It may be justly said that the past, if it is to live, must live in us; the corollary is that if it does not, then we perforce participate, to one degree or another, in a kind of living death. This is the heart of Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”

Then Lytle asked: Who are the dead?
 Who are the living and the dead?
—Allen Tate, “The Oath”

Over the decades since its first publication in 1927, Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” has probably received more critical and popular attention than any of his other poems.[1] Tate himself alludes to some of it in his commentary on the work in “Narcissus as Narcissus.”[2] One critical approach, which Tate calls the “genetic,” asks where the poem comes from. Similarly, a curious type of psychological approach sees the poet as compensating somehow in his poetry for his less-than-adequate life. One such interpretation argues that Tate saw himself as a Confederate general but, lacking the means to be one, sought to “invent fictions about the personal ambitions that my society has no use for” (“Narcissus,” EFD, 594). On a more sober plain, there are critiques that treat various aspects of his poetry, such as its classical allusions—which are vital to this “Ode”—Tate’s sense of irony, his imagery, historicism, and so on.

What I propose here, however, is a somewhat different approach, which may help in opening up what is admittedly a difficult work. (Success in that effort is, of course, a matter for the reader to discern.) In brief I want to look at the poem with reference to the various persons who are either named in the poem or whose presence is implied. First there’s the man at the gate whose meditations we follow from beginning to end; then there is the poet, who while virtually an alter ego of the man at the gate, is distinct from him if for no other reason than the fact that he is the maker of the poem and not in fact the man. Referenced in passing are two ancient philosophers, Zeno and Parmenides, who have an intriguing bearing on the poem. Not least, of course, are the Confederate dead themselves, considered in at least two different ways. First they are evoked as preparing to go into battle, many of whom did not come out alive. Some of them are also recalled as veterans, survivors long after the War.

Also owning a presence in the poem, if only by implication, are the Union Dead. The student of that War, whether he or she calls it the Civil War, the War Between the States, the War for Southern Independence, or the War of the Great Rebellion, will have noted the particular names of the battles referred to in the poem, some Confederate, some Federal. We will sort those out as we go, but my point here is simply this: You cannot have a war, whatever you call it, with only one side. (With regard to the other side, one might compare Tate’s “Ode” with “For the Union Dead,” by Robert Lowell, who as an apprentice poet of 20 in the spring of 1937 camped briefly in a Sears pup tent on the Tate’s lawn at Benfolly, in Clarksburg, Tennessee.[3])

Finally, another presence in the poem—although not literally in the poem—is that of the reader. There are of course many readers and many different types of readers, ranging from the casual to the serious. Among the latter, perhaps, are those who follow the Abbeville Institute website, as does the author. (In the interest of further disclosure, I should say also that my maternal grandfather was a Confederate private who survived the Late Unpleasantness—yet another naming—and then resumed his life as a farmer with his few acres, married a second and much younger wife [my grandmother] following the death of his first, taking time out to serve alternately as county sheriff and commissioner in central Alabama.)

My key point here is that while many of the images that appear in the poem are drawn from nature, the main images are in fact the people who are referenced directly or indirectly. The natural images, both animate and inanimate—among which are a hound, a crab, the serpent, the jaguar, leaves, a pool, wind, willows—also contribute powerfully to this great poem. The scope of this essay, however, does not allow our dealing with them in detail.

We turn first of all to the man at the gate whom we overhear, as it were, reflecting on his experience while visiting a Confederate cemetery. In a sense, this man could be any number of persons who visit such cemeteries, the reader and this author among them. It could be any number of cemeteries. But it may be useful to know that the particular cemetery about which Tate wrote the “Ode” is the McGavock cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee. This attribution is attested to by William Pratt, an emeritus English professor at Miami University in Ohio. Pratt in a 2007 interview with the Williamson [County] Herald credits the information to Robert Hicks, the co-chair of Franklin Charge, a local omnibus preservation group. Hicks got it straight from Tate.[4] This is not, however, a definitive fact about the poem, I would suggest. By that I do not mean to dismiss the importance of its immediate biographical and geographical origin—as Tate might have us do—but only to suggest that, while the poem is indeed rooted in particulars of time and space, it achieves a universality beyond them. It is also fascinating that Tate in his commentary on the poem, to which we will return, avers, “I do not know its obscure origins.” Having followed his work for some fifty years, I have a hunch that Tate, even if we acknowledge that the creative process is somewhat mysterious, is not above a bit of sleight-of-hand or speaking with tongue in cheek.

In any event, the man at the gate is faced with what might seem to be an overwhelming problem: how to recover the past, and how to make sense of it, in the face of so much death and the pervasive sense of mortality represented by “splayed leaves,” the November season imaging forth the dying of the year before his very eyes, “the headstones yielding their names to the elements,” and not least the unseen bodies feeding the grass “row after rich row.” (The Battle of Franklin, by the way, was fought on November 30, 1864 and was a devastating Confederate defeat.) And that, the sense of mortality, of course, is one term or side of the conflict waged in the speaker’s mind and imagination throughout the poem. The other term is the heroism in the grand style as represented by the Confederate dead themselves. Tate speaks to this issue in “Narcissus as Narcissus,” where he notes that “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” (EFD, 599). The speaker cannot escape, as he reminds himself repeatedly, “his subjective prison, his solipsism.” In one of the most powerful of the non-human images, the man’s condition at the gate is symbolized by the jaguar leaping into the pool, “his [own] victim.” The image is a transformation of the classical myth of Narcissus in which the self-enamored youth is here morphed into a vicious, deadly predator. (Tate thus shows, as Lillian Feder observes, just what lies beneath the surface of the Narcissus myth.[5]) But here in fact the man cannot act at all. He is worse off than a Hamlet who at least knows what he needs to do but lacks in the moment the will, if not the means, to do it. For the man at the gate, there is essentially nothing he can do. The grand heroism of the past is not available to him in his world, and he cannot even at this moment evoke it in a sustained, meaningful manner toward the end of possibly inspiring not only himself but, more, his children and theirs toward at least a moral heroism in the real world.

I earlier pointed to a distinction between the man at the gate and the poet himself. For some, it may seem a distinction without a difference; for arguably the man at the gate reflects Tate’s own internal struggle. As regards the conflict engaged here, another parallel way to state it is that between a living, heroic myth (as represented by the committed action of the Confederate dead) and “speculation”—that is, philosophical reflection, intellectual analysis—as represented by the speaker, whose role and voice are controlled, we may say, by the poet himself. It is indeed a conflict pervasive in Tate’s work.

I hasten to add that by myth I do not mean mere fiction or legend. It is, rather, that by which man lives and dies. It is, as Richard Weaver observes in his chapter on “The Testimony of the Soldier,” in The Southern Tradition at Bay, “a projection of ideals, sentiments, and loyalties, which constitute the world of truth—not the world of nature.”[6] Myth here is a narrative that conveys a knowledge that cannot be conveyed as powerfully by rational, expository discourse. In fact pure rationality or intellection tends to destroy it. The “mute speculation” of the last section may suggest as much: “And in between the ends of distraction / Waits mute speculation, the patient curse / That stones the eyes….” Myth is, finally, that vehicle of “knowledge / Carried to the heart” through which one sees how the truth of things stands.

Tate has asserted in “Narcissus” that poetry is “a way of knowing something” (EFD, 595). An obvious question for us as regards the “Ode” is just what in fact is known through it. I will suggest as one possibility that Tate the poet wanted, like the man at the gate, to commemorate and celebrate the valor of those who fought for the Confederate cause—however exactly one defines it—but that he came to the point in the poem where the graveyard setting, the time of year, along with the various accumulated images drawn from nature—leaves, wind, willows, hemlocks, the owl, serpent, and so on—led him toward a conclusion fraught with irony approaching despair. Thus, he is effectively forestalled from such a celebratory ending. Clearly his empathy is with the Confederate dead, but as a poet, he has to be true to his material as he sees it. We may wish it otherwise, as did his friend and fellow poet Donald Davidson. An exchange of letters between them pointedly shows what divides them as both poets and interpreters of historical experience, especially that of this War. On reading an early version of the poem Davidson writes to Tate in early 1927:

Your Elegy is not for the Confederate dead, but for your own dead emotion, or mine (you think)… The poem is beautifully executed… But its beauty is a cold beauty. And where, O Allen Tate, are the dead? You have buried them completely out of sight—with them yourself and me. God help us, I must say… What is going to happen if the only poetry you can allow your conscience to approve is a poetry of argument and despair. Fine as such poetry may be, is it not a Pyrric victory?”[7]

For Tate’s part, he saw the “Ode” not as either argument or an utterance of despair but as the dramatization of the cut-off-ness, the solipsism of modern man, if not necessarily his own. (Is this perhaps a distinction without a significant difference?) He replies to Davidson’s critique on February 20:

If I have a living emotion about a dead one (assuming it for the moment to be dead), isn’t that enough for a poem? It has been enough for many poems… I said all I had to say; you can take me to task in a moral sense for not having more to say; but not for refusing to exceed my material. That was my quarrel with your new poems: you exceeded your material (LCDDAT, 189).

Indeed, Tate does not exceed his material—that is, he does not fall into sentimentality or false emotion—but the question remains, what kind of poem, and what knowledge, are we left with? Clearly it is not the kind of poetry that would satisfy Davidson. We have only to compare the ending of his “Lee in the Mountains” to appreciate the sharp difference between both the style and the historical understanding which in fact helped produce it:

And in His might He waits,
Brooding within the certitude of time,
To bring the lost forsaken valor
And the fierce faith undying
And the love quenchless
To flower among the hills to which we cleave…
Never forsaking, never denying
His children and His children’s children forever
Unto all generations of the faithful heart.[8]

The distance between this vibrant affirmation in the face of great loss and devastation here and the passive acknowledgement of failure by Tate’s man at the gate to call back the dead warriors even for a few seconds is dramatic and clear. Tom Landess in an essay on Tate notes that the issue between them “was essentially an aesthetic rather than an historical argument”; personally I think it is both.[9] One’s historical understanding inevitably shapes the type of poetry one writes. Davidson for his part risks sentimentality in the interest of honoring his subject, and that in part results from his particular view of Lee and the great cause. (More than three decades later, all quarrels having ceased, though, Tate refers to “Lee in the Mountains” then as “a great elegiac monologue.”[10]) Tate, on the other hand, attempts in his poem “to see the present from the past, yet remain in the present and committed to it” (LCDDAT, 189). And in doing so, Tate writes realistically and honestly, as Cleanth Brooks notes, but it is with a sense of tragic irony as well, one which accepts the speaker’s failure, which, even before the poem’s end, may seem a foregone conclusion.[11] We might in this instance observe with Richard Weaver and relative to Tate that “Southern literature became mature when it first became capable of irony, for the road to maturity lies through the ironic understanding of life” (STAB, 341). Even so, we still may fairly ask: what is lost and what is gained in that development as far as Tate’s poetry is concerned?

Another question remains as well: does Tate’s poem succeed on its own terms? My view is that it does, which is also that of Davidson, even if we are left somewhat unsatisfied with it for reasons given. That is, if we empathize with the man at the gate, we realize that we, too, might well have the same experience as he does while hoping for something more. That in fact is the experience the poem gives us with great poignancy. Having said as much, if we are less than satisfied with it, are we as readers then justified in effecting for ourselves, in an extra-literary effort, what the poem did not do? The issue lies, I contend, in what the poem itself calls “knowledge carried to the heart.” Still once more I rely on what Richard Weaver observes in a reminiscence of his Uncle Doug given at a Weaver family reunion:

Apart from the specific religious teachings on the subject, I think the members of this family would agree with Edmund Burke that society is a mysterious incorporation, which includes the past, the present, and the future generation in one whole. Recollections of the example of those who have departed this life influence our daily action just as certainly as do our present concerns and our speculations about the future. Only a fool tells himself that the past is dead.”[12]

What knowledge each of us has of our ancestors will depend in part on the particular persons and families who look back to them for example and guidance and especially on the fund of memory handed down by word of mouth and by written record. Whatever such concrete knowledge is available, along with the larger historical record, may then be joined—if one is ready and so disposed—to the seeker’s own heart. Then, the past may live again and inform and form us in the present and into the future. In my conclusion I will return to this theme.

I noted earlier Tate’s allusion to the two philosophers, Zeno and Parmenides. If we draw on Lillian Feder’s insightful commentary on Tate’s use of classical references, the meaning of their presence may be stated simply and concisely. Zeno and his disciple Parmenides, she writes, “were the first [philosophers] to separate existence into being and becoming” (Feder, 182, emphasis added). Being is unchanging; becoming is the subjective world of change. This latter mode of existence is subject to illusion, in part because it depends on one’s sensory experience alone. It is also subject to the trap of solipsism or purely subjective, isolated experience, like that of the man at the gate. By contrast, heroic, valorous action—that of the Confederate dead—depends on a solid, fixed world of being. It does not—cannot—take place within the confines of private intellect. Finally, while these two gentlemen are in a sense contrasted with the soldiers—men of action—“muted Zeno” exhibited a bit of heroism himself. When captured by a tyrant, the story goes, he bit off his tongue to avoid giving up sensitive information to the enemy.

As for the Confederate dead themselves, we see them only vaguely, fleetingly through the imagination and meditation of the speaker—who alternately addresses both them and us—so that it is not clear at every point who is being referenced: “You know who have waited by the wall”; “You who have waited for the angry resolution”; and “You know the unimportant shrift of death.” At one point, however, it is clear that the speaker is addressing us, those who like him might have had a similar experience: “Turn your eyes to the immoderate past, / Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising / Demons out of the earth—they will not last.” Here we come to what is for me the heart of the poem, for it is as close as both speaker and poet come to evoking most powerfully the image of what must be an all-out infantry charge. But here, also, we can hardly miss the double meaning of “they will not last”: first, they will not all survive the assault in which they are engaged, and second this recollection of them will not survive more than a few fleeting moments in the speaker’s imagination. But even so, he goes on to name where they did the deed.

The references to Stonewall—certainly a name to conjure with—and the four (or five) battles yield limited concrete information, but the names themselves create evocative, emotionally stirring images that resonate no matter on which side of the conflict one stands. In the litany of battles we have two Confederate victories (the two Bull Runs) and three Federal. Excepting Malvern Hill, the final one of the Seven Days Battles, only one of the names is Confederate, that of Shiloh, a Biblical name meaning “place of peace.” So here, if nowhere else, the Union side of the conflict is given something of its due by the simple device of nomenclature. Tate as poet, and not as partisan, chooses those names that carry the most connotative power relative to both sense and sound generally and that serve his ironic, tragic vision in particular. Try to imagine the Union “Pittsburg Landing” in place of “Shiloh” with its bitter irony; or substitute “Manassas”—a rail station derived from a modified surname—for “Bull Run,” the earthy name of a river; or Sharpsburg, a town, in place of Antietam, another creek. I submit that they just don’t work as well.

The Confederate dead are also recalled to us in another more peaceful guise beginning in the last third of the poem: “What shall we who count our days and bow / Our heads with a commemorial woe / In the ribboned coats of grim felicity….” These are the surviving veterans, now aged and present in dress uniform at those countless reunions that took place in the decades after the War. (Tate in another poem of the same period, “To the Lacedemonians,” has one of them try to make sense of the great conflict at just such an event [CP, 85-88].) But how quickly the mind of the speaker turns again to the persistent, inescapable “rumor of mortality” that lurks always in his consciousness: “The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes / Lost in these acres of the insane green?” Compare these lines to the late words of Robert E. Lee spoken about these same men: “The graves of the Confederate dead will always be green in my memory, and their deeds be hallowed in my recollection….”[13] And once again it is not difficult to measure the distance between the locution of Lee and that of our modern man at the gate.

While the speaker in the poem hardly acknowledges a listener or reader, one is certainly implied. Tate, in “A Southern Mode of the Imagination,” writes that “The traditional Southern mode of discourse presupposes somebody at the other end silently listening: it is the rhetorical mode.” That is the mode of the speaker in “To the Lacedemonians,” and in a modified sense, it is the mode of this poem. Who is at the “other end”—here as readers—is an open question, as is what they hear and how they interpret it. But the fact remains, this poem, no poem can really exist without an audience.

Of those to whom he speaks, they are many by this time, and they are varied. I can imagine some of them in a college classroom, for example, frustrated or perhaps just bored to tears. I can see others in a graduate level seminar discussing certain salient features of the poem. I see other poets reading Tate’s works, studying his craft; and scholars parsing it for publication in a scholarly journal; anthologists deciding to include it or not in a new collection.

But above all, I see those who are serious, amateur historians of the War who visit battlefields, perhaps some of those named in the poem; or those who attend memorial and educational gatherings focused on the War, such as those sponsored by the Franklin Charge, at one of which, in 2007, at McGavock Cemetery, this poem was read before the group. It was an audience that consisted in part of men and women who have relatives and ancestors buried there.

The “Ode” is a difficult piece of writing in several ways. But some of the power of the poem resides in the concentration and multiplication of various seemingly disconnected images and historical allusions. For such readers as I have referred to, one thing to keep foremost in mind is that a “difficult” poem is an object—like a fine painting—to be lived with over a considerable period of time. It is only after prolonged acquaintance that it begins to yield up its life, that is, its meaning. And that meaning will vary to some degree for each person, and it will vary perhaps for each person each time he or she reads it. My particular aim here has been to illuminate the human images which are a vital part of the work.

Tate in a late essay, “A Lost Traveller’s Dream” (1972), wrote: “To bring the past up to an intelligible pattern is a labor of the imagination. But the imagination must take what is precariously, or even delusively, offered it….”[14] He adds later in the essay: Memory “has its own life and purposes; it gives what it wills” (Tate, “Lost,” 12). While he was not referring to the “Ode” on this occasion, the words nevertheless are apt. This poem is certainly a labor of the imagination, and we may fairly ask ourselves whether the imagination of the man at the gate (or even that of Tate himself) was “delusive.” Also, did memory here give only what it willed? Could one or the other person—the speaker, Tate—have provided us with a different outcome? The question has of course no easy answer. But I would insist in any event that the act of reading is also an act of the imagination to which the reader must give him or herself wholly with both heart and mind in order to receive that “knowledge carried to the heart” of which this poem speaks. And this is so even while it may be said to fall short of a sustained recollection of those actions of the “immoderate past” which many admire for various reasons.

What I have attempted here is one way to get into this poem, by looking at it in relation to the people who are either in it or whose presence is implied. Considered in the round, the reader is necessarily as much a part of the poem as the Confederate dead. For it is only through you now—the poet has done his work—that they can in any sense be called back, evoked, summoned to the present through the imagination of the faithful reader committed to honoring the honorable things for which they died.

It may be justly said that the past, if it is to live, must live in us; the corollary is that if it does not, then we perforce participate, to one degree or another, in a kind of living death.

Who are the living and the dead?

Republished with gracious permission from Abbeville Institute (July 2019).

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[1] Allen Tate, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” Collected Poems: 1919-1976 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1977), 2023. Subsequent references to this volume are made with the abbreviation CP.

[2] Allen Tate, “Narcissus as Narcissus,” Essays of Four Decades (Delaware: ISI Books, 1999), 599. Cited subsequently in text as EFD.

[3] Robert Buffington. “The Tates, Ford, and The House of Fiction,” Sewanee Review, 116 (2008): 79-80.

[4] Mindy Tate, “Professor Cites McGavock Cemetery’s Role in Famous Ode to the Confederate Dead,” Williamson [County] Herald (Franklin, Tennessee), October 17, 2007. William Pratt is professor emeritus of English at Miami University (Ohio). He edited the collection The Fugitive Poets, which is referenced in note 8 below. As far as is known, the reporter is no relation to the poet.

[5] Lillian Feder, “Allen Tate’s Use of Classical Literature,” in Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations, ed. Radcliffe Squires (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1972), 183.

[6] Richard Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1968), 229.

[7] Davidson to Tate, on February 15, 1927, in The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1974), 186-87. Subsequently referred to as LCDDAT.

[8] Donald Davidson, “Lee in the Mountains,” in The Fugitive Poets, ed. William Pratt (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1965), 78.

[9] Tom Landess, “Allen Tate,” Life, Literature, and Lincoln: A Tom Landess Reader (Rockford, IL: Chronicles Press, 2015), 170.

[10] Allen Tate, “The Gaze Past, the Glance Present: Forty Years After The Fugitive,” Memoirs and Opinions: 1926-1974 (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), 35. Subsequently cited in text parenthetically.

[11] Cleanth Brooks, “Allen Tate’s Poetry,” in Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations, ed. Radcliffe Squires (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1972), 157.

[12] Richard Weaver, “The Pattern of a Life in In Defense of Tradition,” ed. Ted J. Smith III (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), 16.

[13] Quoted by Rod Gragg, in “The Quotable Robert E. Lee,” in So Good a Cause: A Decade of Southern Partisan, ed. Oran P. Smith (Columbia, SC: The Foundation for American Education, 1993), 121.

[14] Allen Tate, “A Lost Traveller’s Dream,” Memoirs and Opinions: 1926-1974 (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), 4.

Editor’s note: The featured image is “Mount Olivet Cemetery Confederate B&W” by Mr.TinDC is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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