- Speaking From the Earth:Allen Tate and the Poetry of the Confederate Dead
“At the old scenes blood speaks from the earth, in a forgotten tongue.”—Allen Tate on visiting Civil War battlefields in 1927 (Underwood 129)
Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (1926-1937), a work which has established itself as the canonical example of Southern modernist poetry, is a poem that seems to be founded on its own impossibility: the inability of the speaker, or the modern “Narcissus” as Tate called him, to mourn the soldiers of the Civil War (Essays 607). When Donald Davidson first read the poem in 1927 he protested that the Confederate dead were only “a peg” on which Tate had hung an argument about the locked-in modern sensibility (Davidson and Tate 186). In reply Tate insisted that the confinement of the visitor to the cemetery within his “solipsism” (as Tate came to call it) means that the Confederate dead are not recoverable “epistemologically” (Essays 595; Davidson and Tate 186).
Yet why has the man at the gate found himself in a Confederate cemetery at all? The first image that he confronts is that of the headstones, lined up “row after row” (Tate, Collected 20). Despite the elapse of more than half a century the speaker of the “Ode” seems to concur with what the soldier-poet Daniel B. Lucas said immediately after the surrender at Appomattox, that there is “nothing real but our dead” (“The Land” 15). For all of the more sophisticated kinship of the “Ode” with complex modernist works such as T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” (1920), it is in the first instance an idiosyncratic offshoot of the elegiac poetry of the Lost Cause. This poetry began immediately after the war with anthologies such as William Gilmore Simms’s [End Page 171] War Poetry of the South and Emily V. Mason’s The Southern Poems of the War (both 1867). Some of its main exponents were Henry Timrod, Father Abram J. Ryan, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Sidney Lanier, and Margaret Junkin Preston. Although most poems of the Lost Cause were written in the 1860s and 1870s, such poems continued to be written into the early 1900s and many were given more permanent recognition in the seventeen-volume Library of Southern Literature (Alderman et al, 1909-1923) or in textbooks such as Edwin Mims’s and Bruce R. Payne’s Southern Prose and Poetry (1910), which Tate studied as Mims’s student at Vanderbilt University in the early 1920s (Underwood 38). This public type of poetry was an integral part of the civic cult of the Lost Cause (1865-1914) and of the commemoration speeches, unveiling of statues, and creation of veterans’ or ladies’ memorial associations that made up this cult. Lines such as those from Father Ryan’s “March of the Deathless Dead” (1868) were inscribed on monuments in the same manner as Greek sepulchral epitaphs or like Timrod’s “Ode” (1866) were sung, in Pindaric fashion, at flower-laying ceremonies in cemeteries (O’Connell 85). This poetry shared with the wider Lost Cause movement the psychic labor of overcoming defeat and making it assimilable for survivors in the New South. Historians of the movement such as Charles Wilson and Gaines Foster have shown how the meaningless or irrelative core of grief so evident to defeated Southerners in 1865 was gradually fitted into a redemptive or reconciliationist narrative for the region. Through such narratives the South could rebuild itself as a patriotic and entrepreneurial entity within the Union (once Northerners after 1877 had agreed to accept the color-line). The Lost Cause movement lost momentum after the First World War when many of its objectives were achieved and this is acknowledged in such works as John Gould Fletcher’s “Gettysburg” (1920) where the speaker admits that “We are too busy with new conquests” to think of the dead more than in “fits and starts” (Foster 196; Fletcher 89).
On the face of it the dense, neo-Symboliste language of Tate’s “Ode”—just like that of his other Confederate poems “Euthanasia” (1922) and “To the Lacedemonians” (1932)—has little in common with Lost Cause poetry and...