The Tate of Our Souls: The Lost Cause of the Southern Agrarians

Allen Tate


Essay by James McWilliams

Few readers, even the well-read, know much about Allen Tate. Those who do know the arcane American poet—usually professors who teach “southern literature”—would likely not label him a humanitarian. Cerebral, distant, combative, self-obsessed—yes—but not a social reformer in any sense of the term.

Click here to purchase

And yet (a million caveats notwithstanding) there is something morally ambitious about Allen Tate. For a man whose defining question was “Whom and what shall our souls believe?,” this ambition seems a reasonable premise from which to start exploring this underappreciated man of letters.

A careful reading of Tate’s poetry, essays, and letters—comprising nearly a half-century of output—reveals an ongoing humanizing preoccupation: Tate and his fellow travelers—known in the 1920s as the Fugitives and, later, the Agrarians—wanted his readers, particularly those in the South, to feel spiritually at ease in their southern-ness. He wanted them, as complete selves, to be meaningfully connected—weft in the warp—to the American South.

For this to happen, the southerner had to undergo a critical conversion, one that he deemed “violent.” The southerner, in essence, had to acknowledge his dissociation from the modernist present while understanding himself and his civilization as continuous with a stable, heroic, and mythical past. The empirical nuts and bolts of history were not so much to be ignored as transcended. Contemporary civilization, in turn, would naturally hew to this intellectual shift.  Eventually, a southern city on a hill would emerge.

This utopian vision of the South, while generous, was elusive. It was made even more so by the belief that the work of poetry could bring it to fruition. And, of course, poetry decidedly failed to bring it to fruition. Tate’s quest for a southern renascence suffered, in the end, from a tragic flaw that became increasingly evident as the empirical history of the twentieth century turned the nation’s focus—and in turn the South’s—to the century-long quest for a racial reckoning.

Click here to purchase

Click here to purchase

As a vocal member of the self-styled Agrarians, and as author of the regional manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930), Tate developed his ideas without frankly acknowledging the South’s endemic legacy of racial strife. Rather than confront slavery for what it was—a defining stain on the southern psyche—he shrouded the issue in genteel appeals to classical objectivity. Rather than confront the documented reality that explained, say, the rise of Jim Crow, he turned to the Odyssey. Real history, and with it Tate’s generosity, swamped the noble dream he pursued for the southern identity.


Born in Kentucky, Tate was raised by a doting mother and the classics. The education stuck. Worlds and narratives assumed forms comfortably ancient, providing a framework beyond which he never ventured. This grounding, nurtured in high school and college, predisposed Tate to embrace a set of values defiantly conservative in nature. From a young age he was, among other qualities, suspicious of enlightenment thought, disdainful of scientific positivism, fond of medieval philosophy, and, eventually, a quiet convert to Catholicism.

Through these qualities, Tate wanted his poetry to teach southerners to be at home in the skin of regional existence (as a pretext for being guardians of Western culture). It was an ambition nicely captured by John V. Glass’s astute Allen Tate: The Modern Mind and the Discovery of Enduring Love (2016). As Glass shows, Tate’s quest was for a richly cultivated interior life spiritually connected to the deepest currents of classical thought.

James McWilliams

Becoming a whole person capable of pursuing a meaningful existence, as Tate envisioned it, meant undergoing a series of critical personal transformations. The overall process—acknowledging our modernist alienation, understanding our moral dissolution, and envisioning a future rooted in humility and faith – is outlined systematically in Allen Tate: Collected Poems: 1919-1976 (2007) while also elucidated by Glass’s rigorous interpretations of Tate’s poems. The two volumes are profitably—and for the initiate, necessarily—read together.

Tate believed in the potential of a uniquely southern aesthetic because he knew the South was uniquely fallen. Unfortunately, the fallen nature of the South that Tate envisioned, the one from which we might imagine a rare kind of saving redemption, derived more from the seminar room than the soil. Tate’s brand of the blues, as it were, did not necessarily ignore the oppression and injustice endemic to slavery’s legacy, but it ultimately sang octaves above the suffering that, rightly or not, we ask art to help reconcile. It was, in this sense, a sad and prolonged poetic note.

Click here to purchase

But one well worth listening to.


In 1925, in his mid-twenties, Tate launched his career with a poem that acknowledged the unlikely ambition of his enterprise while, at the same time, outlining the specific challenges facing the modern poet. Entitled “Mr. Pope,” it began:

When Alexander Pope strolled in the city
Strict was the glint of pearl and gold sedans
Ladies leaned out more out of fear than pity
For Pope’s tight back was rather a goat’s than a man’s

The poem is not about Alexander Pope. But it uses Pope (a Catholic) to represent the potential of poetic authority to transform a culture of alienation. Pope strolls, comfortably cocooned, maybe a bit arrogantly so, in the cloak of wisdom. But, impenetrable and elusive, he is poorly, or improperly, received by those who need him the most. The ladies riding behind, ensconced in sedans that, in their glitz, distract from the poet, seize singularly on Pope’s physical deformity (he was a hunchback). They recoil in fear rather than seek his sagacity. The vacancy of the experience for these observers becomes evident in the poem’s next stanza:

Often one thinks the urn should have more bones
Than skeletons provide for speedy dust,
The urn gets hollow, cobwebs brittle as stones
Weave to the funeral shell a frivolous rust.

Click here to purchase

From the audience’s perspective, the poet’s message, much less the poet, isn’t substantial enough to fill the rusty urn with sufficient charnal evidence to convince anyone of anything. Through a different metaphor, the connective memories and ideas required to “weave” the past to the present are undermined by stones rather than capacious and tensile webs. It’s a bleak situation that the ladies’ reaction highlights. But Tate naturally stands by the poet. He knows that what “often one thinks” can be a bunch of modernist nonsense. A rare resort to the second person suggests as much:

And he who dribbled couplets like a snake
Coiled to a lithe precision in the sun
Is missing. The jar is empty; you may break
It only to find that Mr. Pope is gone.

Tate is basically saying go ahead and waste your time upturning the urn, but, regrettably, our moment has passed. The seer has moved on. What did you, me, southerners, miss as our attention shifted among gold and pearl glints, the poet’s goat-like posture, and a rust-rimmed urn? We missed the muse who dribbled out truth, situated it under the sun, and arranged it as elementally and precisely as a snake’s confident coil, prepared to strike. We missed, in short, the chance to embed the modernist present in the classical past. The poem concludes:

What requisitions of a verity
Prompted the wit and rage between his teeth
One cannot say. Around a crooked tree
A moral climbs whose name should be a wreath.

Click here to purchase

Who knows, in other words, what the hunchbacked Mr. Pope would have said, but the moral outcome would surely have been worthy of coronation. If only had we not been lost in the cheap and easy observations of the present moment, dissociated from the inner spirit of historical existence.


If “Mr. Pope” acknowledged the poet’s unique access to a usable historical sensibility, Tate’s related concern was with the inner nature of that sensibility. He understood the subjective empiricism of history (he wrote biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis) and knew it had easier appeal than the objectified “truths” of classical western antiquity (a more malleable concept). Hearing and interpreting a series of hard facts is, by most standards, more accessible than philosophizing ourselves toward a more intangible and mythic past informed by values before events.

Tate’s most famous poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (1927, 1937), plumbs this distinction. Specifically, it pleads—through the conceit of a person leaning on the “shut gate and decomposing wall” of a Confederate graveyard—that the southern mind not look the other way as it did when Mr. Pope passed through town. But, more so, it warns against chasing down a history that’s too literal, a too politicized version of the past that will leave the southerner “Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.” Stymied.

Click here to purchase

Central to Tate’s vision of the past is the idea that a relevant past is not to be engraved in cold boneyard “slabs.” Instead, it becomes what our spiritual imagination requires it to be. Describing the images adorning confederate gravestones as “angels that rot,” Tate writes,

On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there:
The brute curiosity of an angel’s stare,
Turns you, like them, to stone

The seeker of a tangible history of the South is, therefore, eventually left “turning like the blind crab.” Tate understands that the quest for historical affirmation is typically pursued for the purposes of linking ourselves to concrete historical figures and events (“the thick-and-fast”). The poem notes as much, before spelling out the turbulent Lear-like consequences.

Turn your eyes to the immoderate past
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth—they will not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of hemp,
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run.
Lost in that orient of the thick-and-fast
You will curse the setting sun.

Cursing only the leaves crying
Like an old man in a storm

Recovery of the mythic past eventually arrives through the imagery of spiders and snakes—the neglected animalia from “Mr. Pope.” “Ode” asks, “What shall we say of the bones, unclean/Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?” What are we to make of “The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes / Lost in these acres of the insane green?” The response:

The gray lean spiders come, they come and go
In a tangle of willows without light
The singular screech-owl’s tight
Invisible lyric seeds the mind
With the furious murmur of their chivalry.

Gray (or, confederate grey?) spiders come and go, not speaking of Michelangelo (Eliot is all over this poem), but weaving a tangle of willow-ish webs in the dark. Meanwhile the owl’s screech seeds minds with the furious murmurs of thoughts and images grounded not in the bloody chess moves of the Civil War but the rules, customs, and gallantry of an age distant enough to become heroic myth. And with that move, a personalized knowledge forged in the heart is finally brought home.

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?

With that transition, there is, alas, no longer a need to lurk on the periphery of the confederate graveyard. The hiss of history (the serpent returns) drowns out the hard facts, swathing us in its myth.

                                                              Leave now
The shut gate and the decomposing wall:
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush—
Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!


If “Mr. Pope” asks us to trust the poet, and if “Ode” asks us to mythologize the past, Tate’s poem “The Swimmers” (1953) shows, in the context of actual historical violence, the numbing result such a combination has on the southern mindset.

Click here to purchase

The poem opens with five boys (one named Tate) heading off to a swimming hole in “Montgomery County, Kentucky in July 1911.” A “moon and magnolia” tone is initially evoked: “Kentucky water, clear springs: a boy fleeing / To water under the dry Kentucky sun, / His four little friends in tandem with him . . .”

But Tate’s familiar resort to ancient iconography soon takes over, with references to “The shrill companions of that odyssey” and mullein “Soft as Nausicaa’s palm.” Like Odysseus, moreover, the speaker will soon be alone. While the boys persist in “following the active shade,” however, a more immediate history interrupts the idyll. It arrives in the form of a grotesque but altogether common form of southern racial violence. The narrator explains,

Peering, I heard the hooves come down the hill

The posse passed, twelve horse; the leader’s face
Was worn as limestone on an ancient sill

The pounding hooves “seemed at first a song” and, initially, by way of a response, “all five stood still.” As John Glass interprets the scene, “[The boys] do not wake to experience; on the contrary, the description marks the beginning of their dissociation as they lose their sense of the world’s immediacy and their connection to it.” Indeed, in the next stanza, when the boys hide from the scene (“Descend a ladder into empty space”), they do so “as sleepwalkers,” evading what proves to be a lynch mob. The boys, dazed into dissociation, finally reach the water, where the narrator, who never actually gets wet, recalls experiencing a kind of macabre baptism:

The bank then leveling in a speckled glade,

We stopped to breathe above the swimming hole;
I gazed at its reticulated shade.

Recoiling in blue fear, and felt it roll

Over my ears and eyes and lift my hair
Like seaweed tossing on a sunk atoll.

I rose again . . .

With this scene (replete with more snake imagery), the older narrator seems to ask the younger version of himself an essential question: baptism into what? The young narrator, at this point alone, now encounters a “melancholy sheriff” picking his teeth and shaking his head over the incident.

“We come too late.” He spoke to the tired dead

Whose ragged shirt soaked up the viscous flow
Of blood in which it lay discomfited.

And then to the gruesome reality itself:

        A single horseman came at a slow lope

And pulled up at the hanged man’s horny feet;

The sheriff noosed the feet, the other end
The stranger tied to his pommel in a neat

Slip knot. I saw the negro’s body bend

And straighten, as a fish-line cast transverse
Yields to the current that it must subtend.

The sheriff’s Goddam was a murmured curse

Not for the dead but for the blinding dust
That boxed the cortege in a cloudy hearse

And dragged it towards our town. . .

It is difficult at this point in Tate’s poem—a moment of necessary confrontation with the legacy of a lynching—not to evoke the contemporary poet Kevin Young, whose book of poems For the Confederate Dead (2007), includes questions that permit of no myth. Such as this one (from “Americana”):

America, won’t you take

your hands of hurt away?
lock them drawer-deep
like the good
silver of grandmothers?

Followed with this comment:

America I have seen

men whose faces are flags
bloodied and blue with talk

seen the churches keep

like crosses burning

seen the lady who lines

your huddled shore, her hand
her back turned away.

It is hard not to evoke these poems because, in their direct confrontation of race, they thrust to the fore the very questions of justice that the best of the twentieth-century’s angels forced to the center of American political, social, and cultural life. “The Swimmers” was published one year after Ellison’s Invisible Man and one year before Brown v. Board of Education. So when Tate ends The Swimmers with the following reaction by his now alienated narrator—

        The faceless head lay still. I could not run

Or walk, but stood. Alone in the public clearing

This private thing was owned by the town,
Though never claimed by us within my hearing

—it seems we have a right to expect a more visceral reckoning. The fact that the mob leader’s face “Was worn as limestone on an ancient sill” does not exonerate the poet, much less the South, to similarly harden the heart in a forge of classical antiquity.


Click here to purchase

The poetic arc that Tate sketched across fifty years of brilliantly learned poetry comprises a generous attempt to link the southern identity to a noble past.  And indeed, for those of us who believe in a unique southern idiom, it’s tempting to connect the conservatism inherent in Tate’s defense of the South to the genteel philosophy of a figure such as Wendell Berry. But the problem is that, along the way, it became all too clear that Tate and his fellow Agrarians, as they promoted what’s noble in the southern legacy, never leached from that nobility the violence that has yet to be proven an anomaly to the southern condition.

In 1970, Joan Didion, who was touring the South for a possible story, paid a visit to Walker Percy in Covington, Louisiana. In the course of an alcohol infused conversation, Percy famously said: “only the South can save the North.” In context, he didn’t refer to Tate by name because he didn’t need to. Like a lot of what happens in southern literature, Tate was present but not accounted for. But it now seems a more sober assessment is needed.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: