Allen Tate displayed all the romantic qualities of a great artist: intellectual precocity, heavy drinking, prodigious libido, volatility in friendship, difficult views, and enough self-interest to bind the lot together. What he lacked was great art. Or so run current estimates of Tate’s career as a poet, critic, and man of letters, which spanned some sixty years, up to his death in 1979.
These days Tate’s name pops up occasionally in bookstores, never in cafés: he’s simply not part of the contemporary discussion. Literary history and her myrmidons, the anthologists, have hacked down his poetic ranks—often to a single poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead”—and left the rest to lie where they fell, out of print. His benchmark critical prose fares only marginally better, with Essays of Four Decades  reissued in a handsome, if little noticed, edition. Dusty buzzwords, such as “Fugitive” and “Agrarian” still cluster motelike about his name, but convey little beyond their faint suggestion of a bygone South.
Despite Tate’s bellwether editorship of The Sewanee Review, a Bollingen Prize, a National Medal for Literature, a stint as consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress (now the Poet Laureateship), and presidency of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, few of his achievements figure in standard accounts of modern poetry. (Tate also donned numerous professional hats, including biographer, professor, polemicist, playwright, novelist, and editor. A zealous entrepreneur of literature, he enjoyed putting a bit of stick about in literary circles, but his chief legacy remains as a poet and a critic of poetry.) What’s more, the failing fortunes of the New Criticism, now deemed woefully passé and stodgy, damn him by association in the eyes of those insensible to its continued importance.
Many of the so-called New Critics— Ransom, Empson, Eliot, and Winters— wrote better poems than Tate. On what, then, can his reputation as one of America’s most robust and important literary figures rest? The answer: on his influence, still a dynamic force today and a scourge to all lily-livered versifiers of mooning sentiment. For Tate, tortuous language reflected “the aesthetic consciousness, aware of its isolation” that he associated with modernity. “Frost and Stevens at the beginning, Hart Crane in the middle, and Robert Lowell towards the end of our period,” he wrote,
once more confirm the commonplace that good poets are both above and of their age. The verbal shock, the violent metaphor, as a technique of magic, forces into linguistic existence subjective meanings and insights that poets can no longer discover in the common world.
Robert Lowell recognized this volatile strain in Tate’s own poetry, noting with mimetic severity that out of his
splutter and shambling comes a killing eloquence. Perhaps this is the resonance of desperation, or rather the formal resonance of desperation. I say “formal” because no one has so given us the impression that poetry must be burly, must be courteous, must be tinkered with and recast until one’s eyes pop out of one’s head. How often something smashes through the tortured joy of composition to strike the impossible bull’s-eye! The pre-Armageddon twenties and thirties with all their peculiar fears and enthusiasms throb in Tate’s poetry; imitated ad infinitum, it has never been reproduced by another hand.
Without a proper appreciation of Tate, the full story of recent American poetry cannot be told. Such an understanding, in turn, serves to enlarge Tate’s own writing, by providing a context that focuses its enduring vitality, one that shows him as anything but stodgy when it came to his participation in the years of experimentation and invention that fostered early modernism.
Tate, born in 1899, came to modernist poetry quite young, first through the work of Arthur Symons and the French Symbolists, then through the poetry of T. S. Eliot. Absorbing these, he developed a highly distinctive language of his own, one characterized by Delmore Schwartz as a “certain unique harshness of diction and meter” that nonetheless managed to infuse much subtlety, mystery, and emotion into sometimes obscure and challenging poems. The violence of Tate’s poetic language and his refinements of modernist technique, along with his lucid and forceful criticism, left an impression on the work of his friends Lowell and Hart Crane, as well as on that of more recent poets such as Geoffrey Hill. Tate’s poems and ideas about poetry dramatically altered the sounds and textures of modern verse.
Poets have at least three lives. The first two are obvious enough—biological or biographical, and the life of their work, the corpus that outlasts the corpse. In these memoir-besotted times, the two have become entwined in a way that Tate would have particularly despised. Too often, the allure of the life commands the fortunes of the writing: nothing helps to cement a poet’s reputation more than a charged narrative. Conversely, poems receive criticism better reserved for the life.
Ezra Pound continues to suffer from this last tendency, as the recent barring of his name from the Poet’s Corner of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York suggests. The dean of the cathedral— who overturned the wishes of a selection committee including Dana Gioia, Donald Hall, Robert Pinsky, and Richard Howard —called it “a question of developing an esthetic theology.” Tate, who, with his conversion to Catholicism in 1950, could be said to have done just that, never made this mistake with regard to Pound.
One of his finest critics, Tate cogently defended Pound’s receipt of the first Bollingen Prize, given by the Library of Congress, in 1949. “The specific task of the man of letters,” Tate wrote, “is to attend to the health of society not at large but through literature—that is, he must be constantly aware of the condition of language in his age.” Taken as legislators, unacknowledged or otherwise, poets tend to spew the most astonishing hogwash. Evaluating them in this unflattering light pays short shrift to their primary work as custodians of language, a business as necessary and exacting (think of Geoffrey Hill) as that of the pundit or polemicist. Tate felt that Pound’s fascism and anti-Semitism
were chiefly an indignity perpetrated upon himself.… I take it seriously in the sense of disliking it, and I cannot “honor the man” for it, as the Fellows of the Library were charged with doing; but I cannot think that it will strengthen anti-Semitism.
Tate’s own work has suffered a decline that his biography cannot possibly revive. The narrative of Tate’s life lacks the sex appeal of the ill-fated poets of later generations. He lived a long, fairly uneventful life, avoiding the kitchen stove, dune buggy, oncoming car, and madhouse. One feels then for Thomas A. Underwood, whose first volume (of a projected two) of the poet’s first full-fledged biography, Allen Tate: Orphan of the South, confidently builds on Radcliffe Squires’s “literary biography” of 1971 (though it lacks Squires’s more supple apprehension of the poems).  Underwood has performed an invaluable service in cleanly presenting numerous new details of the life, though I suspect that future biographers will do more to bring such details into an illuminating whole with Tate’s contribution as an artist. But this may be asking too much of Underwood, whose first work is evidentiary, the judicious sifting of facts; this he does wonderfully well. This volume takes Tate through the publication of his novel, The Fathers (1938), about which Underwood writes penetratingly.
The timeframe is a merciful one, in that many of Tate’s more scabrous peccadilloes— sexual and otherwise—manifested themselves after this date. Underwood dutifully recounts Tate’s inherited racism, a Southern legacy rooted in place and time that Tate later renounced. But his life was complicated in numerous ways, including conspicuous marital infidelity. (An honest account of the second half of Tate’s life may be hard to produce, given that certain of the featured players have not yet taken their final bows.) Walter Sullivan in his Allen Tate: A Recollection scratches the surface with a ticklish anecdote. In April 1943, Sullivan visited Tate and his first wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon, at their house in Monteagle, Tennessee. Tate’s young protégé Robert Lowell and his wife Jean Stafford were living with the Tates at the time, and the novelist Peter Taylor, among others, had joined the party for Easter weekend. On Holy Saturday night, Allen and Caroline retired early, while others stayed up drinking:
Jean asked Peter if he agreed that Cal [Lowell] was the greatest poet who ever lived. When Peter said no, she threw a jar of mayonnaise in his direction. It missed Peter and broke against the wall. This sobered us up, or let us know how drunk we were, so we cleaned up the mayonnaise and went to bed. I do not know what time I went to sleep or how long I slept, but I was awakened by the sound of Allen’s making love. My room and that of a female guest who had arrived late that afternoon had once been a single, large room and the partition was thin. I heard the creak of bed springs and the sounds of passion. Allen’s voice and that of the lady were unmistakable; both came to me loudly as they moved toward the culmination.
One hopes Caroline took an enormous sleeping pill that night. Though he could be extremely generous at times, Tate proved, even for his close friends, a difficult character. And these difficulties cling to his reputation in ways unlikely to bolster it. But perhaps, in his defense of Pound, Tate discerned the very distinction between the life and the work that ought to obtain in his own case. If Tate’s actions give readers pause, much in his work may be admired without reservation.
A poet’s third life draws breath from his influence, the way in which his lines survive in the linguistic textures and allusions of others. In the timeline of literary development—Eliot’s “tradition”—Tate stepped in to take modernism’s measure, test its uses and extents, and impress his revision of it on his contemporaries and successors. But it all began with Eliot.
To my knowledge no broad survey has yet been written of the influence exerted on poets by Prufrock and Other Observations and The Waste Land when they appeared in 1917 and 1922. Certainly, the reviewers took notice. Numerous volumes devoted to chronicling Eliot’s reception have preserved their responses, both the foresighted and the quaintly myopic. Compendiums of reviews and essays, such as Michael Grant’s two-volume T. S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage and Leonard Unger’s T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique,  take stock of how writers—many of them poets as well as critics—scrambled to characterize Eliot’s poems, but they consider only glancingly the other, equally vital, ways that poets responded to them in the fashioning of their own poems.
The American South in the 1920s would seem inhospitable soil for the clutching roots of Eliot’s cosmopolitan, European poetry. To northerners, a young poet in Nashville, Tennessee, not only reading but also touting Eliot’s poetry would have seemed as likely as Confederate re-enactors reversing the outcome of the War for Southern Independence. In his essay “The Sahara of Bozart” (“beaux arts” with a twang), H. L. Mencken pronounced the South a cultural backwater, jibing that “down there a poet is now almost as rare as an oboe-player, a dry-point etcher, or a metaphysician.” Yet important poets were working in the South in the Twenties, and one of them, the college undergraduate Allen Tate, figures among Eliot’s most eloquent champions and vital poetic inheritors.
Just beginning his career, Tate relished Mencken’s dismissal, rightly feeling himself and his circle of Fugitive poets at Vanderbilt University to be the antidote to the empty versifying, redolent of wisteria, that marked Southern poetry before World War I—what Tate called “the ‘sweetness and light’ school.” The Fugitive group began as a philosophical coffee klatsch, and evolved over a number of years into a fortnightly occasion for examining each other’s poems. John Crowe Ransom was artistic leader of the group, which included Donald Davidson and, later, Robert Penn Warren, Merrill Moore, and, in absentia, Laura Riding. The only undergraduate when he joined, Tate held his own admirably, displaying both brilliance and a headstrong demeanor. (Headstrong may indeed be the mot juste for Tate, whose defining physical trait was an elephantine pate.)
In a special issue of The Sewanee Review dedicated to Tate’s work, Ransom, ten years Tate’s senior and briefly his professor at Vanderbilt, recalls that, among the Fugitives, Tate
had literary resources which were not the property of our region at that time. Whether poetry or prose, it was done in the consciousness of a body of literature which was unknown to his fellow students, and to my faculty associates and myself, unless it was by the purest hearsay. A new literature had made its brilliant beginnings, and there were advanced journals and books which were full of it if we had looked. Besides the part which was indigenous to our language, there was the literature of nineteenth-century France, which after the necessary lag was being imported in volume. Allen in his student days was reading Baudelaire and Mallarmé.
When Tate returned to Vanderbilt in 1923 (after time off due to respiratory illness), he met the new kid on campus Robert Penn Warren and invited him to join the fold. The two became roommates. The group’s Fugitive magazine, published quarterly for four years, printed some of Ransom’s finest poems as well as Tate’s Symbolist-infused juvenilia. Their short-lived journal put Vanderbilt (and themselves) on the map, winning praise from Mencken and other skeptical Yankees. While Ransom and the older Fugitives did not see eye to eye with Tate on his rage for modernism, they eventually warmed to the consistent and distinctive voice that emerged in his undergraduate poems.
In Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Blanche intones passages from The Waste Land through a megaphone to students at Christ Church. At Vanderbilt, Red (as Warren was called) likewise paid tribute to the poem’s power, doubtless for his roommate’s amusement: Tate returned one day to find their dormroom decorated with scenes from the poem. Eliot’s impact on Tate’s poetry was direct and, occasionally, insufficiently mediated. Certain journals to which Tate sent work rejected his poems for their youthful ventriloquism of the older poet. Even Tate’s Collected Poems, the verses he chose to preserve, bear the marks of Possum’s paw:
The clock has struck a dismal clack.
They tread the same well-trodden track,
A hunger flashing in the eye
Which jutting bellies would belie.
When six o’clock turns round again
And street lamps light the Dark Siren.
Compare those lines—from Tate’s “Nuptials”—with Eliot’s “Preludes”:
Or trampled by insistent feet
The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
Where Eliot rhymes irregularly, Tate employs couplets, but the lamps, the clock striking six, the dinner-hour imagery, and the treading feet remain unmistakable. Similar allusions abound in Tate, who later acknowledged the debt explicitly in his introduction to Essays of Four Decades:
What I owe to T. S. Eliot is pervasive. I think now of the relation of a young poet to certain traditions; I still believe that “novelty is better than repetition”: that novelty is not noise, or undressing on the public platform, or shouting bad metaphors from the printed page. The two first lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” were the first gun of the twentieth-century revolution: the young Tom Eliot pulled the lanyard and quietly went back to his desk in a London bank. But it was a shot heard round the world.
The decorum of “impersonality,” the use of the “objective correlative” as a means for managing emotion, a strong engagement with the “tradition”: these became touchstones for Tate’s career as a poet.
Tate imparted his passion for Eliot to his Southern circle of poets, but it was Hart Crane who had brought Eliot’s work to Tate’s attention, when both were twenty-one. As Tate recalled to Crane’s biographer John Unterecker, “It was in May, 1922. One of the first poems I had in print was in the May issue of the Double Dealer—it was called “Euthanasia”—typical youthful title. Crane wrote me a letter. . . . He said that evidently I’d been reading T. S. Eliot.” Interestingly, Tate hadn’t yet read Eliot, only the Symbolist poets that Eliot himself revered, arriving at a style that rightly suggested an affinity in Crane’s eyes. “Tate’s return note to Crane,” writes Unterecker, began a correspondence that “was for both young men satisfying and helpful. In Tate, Crane found a brilliant sympathetic writer, a man interested in the sort of technical problems he himself responded to.”
In time, their sympathies would develop limits. Crane’s relationship to Eliot was decidedly more wary than Tate’s: “I have been facing him for four years,—and while I haven’t discovered a weak spot in his armor, I flatter myself a little lately that I have discovered a safe tangent to strike which, if I can possibly explain the position, goes through him toward a different goal.” Crane rejected what he called Eliot’s “pessimism” in favor of Whitmanian breadth and generosity. Tate later associated this break with Crane’s falling-off as a poet. Sounding an ironic note, Tate believed that, in the end, “far from ‘refuting’ Eliot, [Crane’s] whole career is a vindication of Eliot’s major premise—that the integrity of the individual consciousness has broken down.”
After Vanderbilt, Tate gravitated to New York at Crane’s prompting, and was introduced to Malcolm Cowley and his circle of Secessionist poets, including E. E. Cummings. When urban life began to wear on Allen and Caroline (whom he married in 1925), they rented a house in Patterson, New York, and invited the impecunious Crane to stay. Just before arriving, Crane received a windfall of cash and once in Patterson proceeded to lord it over his hosts. He converted the Tate’s two attic rooms into a study and bedroom and fitted them out with African art, which he purchased on a shopping spree to New York with his benefactor Otto Kahn’s money. Crane required an exalted mood to work on his new epic, The Bridge, and the excess overwhelmed the Tates. The end came one night when Allen and Caroline slipped separate notes under Crane’s door, giving him the mitten, as the expression goes. Crane left Patterson in a huff.
Tate and Crane quickly made it up, however, and Tate went on to write the introduction to Crane’s first volume, White Buildings (1926). While in Patterson, Crane finished the “Atlantis” section of The Bridge, and Tate wrote the first version of his famous “Ode.” No doubt Tate provided Crane with a sounding board for his work-in-progress, and his responses must have had a decided impact. As Unterecker suggests, an ill word from Tate would not cause Crane to destroy a portion of his work, but it would force him to reexamine and perhaps change tack. Ultimately, Crane’s new project would leave Tate cold, despite his claim that “some of the best poetry of our generation is in The Bridge.” The two eventually headed in opposite poetic directions, though Tate saw them as starting from the same place, with neo-Symbolism.
If Tate and Crane came together over Eliot, then it was also Eliot that divided them in the end. As Langdon Hammer puts it in his excellent study Hart Crane & Allen Tate,
Crane, resisting Eliot, approved the self-authorizing powers of “the individual talent” at the cost of standing outside the developing institutions and styles of high modernist art. Crane became a kind of outlaw. By contrast, Tate identified himself with “tradition.”
Tate felt that Crane’s difficulty was “that of the modern poet generally: they play the game with half the men, the men of sensibility, and because sensibility can make any move, the significance of all moves is obscure.”
The difference as Hammer points out is essentially that of romantic and classical (or in Tate’s preferred term, metaphysical)— what Eliot called emotion and intellect and Tate referred to as “vision and subject” or “abstraction and sensation.” When it came to favoring vision at the expense of subject, abstraction over sensation, Poe became one of Tate’s prime offenders, with Crane placed in the same camp:
The obscurity of Poe’s poetic diction is rather vagueness than the obscurity of complexity; it reflects the uncertain grasp of the relation of language to feeling, and of feeling to nature. But it is never that idolatrous dissolution of language from the grammar of a possible world, which results from the belief that language itself can be reality, or by incantation can create reality: a superstition that comes down in French from Lautrémont, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé to the Surrealists, and in English to Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and Dylan Thomas.
These remarks serve as a bracing critique of portions of The Bridge as well. “I, too, insofar as I am a poet, am a romantic poet,” Tate explained, but understood, as the most important critics of the last century have, that this tension between classicism and romanticism remained the central question. As Tate wrote of the critic Herbert Read, whom he greatly revered, here was a young man “who was struggling with a problem which one now knows would engage him the rest of his life: the synthesis of romantic intuition and intellectual order.” It engaged Tate as well, and Crane’s later poetry constituted a romantic limit that Tate approached with caution.
As he explains in his most famous essay, “Tension in Poetry,” poems exist between the poles of “extension” and “intention,” or between the literal statement and its figurative significance. “The Metaphysical poet as a rationalist,” Tate wrote,
begins at or near the extensive or denotating end of the line; the romantic Symbolist poet at the other, intensive end; and each by a straining feat of the imagination tries to push his meanings as far as he can towards the opposite end, so as to occupy the entire scale.
As a poet, Tate countenanced a good deal of abstraction and association, certainly more than his friend (and Crane’s) Yvor Winters, for example. Yet Tate had a gift for deploying opulent abstractions while maintaining fidelity to the subject, as in “The Subway,” which Winters admired:
Dark accurate plunger down the successive
Of arch on arch, where ogives burst a red
Reverberance of hail upon the dead
Thunder like an exploding crucible!
Harshly articulate, musical steel shell
Of angry worship, hurled religiously
Upon your business of humility
Into the iron forestries of hell.
Till broken in the shift of quieter
Dense altitudes tangential of your steel,
I am become geometries, and glut
Expansions like a blind astronomer
Dazed, while the worldless heavens bulge
In the cold reverie of an idiot.
As suggestive as Tate’s language becomes in this subway-as-inferno comparison, the reader never loses sight of the train, the tunnel, the sparks, etc. Tate took pains, and even more so in later poems, that the vision not overwhelm the thing described. Written in 1927, the poem no doubt owes much to Crane at his best, the Crane of “Voyages II,” “At Melville’s Tomb,” and “Repose of Rivers.” Tate favored and encouraged this strain in Crane’s work, as he favored and encouraged the early work of Lowell. Together, the three poets form a triad of sympathies unique in modern poetry.
Robert Lowell befriended the Tates in 1937. The story of their first summer together is legendary. Tate’s star had risen as a poet and critic, and Lowell, already racked by mental distress as a Harvard undergraduate and on the lam from his father’s disapproval, came to pay his respects. Lowell had received treatment from the Fugitive sonneteer Merrill Moore, now a New England psychiatrist, and it was Moore who sent Lowell off on his Southern pilgrimage.
When Lowell arrived at the Tates, he emerged from his rented car and proceeded to urinate by the roadside. Tate saw on first meeting that Lowell was cracked, but invited him in anyway, thus beginning, as Underwood reminds us, “one of the most powerful and volatile mentor-protégé relationships in American literary history.” From their first conversation, Tate expounded his particular view of poetry. As Lowell tells it, “Turning to the moderns, he slaughtered whole Chicago droves of slipshod Untermeyer Anthology experimentalists,” adding that “his second pronouncement was that a good poem had nothing to do with exalted feelings of being moved by the spirit. It was simply a piece of craftsmanship, an intelligible or cognitive object.” Tate’s statement barely hides the specter of Crane that haunts it.
By this point, Tate’s own experimentalism had come into an easier synthesis with the tradition, retaining its “burly” quality, but channeled through the decorum of rationality and received forms. Lowell, who had also steeped himself in Eliot and Pound, drank in Tate’s pronouncements and asked to stay on. Tate joked that if Lowell did stay he’d have to live in a tent. The eager-eyed tyro went to Sears and Roebuck, bought an olive-drab umbrella tent, and pitched it on the lawn near an aggressive cow named Uncle Andrew. Staying the summer, Lowell wrote flinty, dense, classical poems in Tate’s preferred style, hoping to win his approval.
For Lowell, his biographer Ian Hamilton explains, Tate and Ransom
connected America with the exhilaratingly convinced narrowness of European modernism. Ransom had studied at Oxford, was admired by T. S. Eliot. Tate had served his time in Greenwich Village in the mid-twenties, and then in Paris and London from 1928 to 1930.
Lowell’s early poems show Tate’s influence in their stark images and hard-edged forms. Both grappled with Catholicism, as in Tate’s “More Sonnets at Christmas”:
. . . I feared
The belly-cold, the grave-clout, that betrayed
Me dithering in the drift of cordial seas;
Ten years are time enough to be dismayed
By mummy Christ, head crammed between
And Lowell’s “Christmas in Black Rock”:
The moonbeam, bobbing like an apple, snags The undertow. O Christ, the spiraling years Slither with child and manger to a ball Of ice; and what is man? We tear our rags To hang the Furies by their itching ears, And the green needles nail us to the wall.
The quality of doubt in these poems expresses itself in the “formal resonance of desperation.” Belly-cold, grave-clout, betrayed, dithering, drift, dismayed, crammed, snags, Furies, needles nail: all convey the violence of deprivation.
Randall Jarrell dismissed the presence of Tate in Lowell as unimportant, cursory, arguing instead that early Lowell comes out of Milton, but so, to a certain extent, does Tate—in the irregular rhyming of “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” for example, which Tate derived from “Lycidas.” What’s more, Lowell wrote the poems from his first collection, Land of Unlikeness, while under Tate’s wing and roof. What both undoubtedly shared was a fraught relationship to faith. As Tate puts it in “Religion and the Intellectuals”:
As I look back upon my own verse, written over more than twenty-five years, I see plainly that its main theme is man suffering from unbelief; and I cannot for a moment suppose that this man is some other than myself.
If Tate provided for Lowell a model of the modern poet assessing the difficulties of belief, worked out through tortured speech and stark reference, then it was Lowell, with his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1941 who may have helped to s