Youngest of three sons, Allen Tate was born in Kentucky in 1899. His father was a businessman whose interests forced the family to move home up to three times a year, prompting Tate to later write: “we might as well have been living, and I been born, in a tavern at a crossroads.” By early adolescence, Tate had witnessed the failure of his father’s business, and the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. From 1916 to 1917 He studied the violin at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music but failure to live up to his own musical ambitions signaled: “the death of youth “, according to his 1953 poem ‘The Buried Lake’. In 1918, he enrolled at Vanderbilt University, Nashville where he became aware of the very particular nature of Southern culture and sensibility. Coming from a Border background, Tate was faced with the question – was he was a Southerner or an American. “Affirming the first,” as the Dictionary of Literary Biography says: “he had to confront the dominant positivist and materialistic Yankee values which were supplanting the older values of the South.”

It was these values that Tate was to champion throughout his life, becoming a literary spokesman of his generation – as a poet, an essayist, a biographer and novelist. At University he was the only undergraduate to be invited to join The Fugitives, an elite group of Southern intellectuals who met weekly to discuss each others poetry, and also to defend Southern poetry from those who disputed the South did not have a significant literature of its own. In the periodical the Fugitive, and later in the important anthology I’ll Take My Stand (1930), Tate argued that the Southern agrarian way of life reflected the artistic beauty and wit of the ancient classic age. He believed that industrialism had demeaned man, relieving him of his morals and religion, and for the good of his soul, he should return to a simpler life, living close to the soil.

While living in France (1928-1932), and mixing with other expatriate writers including Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Tate continued to explore his philosophical and moral ties to his Southern homeland. He wrote two biographies of Southern Civil War heroes, Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier and Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall, and began his most important poem, ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead,’ which he was to revise for the next ten years. This poem has been described as a Southern version of Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ – a poem which Tate admired, writing that it embraced “the entire range of consciousness” and that it dramatized the tragedy of those living in modern times.

In 1938, the publication of his Civil War novel The Fathers, established Tate as one of America’s leading men of letters. In 1944 he became the editor of the Sewanee Review, and in 1946 editor of belles lettres at Henry Holt in New York. Tate was respected as holding the highest standards of literature, maintaining that the very best in creative writing offers the most coherent expressions of human experience; J. A. Bryant, writing in the Sewanee Review called Tate a “sage” who “kept bright the instrument of language in our time and . . . made it illuminate as well as shine.”

In his Collected Essays (1959) revised and enlarged as Essays of Four Decades (1968), Tate writes of the study of literature and poetry as a metaphysical and spiritual undertaking. His essay on WB Yeats: ‘Yeats’ Romanticism’ is referred to in Louise Cowan’s introduction: “One could say of him what he said of Yeats: ‘He only wanted what all men want, a world larger than himself to live in; for the modern world as he saw it was in human terms too small for the human spirit.'”

Tate’s poem in memory of WB Yeats – Winter Mask (1942), is included in the selection that appears on the Poetry Archive. Referring to Yeats’ adoption of personae or masks in his work, poem repeatedly whether there is anything worth living for “in a time of war”, and how even “the master Yeats . . great style could not tell/ Why it is man hates/His own salvation,/Prefers his way to hell.” To some ears, Southern accent will seem to soften the judgments contained in his words, breaking vowel sounds into two, and adding mitigating extra beats to the line.


‘More Sonnets at Christmas’ and ‘Winter Mask: To the Memory of W B Yeats’ - The recording was made on 1 April 1944 at the Recording Laboratory, Library of Congress, Washington DC and is used with permission of the Library of Congress.

Poems by Allen Tate

Sonnets at Christmas - Allen Tate
More Sonnets at Christmas - Allen Tate

Books by Allen Tate

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