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Allen Tate and His Work

Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations

Edited with an introduction by RADCLIFFE SQUIRES
Copyright Date: 1972
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 368
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    Allen Tate and His Work
    Book Description:

    The thirty-five essays and memoirs about Allen Tate which are collected in this volume along with the introduction by Radcliffe Squires provide a perceptive, many-windowed view of Tate’s work and his life. Poet, critic, novelist -- Tate is all of these, and the selections, reflecting these various aspects of his career, are arranged in sections entitled “The Man,” “The Essayist,” “The Novelist,” and “The Poet.” As Professor Squires points out, the last three divisions take cognizance of the astounding diversity of Tate’s achievement. “But in a last analysis,” he continues, “the divisions are an Aristotelian nicety, an arbitrary convenience. His work is really all of a piece. It has all derived from the same energy, the same insights. It has all had a single aim.” What is that aim? Squires compares it to a simple physics experiment in which students are taught the principles of pressure, and he goes on to explain: “The synergy of Allen Tate’s poetry, fiction, and essays has had the aim of applying pressure -- think of the embossed, bitterly stressed lines, his textured metaphors -- until it brings up before our eyes a blanched parody of the human figure, which is our evil, the world’s evil, so that we begin to long for God. That has seemed to him a worthwhile task to perform for modern man threatened by such fatal narcissism, such autotelic pride that he is in danger of disappearing into a glassy fantasy of his own concoction. We shall need his help for a long time to come.” The selections were first published in a variety of periodicals and books over the years. The volume includes a substantial bibliography.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6453-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-2)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 3-8)

    In the Princeton University Library repose thousands of letters written to Allen Tate over a period of more than forty years. The letters come from the great hierophants of modern letters as well as from obscure acolytes. And it is a strange thing: from the letters of the famous and the obscure alike—and with almost no letters of Tate’s own composition—a consistent essence of a person emerges. One becomes conscious first of Tate’s kindness and generosity to others. Then he sees that this generosity is inseparable from moral action. Finally he sees that both the generosity and the...

  4. I THE MAN

    • In Amicitia
      (pp. 11-20)

      The poet, the thinker, the public figure, the whole man—Allen Tate’s personality is greatly distinguished in our time. It goes back partly to his inheritance; and maybe to his luck in having been born under a benign constellation. And what other causes of distinction might there be? There is one at least; he could earn it.

      But Tate entered upon his scene at a time when its intellectual climate was particularly distraught and uncertain; or it may be that our own time will always seem more desperate than previous ones have been. At any rate I will try to...

    • Allen Tate: A Portrait
      (pp. 20-22)

      It was Allen Tate who brought me Hart Crane’s poems, just as it was he who made me sit down in his basement on Bank Street and listen to Phelps Putnam’s “Hasbrouck and the Rose”; I can still hear his soft, very intelligent voice intoning two of the lines:

      In Springfield, Massachusetts I devoured

      The mystic, the improbable, the Rose.

      Allen, who as one of the Fugitives of Tennessee—more specifically, as one of those wits for whom John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt University was the Ben Jonson of his time, counseling and comparing notes with them in a responsible,...

    • Allen Tate: Upon the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday
      (pp. 23-25)

      It was John Ransom who introduced me to Allen Tate. I was at Yale working with George Pierce Baker (where I learned what a scene was) and he wrote me there and gave me his address in New York. So I owe to John Ransom, among other things, a long and cherished friendship. It could be said that I owe him my wife, since it was Tate who some years later introduced me to her. But in this kind of sorites where does gratitude end? It neither begins nor ends, for friendship cannot afford to measure the occasions for its...

    • Two Winters with Allen Tate and Hart Crane
      (pp. 26-33)

      In June, 1924, Allen Tate was making one of his first visits to New York. He had been exchanging letters with Hart Crane, for whom I had recently found a job at Sweet’s Catalogue Service, where our desks in the copywriting department stood side by side, and it was Hart who introduced him to most of my friends. I had forgotten the circumstances of my own meeting with Allen until he mentioned them in a letter. There was a party, he says, in the Greenwich Village apartment of Jimmy Light, a director of the Provincetown Playhouse. “I remember,” the letter...

    • Visiting the Tates
      (pp. 34-36)

      April 1937—1 was wearing the last summer’s mothballish, already soiled white linens, and moccasins, knotted so that they never had to be tied or untied. What I missed along the road from Nashville to Clarksville was the eastern seaboard’s thin fields chopped by stone walls and useless wildernesses of scrub. Instead, plains of treeless farmland, and an unnatural, unseasonable heat. Gushers of it seemed to spout over the bumpy, sectioned concrete highway, and bombard the horizon. Midway, a set of orientally shapely and conical hills. It was like watching a Western and waiting for a wayside steer’s skull and...

    • Our Cousin, Mr. Tate
      (pp. 37-39)

      I have known and admired Allen Tate for a long time. When we first met (it was in London) theCriterionwas newly born, and I think it was at one of our regular editorial gatherings that a visitor from overseas, perhaps introduced by Uncle Tom, was invited as a guest and remained for ever a friend. My title is not altogether facetious—my paternal great-grandmother was a Jane Tate, descendant of a Jacobite fugitive from Scotland, and it is not inconceivable that Allen’s father came from the same loyal stock. But there are other grounds of sympathy—an agrarian...

    • Allen Tate
      (pp. 40-41)

      Allen Tate’s vigor and quick energy, which give such force and liveliness to all his thinking and writing, have enabled his rather spare frame to retain its alert and tireless youthfulness throughout years of work and achievement that would have taken their toll of one less spirited. For Allen Tate is that phenomenon rare in our day, a man of letters. Even more so than Mr. Eliot, another contemporary man of letters, he has been active in many branches of literature. I tend, naturally perhaps, since it is my own field, to regard him first of all as a poet....

    • Allen Tate as a Teacher
      (pp. 42-49)

      It is not accidental, I think, that Allen Tate has been a teacher as well as a writer, for our time makes that demand of many writers: teaching is better than starving. But Mr. Tate is, it seems to me, more than a writer-turned-teacher, a literary craftsman who made the best of the accidents of economic necessity. For the idea of professionalism of the man of letters is a theme running throughout all his written work, and his teaching partakes of that same professional attitude, evidenced partly in the fact that he has been a co-editor of two first-rate anthology...

    • An Encounter in Florence
      (pp. 49-51)

      It is said that, along with Ezra Pound, Allen Tate is the greatest of living American poets. Born in Kentucky in 1899, this son of the American South is an essayist, a novelist, and a professor as well as a poet. His cultural world is double-stitched. One thread secures him to Europe, the other to the defeated South, so that his poetic imagination redounds with an exquisite metaphysics blended with generals, region, and the Confederate flag. Within this farrago, however, we can discern a great intellectual (after the model of Eliot who for a time constituted his god on earth),...

    • A Dove
      (pp. 52-54)

      Twenty-five years ago, when Allen Tate and I were teaching at a writers’ conference in northern Utah, we met in the dark dawn to go fly-fishing in one of the nearer canyons. At that hour no breakfast was available, not even coffee, and the substitute we drank, cold Coca Cola dispensed by a machine in the bleak basement of the dormitory, was not very agreeable. When a few minutes later we passed through town we found it black and still as midnight. The only breakfast we then could look forward to was delayed till the sun was high. We built...


    • A Note on the Vitality of Allen Tate’s Prose
      (pp. 57-59)

      In “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” Allen Tate writes, “He [the man of letters] has an immediate responsibility, to other men no less than to himself, for the vitality of language.” And he proceeds to suggest what “vitality of language” means: “the rediscovery of the human condition in the living arts.” This is, of course, a counsel of perfection, never to be followed with complete success. But it haunts Allen Tate, and his best critical work has as much of this authentic life as any prose now being written.

      Consider, for example, this paragraph fromThe Forlorn...

    • The Criticism of Allen Tate
      (pp. 60-77)

      Like Jonathan Swift, Allen Tate means to vex the world rather than divert it; he hopes to break through the reader’s complacent indifference, make him aware of his predicament, and force him to take sides. Since I assume that Mr. Tate achieves his purpose, and that most readers of this review¹ will already admire him or dislike him, I shall spend no time in general praise of his career. Mr. Tate is, as critic, essentially a polemicist, an aggressive and sometimes truculent warrior who for more than twenty years has conducted a skillful defensive action. Believing that the best defense...

    • Allen Tate as Man of Letters
      (pp. 78-91)

      The man of letters,” a phrase frequently employed by Allen Tate, gives us, I believe, the key to his criticism. The phrase seems obsolescent, but I take it that it has been commonly used in English in the past. Nor can any one claim for it a special force or expressiveness. Again, one might too easily dispose of Mr. Tate’s fondness for it by reference to his evidently lively interest in things French, since it is in current use in France; but this fact, although true, does not account for the frequency with which we encounter it in his prose....

    • San Giovanni in Venere: Allen Tate as Man of Letters
      (pp. 91-105)
      R. P. BLACKMUR

      Geoffrey Scott, at the end of hisArchitecture of Humanism, writes of the church of San Giovanni in Venere—a very old church indeed which still stands in the Abruzzi, deserted but a monument, “The Baptist lodged with Venus.” In a footnote, Scott says that “The structure is Romanesque, the name more ancient still; but not until the Renaissance can its patrons have achieved their perfect reconciliation, which now the browsing goats do not disturb.” And in his text he has this image: “Virgil attends on Dante, and St. John, in the solitude of the Adriatic shrine he shares with...

    • Crucial Questions
      (pp. 106-108)

      The essays in this book¹ are inquiries into literature and through literature into life. The best criticism has always been of this kind, and it has been revived in the last thirty years or so. It aims at something more than the criticism of opinion and appreciation; it is also sometimes difficult to follow—an inquiry is never easy—but to the reader it is both rewarding and exciting.

      This kind of criticism can lead us astray when it hardens into a method. Frequently it has done this both in America and here among the camp-followers of the New Criticism....

    • A Metaphysical Athlete: Allen Tate as Critic
      (pp. 108-115)

      When one is diffident, or more diffident than usual, he had better go ahead and admit it: and on this occasion I do so at the outset, being confronted with the fact of Mr. Tate’s criticism of the past forty-odd years and with the curious lack of understanding (not attention) which it has received. By now it should be clear to nearly everyone what Tate is about in his critical pieces—what he believes literature of the first order involves and how it should be approached by intelligent readers. Yet the clichés which are often attached, mechanically, like so many...

    • A Note on Allen Tate’s Essays
      (pp. 116-118)

      I shall not patronize Allen Tate by pretending to be impartial: it is precisely because he is more than a man of parts, because he is a whole, that I am partial to him; I shall take him, merely, at his word, the only place to take a poet, even in his prose. And in his prose Tate’s word is the same as in his poems—why, forty years ago he admonished us: “all the books of a poet should ultimately be regarded as one book—it was to this end he worked.” And the word I take him at...


    • The Fathers
      (pp. 121-129)

      The Fatherswas published in 1938. It sold respectably in both United States and England, perhaps because people expected it to be anotherGone With the Wind: it is in fact the novelGone With the Windought to have been. Since its publication it has received very little attention, considering that it is one of the most remarkable novels of our time. Its occasion is a public one, the achievement and the destruction of Virginia’s antebellum civilization. Within that occasion it discovers a conflict between two fundamental and irreconcilable modes of existence, a conflict that has haunted American experience,...

    • The End of the Old Dominion
      (pp. 129-134)

      A tournament is about to begin. At the back of the pavilion a flag flies from a tall pole. In front sit the ladies from whom will be chosen the Queen of Love and Beauty. A bugle blows; the riders line up, then at a prancing walk pass the pavilion in the Parade of Chivalry, each carrying a slender lance and wearing his colours on his sleeve. The rider on the big bay mare wears a black and orange mask. In turn they ride at the ring. Two lift it off on their lance every time; but on points of...

    • Southern Style
      (pp. 134-139)

      There are two generalizations which are often made about major American fiction. One is that in Hawthorne or Melville or even in the Mark Twain ofHuckleberry Finnthe novel is both something less and something more than, say, the greater English novels of the Victorian age. It is less in that it does not give us the sense of a weight and thickness of social pressure around the characters; they are more alone and more free, live more in their thoughts and less in their “world” than the characters, say, of George Eliot. On the other hand, such classic...

    • Old Orders Changing (Tate and Lampedusa)
      (pp. 140-148)

      It is an ancient and productive literary habit to compare things as they are with things as they used to be. “We are scarce our fathers’ shadows cast at noon.” Decisive historical events, types of the aboriginal catastrophe, acquire the character of images upon which too much cannot be said, since they sum up our separation from joy or civility. So, in Imperial Rome, men looked back to the Republic; so to this day they look back past the Reformation or the Renaissance or the Civil War, the points at which our characteristic disorders began. The practice has its dangers;...


    • Allen Tate’s Poetry
      (pp. 151-162)

      Allen Tate’s poetry illustrates a structure of violent synthesis. He constantly throws his words and images into active contrast. Almost every adjective in his poetry challenges the reader’s imagination to follow it off at a tangent. For instance, in the “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” November becomes not “drear” November, “sober” November, but “AmbitiousNovember with the humors of the year” [italics mine]. The “curiosity of an angel’s stare” is not “idle” or “quiet” or “probing” or any other predictable adjective, but “brute” curiosity. This is the primary difficulty that Tate’s poetry presents to the reader who is unacquainted with...

    • The Courage of Irony: The Poetry of Allen Tate
      (pp. 163-171)

      Allen Tate is essentially a man of letters in the broadest meaning of the phrase. As a poet, critic and prose writer his influence on his contemporaries has been great for more than three decades. His early biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, and a psychologically penetrating novel,The Fathers, set in Virginia during the Civil War, link him to a South which he knows never quite existed except in his nostalgic memory. The novel, using a symbolic mode, where action and physical environment are transmitted through consciousness—memories of the past intruding on the present—with its shrewd...

    • Allen Tate’s Use of Classical Literature
      (pp. 172-192)

      Consciousness of History cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet’s own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history.” In his essay “What Is a Classic?” T. S. Eliot discusses this consciousness of history as one of the requirements of the mature poet, and he suggests Vergil as an example of the poet who exhibits this awareness of his relation not only to the past of his own nation but to the past of a civilization before his. Vergil himself has provided for Allen Tate a...

    • Origins and Beginnings
      (pp. 193-205)
      M. E. BRADFORD

      John Orley Allen Tate has been, in each of his now familiar roles—as poet, critic, historian, novelist, and diagnostician of cultural decline—always very much the same person his friends were to know and respect soon after he came down from the Bluegrass to take a degree at Vanderbilt. Or, at least, he has moved steadily toward being that very exceptional person: completing, not altering, the fledgling original. His precocity as an undergraduate is to this day proverbial. At twenty he knew literature to be his proper business and was on his way through the standard classics of poetry...

    • The Serpent in the Mulberry Bush
      (pp. 206-221)

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

      That poem, as Tate goes on to say about the “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” is also about “a man stopping at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon.” Thus the man at the cemetery and the graves in the cemetery become the symbol of the solipsism and the Narcissism:

      Autumn is desolation...

    • On “The Cross”
      (pp. 221-231)
      R. K. MEINERS

      In the preface toThe Last Alternatives, from which book the following discussion of “The Cross” is taken, I committed myself to the judgment that Allen Tate was among the “three or four most important” writers from that generation of American writers who came to maturity in the late 1920’s. In the intervening years I have changed my mind about many things, and were I to write a book on Allen Tate today I would, naturally, go about things at least somewhat differently, for one must think that he has grown not only older but at least a little wiser....

    • The Meaning of War: A Note on Allen Tate’s “To the Lacedemonians”
      (pp. 232-241)

      The centennial of the great American war of the eighteen-sixties—variously known as the Civil War, the War between the States, the Confederate War, the War for Southern Independence, and in certain official records of the Federal government, as the War of the Rebellion—has at last gone by. There have been some patently half-hearted “celebrations” and rather stilted “re-enactments” of the battles and incidents of the War. Of actual commemoration in a truly solemn and deeply felt sense there has been little. Now and then some minutes or quarter-hours of expensive television time; the photographs, serialized “histories,” and specialized...

    • The Current of the Frozen Stream
      (pp. 242-252)

      My occasion is the publication of Mr. Tate’s collection,Poems 1922–1947(Scribner’s, 1948), my purpose the elucidation of a major duality in his poetry, which I would regard as in some sense its generating or operative principle. In some sense . . . those beautiful precautionary and beforehand words which serve the critic so well through all life’s appointments and will make him a satisfactory epitaph; but used here with particular intent to deny that the results of this (or any such) study are conceived as historically applicable, as suggesting the origin of the poetry. I am concerned to...

    • The Poetry of Allen Tate
      (pp. 253-264)

      I should like to propose two revisions of the customary valuation put upon the poetry of Allen Tate. First, it has become increasingly evident with each new work that Mr. Tate is a fugitive from the Fugitives. The Fugitives were that talented group of Southern writers who, finding the Northern poetic climate of the early twenties too exacerbatingly modern, reaffirmed their allegiances with “tradition,” a term they took some care to define. While we commonly think of the Southerners as a group, and while in a loose personal sense this may be so, it is my belief that in a...

    • Allen Tate’s Inferno
      (pp. 265-272)

      Certain critics have called the verse of Allen Tate Augustan, pointing out in particular his affinity to Pope; others have labeled it metaphysical, after the poetry of Donne’s age; still others, in the tradition of the Greco-Roman classics. Yet his basic concern, especially as revealed inPoems: 1922–1947, is medieval. 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. With the old veteran of “To the Lacedemonians” he announces: “Gentlemen,...

    • Culture and Technique in Tate
      (pp. 273-277)

      In Europe the usual tendency in thinking of an American writer is to regard him as a genial barbarian, talented but without critical conscience or intellectual maturity. To be very highly thought of, an American writer should at least have worked in a restaurant or factory, gone to sea as a cabin boy, devoted some time to the profession of selling neckties, perhaps have hunted whales in the Pacific or killed lions in Kenya. It does not matter in the least if he has read Shakespeare or educated himself in the Greek classics.

      In reality the idea that the American...

    • An Introduction to the Poetry of Allen Tate
      (pp. 278-286)

      Emerging from the exuberant literary climate of the first postwar period, Allen Tate’s poetry has had to face the dizzy changes of perspective that took place in the last three decades. These changes mirror the modern writer’s endeavor to throw light on his spiritual predicament in a world beset by the demonic dynamism of the atomic age. An unquestionable vitality marks Tate’s poetry when we set it beside so much of the derivative elegiac production that sprouted from Eliot’sWaste Landonly to wither shortly after at the first change of weather. Tate’s poetry endured—thanks to its incisive language,...

    • On Allen Tate
      (pp. 287-291)

      There is a moment in Allen Tate’s novel,The Fathers, when the narrator, Lacy Buchan, says that people living in formal societies “lacking the historical imagination, can imagine for themselves only a timeless existence: they themselves never had any origin anywhere and they can have no end, but will go on forever.” This is one of many places in the novel where the narrator’s voice, convincing in its own resonance, is joined by another voice, Mr. Tate’s, and the effect is a notable unison of feeling. The novel is not harmed; novelist and narrator are two, not one, and they...

    • Allen Tate’s Terzinas
      (pp. 291-306)

      It may well turn out that of Allen Tate’s poems those which will claim the greatest attention are those that today are the least read. These include two poems written in 1952, “The Maimed Man” and “The Swimmers,” and one poem written in 1953, “The Buried Lake.” They must be approached from several different directions: first, as logical developments in Tate’s poetry as poetry; second, as logical developments in Tate’s thought; third, as a logical break on Tate’s part with certain aspects of T. S. Eliot’s poetry.

      The suggestion behind the phrase “logical developments in Tate’s poetry as poetry” is...

  8. The Works of Allen Tate
    (pp. 309-334)
  9. Works about Allen Tate
    (pp. 335-344)
  10. Index
    (pp. 347-355)