

in the poem. "Sea-space" is allowed the "blind crab"; but the sea, as

appears plainly in the passage beginning, "Now that the salt of their blood …

" is life only in so far as it is the source of the lowest forms of life, the source

perhaps of all life, but life undifferentiated, halfway between life and death. This

passage is a contrasting inversion of the conventional

… inexhaustible bodies that are not

Dead, but feed the grass

the reduction of the earlier, literary conceit to a more naturalistic figure derived

from modern biological speculation. These "buried Caesars" will not bloom in the

hyacinth but will only make saltier the sea.

The wind-leaves refrain was added to the poem in 1930, nearly five years after the

first draft was written. I felt that the danger of adding it was small because, implicit

in the long strophes of meditation, the ironic commentary on the vanished heroes was

already there, giving the poem such dramatic tension as it had in the earlier version. The

refrain makes the commentary more explicit, more visibly dramatic and renders quite plain,

as Hart Crane intimated, the subjective character of the imagery throughout. But there was

another reason for it, besides the increased visualization that it imparts to the dramatic

conflict. It "times" the poem better, offers the reader frequent pauses in the

development of the two themes, allows him occasions of assimilation; and on the

whole–this was my hope and intention–the refrain makes the poem seem longer than it is

and thus eases the concentration of imagery –without, I hope, sacrificing a possible

effect of concentration.


I HAVE been asked why I called the poem an ode. I first called it an elegy. It is an

ode only in the sense in which Cowley in the seventeenth century misunderstood the real

structure of the Pindaric ode. Not only are the meter and rhyme without fixed pattern, but

in another feature the poem is even further removed from Pindar than Abraham Cowley was: a

purely subjective meditation would not even in Cowley’s age have been called an ode. I

suppose in so calling it I intended an irony: the scene of the poem is not a public

celebration, it is a lone man by a gate. The dominant rhythm is "mounting, the

dominant meter iambic pentameter varied with six-, four-, and three-stressed lines; but

this was not. planned in advance for variety. I adapted the meter to the effect desired at

the moment. The "Lycidas," but other r models could have served. The rhymes in a

given strophe I tried to adjust to the rhythm and the texture. of feeling and image. For

example, take this passage in the second strophe:

Autumn is desolation in the plot

Of a thousand acres where these memories grow

From the inexhaustible bodies that are not

Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.

Think of the autumns that have come and gone!-

Ambitious November with the humors of the year,

With a particular zeal for every slab,

Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot

On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there:

The brute curiosity of an angel’s stare

Turns you, like them, to stone,

Transforms the heaving air

Till plunged to a heavier world below

You shift your sea-space blindly

Heaving, fuming like the blind crab.

There is rhymed with year (to many persons, perhaps, only a half-rhyme), and I hoped

the reader would unconsciously assume that he need not expect further use of that sound

for some time. So when the line, "The brute curiosity of an angel’s stare,"

comes a moment later, rhyming with year-there I hoped that the violence of image would be

further reinforced by the repetition of a sound that was no longer expected. I wanted the

shock to be heavy; so I felt that I could not afford to hurry the reader away from it

until he had received it in full. The next two lines carry on the image at a lower

intensity: the rhyme, "Transforms the heaving air," prolongs the moment of

attention upon that passage, while at the same time it ought to begin dissipating the

shock, both by the introduction of a new image and by reduction of the "meaning"

to a pattern of sound, the ere-rhymes. I calculated that the third use of that sound (stare)

would be a surprise, the fourth (air) a monotony. I purposely made the end words of

the third from last and last lines below and crab-delayed rhymes for row and slab, the

last being an internal and half-dissonant rhyme for the sake of bewilderment and

incompleteness, qualities by which the man at the gate is at the moment possessed.

This is elementary but I cannot vouch for its success. As the dramatic situation of the

poem is the tension that I have already described, so the rhythm is an attempt at a series

of "modulations" back and forth between a formal regularity, for the heroic

emotion, and a broken rhythm, with scattering imagery, for the failure of that emotion.

This is "imitative form," which Yvor Winters deems a vice worth castigation. I

have pointed out that the passage, "You know who have waited by the wall,"

presents the heroic theme of "active -faith"; it will be observed that the

rhythm, increasingly after "You who have waited for the angry resolution," is

almost perfectly regular iambic, with only a few initial substitutions and weak endings.

The passage is meant to convey a plenary vision, the actual presence, of the exemplars of

active faith: the man at the ate at that moment is nearer to realizing them than at any

other in the poem; hence the formal rhythm. But the vision breaks down; the wind-leaves

refrain supervenes; and the next passage, "Turn your eyes to the immoderate

past," is the irony of the preceding realization. With the self-conscious historical

sense he turns his eyes into the past. The next passage after this, beginning, "You

hear the shout …" is the failure of the vision in both phases, the pure realization

and the merely historical. He cannot "see" the heroic virtues; there is wind,

rain,and leaves. But there is sound; for a moment he deceives himself with it. It is the

noise of the battles that he has evoked. Then comes the figure of the rising sun of those

battles; he is "lost" in that orient of the thick and fast, and he curses his

own moment, "the setting sun." The "setting sun" I tried to use as a

triple image, for the decline of the heroic age and for the actual scene of late

afternoon, the latter being not only natural desolation but spiritual desolation as well.

Again for a moment he thinks he hears the battle shout, but only for a moment; then the

silence reaches him.

Corresponding to the disintegration of the vision just described there has been a

breaking down of the formal rhythm. The complete breakdown comes with the images of the

mummy" and the "hound bitch." (Hound bitch because the hound is a hunter,

participant of a formal ritual.) The failure of the vision throws the man back upon

himself, but upon himself he cannot bring to bear the force of sustained imagination. He

sees himself in random images (random to him, deliberate with the author) of something

lower than he ought to be: the human image is only that of preserved death; but if he is

alive he is an old hunter dying. The passages about the mummy and the bitch are

deliberately brief–slight rhythmic stretches. (These are the only verses I have written

for which I thought of the movement first, then cast about for the symbols.)

I believe the term modulation denotes in music the uninterrupted shift from one key to

another: I do not know the term for change of rhythm without change of measure. I wish to

describe a similar changes in verse rhythm; it may be convenient to think of it as

modulation of a certain kind. At the end of the passage that I have been discussing the

final words are "Hears the wind only." The phrase closes the first main division

of the poem. I have loosely called the longer passages strophes, and if I were e hardy

enough to impose the classical organization of the lyric ode upon a baroque poem, I should

say that these words bring to an end the Strophe, after which must come the next main

division, or Antistrophe, which was often employed to answer the matte r set forth in the

Strophe or to present it from another point of view. And that is precisely the

significance of the next main division, beginning: "Now that the salt of their blood

. . ." But I wanted this second division of the poem to arise out of the collapse of

the first. It is plain that it would not have suited my purpose to round off the first

section with some sort of formal rhythm; so I ended it with an unfinished line. The next

division must therefore begin by finishing that line, not merely in meter but with an

integral rhythm. I will quote the passage:

The hound bitch

Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar

Hears the wind only.

Now that the salt of their blood

Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea,

Seals the malignant purity of the flood. . . .

The caesura, after only, is thus at the middle of the third foot. (I do not give a full

stress to wind, but attribute a "hovering stress" to wind and the first syllable

of only.) The reader expects the foot to be completed by the stress on the next word, Now,

as in a sense it is; but the phrase, "Now that the salt of their blood," is also

the beginning of a new movement; it is two "dactyls" continuing more broadly the

falling rhythm that has prevailed. But with the finishing off of the line with blood, the

mounting rhythm is restored; the whole line from Hears to blood is actually an iambic

pentameter with liberal inversions and substitutions that were expected to create a

counter-rhythm within the line. From the caesura on, the rhythm is new; but it has -or was

expected to have- an organic relation to the preceding rhythm; and it signals the rise of

a new statement of the theme.

I have gone into this passage in detail–I might have chosen another– not because I

think it is successful, but because I labored with it; if it is a failure, or even an

uninteresting success, it ought to offer as much technical instruction to other persons as

it would were it both successful and interesting. But a word more: the broader movement

introduced by the new rhythm. was meant to correspond, as a sort of Antistrophe, to the

earlier formal movement beginning, "You know who have waited by the wall." It is

a new formal movement with new feeling and new imagery. The heroic but precarious illusion

of the earlier movement has broken down into the personal symbols of the mummy and the

hound; the pathetic fallacy of the leaves as charging soldiers and the conventional

"buried Caesar" theme have become rotten leaves and dead bodies wasting in the

earth, to return after long erosion to the sea. In the midst of this naturalism, what

shall the man say? What shall all humanity say in the presence of decay ? The two themes,

then, have been struggling for mastery; the structure of the poem thus exhibits the

development of two formal passages that contrast the two themes. The two formal passages

break down, the first shading into the second ("Now that the salt of their blood the

second one concluding with the figure of the jaguar which is presented in a distracted

rhythm left suspended from a weak ending -the word victim. This figure of the jaguar is

the only explicit rendering of the Narcissus mot if in the poem, but instead -of a youth

gazing into a pool, a predatory beast stares at a jungle stream, and leaps to devour


The next passage begins:

What shall we say who have knowledge

Carried to the heart?

This is Pascal’s war between heart and head, between finesse and geometry. Should the

reader care to think of these lines agathering up of the two themes, now fused, into a

final statement, I should see no objection to calling it the Epode. But upon the meaning

of the lines from here to the end there is no need for further commentary. I have talked

about the structure of the poem, not its quality. One can no more find the quality of

one’s own verse than one can find its value, and to try to find either is like looking

into a glass for the effect that one’s face has upon other persons.

If anybody ever wished to know anything about this poem that he could not interpret for

himself, I suspect that he is still in the dark. I cannot believe that I have illuminated

the difficulties that some readers have found in the style. But then I cannot, have never

been able to, see any difficulties of that order. The poem has been much revised. I still

think there is much to be said for the original barter instead of yield in the second

line, and for Novembers instead of November in line fifteen. The revisions were not

undertaken for the convenience of the reader but for the poem’s own clarity, so that,

word, phrase, line, passage, the poem might at worst come near its best expression.


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