Allen Tate: An Introduction.

The Poems

Allen Tate (1899-1979) was among the group of "12 Southerners" who in 1930 published I'll Take My Stand, the collection of essays which served as a statement of Southern Agrarian principles in opposition to the advancement of technological modernity and the cultural and political forces bound up with it. Tate the poet is associated with the “Fugitive Poets”, chief among them John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, whose aesthetic grew out of Southern Agrarianism and into the New Criticism. The principles that Tate’s poetry draws from this background include a strict attention to form and a commitment to the cultural traditions of the West as a source for allusion and symbolic meaning.

During the 1930s, Tate was, among the major Fugitives, the most prolific in the production of new verse. The poems in Tate’s 1936 collection, The Mediterranean and Other Poems reflect the poet's dissatisfaction with the times. In these poems, Tate employs what Cleanth Brooks calls “a structure of violent synthesis” arising from a sense of the conflict between opposed perceptions of history; those being a scientific, naturalistic sensibility tending toward an abstraction of reality into a causal chain, a mass of “fixed general doctrines without subject matter”, on the one hand, and a humanistic, religious sense of history as a concrete and specific “place” with unique “moral problems” and choices on the other (Brooks 151-152).

It is with the latter perspective that Tate is sympathetic, but the dominant trend of his own time was toward the former concept, the formulation of history as a sequence of causal events, devoid of local meaning and thus devoid of the possibility for human choice. Tate works to explore the possibility of deriving historical meaning in the latter sense in the midst of a world focused on the former (Brooks 153).

The conceit of the interaction of Trojan and American histories in the poems in The Mediterranean, particularly the title poem and “Aeneas in Washington” and “Aeneas in New York,” allows Tate to express this combination of “both the ‘relatedness’ and the tragic separation” between unique temporal “places” (Feder 172).

Says Aeneas at the Capitol Dome in Washington:

I see all things apart, the towers that men
Contrive I too contrived long, long ago.
Now I demand little.
We cannot but think of Yeats’s towers, deterministic gyres of history, but Tate’s Aeneas, now positioned doubly apart, having lost both Troy and his own time, sees “all things apart.” The moments and times have their own inviolable meaning and existence and will not be forced into easy explication. Thus, Aeneas, though the Dome recalls his own, now “buried,” Troy, cannot say “what we had built her for.

History, for Aeneas recalling his lost civilization as much as for Tate overseeing the slow collapse of his own, comprises an uncertain present rather than a relentless progressive march.

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