Allen Tate's "Ode on the Confederate Dead"

Updated on April 7, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Allen Tate

Source

McGavock Confederate Cemetery, Franklin, TN

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Ode on the Confederate Dead"

Allen Tate's "Ode on the Confederate Dead" first appeared in 1928 in Tate's first published collection of poems titled Mr. Pope & Other Poems.

Ode on the Confederate Dead

Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves

Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sough the rumour of mortality.

Autumn is desolation in the plot
Of a thousand acres where these memories grow
From the inexhaustible bodies that are not
Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
Think of the autumns that have come and gone!—
Ambitious November with the humors of the year,
With a particular zeal for every slab,
Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot
On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there:
The brute curiosity of an angel’s stare
Turns you, like them, to stone,
Transforms the heaving air
Till plunged to a heavier world below
You shift your sea-space blindly
Heaving, turning like the blind crab.

Dazed by the wind, only the wind
The leaves flying, plunge

You know who have waited by the wall
The twilight certainty of an animal,
Those midnight restitutions of the blood
You know--the immitigable pines, the smoky frieze
Of the sky, the sudden call: you know the rage,

The cold pool left by the mounting flood,
Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.
You who have waited for the angry resolution
Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,
You know the unimportant shrift of death
And praise the vision
And praise the arrogant circumstance
Of those who fall
Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision—
Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

Seeing, seeing only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

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

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

The hound bitch
Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar
Hears the wind only.

Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea,
Seals the malignant purity of the flood,
What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
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.

We shall say only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing:
Night is the beginning and the end
And in between the ends of distraction
Waits mute speculation, the patient curse
That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps
For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.

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?

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!

Poet Allen Tate reading his "Ode on the Confederate Dead"

Commentary

Allen Tate's ode features a dazzling stretch of stark imagery and frenzied musing that confounds even the speaker as he speaks.

First Movement: Overcome by Orderliness

Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves

Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sough the rumour of mortality.

The speaker is visiting a military cemetery, and he is overcome by the orderly tombstones that "yield their names to the element." The names, of course, belong to dead Confederate soldiers. The speaker observes that the wind blows without having to remember the sad occasion that brought about this graveyard. Those "headstones" seem to profess the rumor that death is a reality.

Second Movement: Melancholy

Autumn is desolation in the plot
Of a thousand acres where these memories grow
From the inexhaustible bodies that are not
Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
Think of the autumns that have come and gone!—
Ambitious November with the humors of the year,
With a particular zeal for every slab,
Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot
On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there:
The brute curiosity of an angel’s stare
Turns you, like them, to stone,
Transforms the heaving air
Till plunged to a heavier world below
You shift your sea-space blindly
Heaving, turning like the blind crab.

The speaker finds himself overcome with melancholy at the many acres of land filled with the "confederate dead"—the souls of which have moved on from the earth. But the sorrow and devastation fills the human mind with breathtaking thoughts of life vs death.

So many autumns have come and gone and the stones of the cemetery have become worn by the elements. The decorative angels show "a wing chipped here, an arm there." The speaker's mind is heralded in all directions as he tries to contemplate the carnage.

Third Movement: A Melancholy Respite

Dazed by the wind, only the wind
The leaves flying, plunge

The third movement features a kind of refrain/bridge with a lyrical effusion. It serves as a brief respite from the intensity of the speaker's musing on such a vast, tragic scene. The speaker will need four more of these respites in order to complete his musing.

Fourth Movement: Contemplating the Fallen

You know who have waited by the wall
The twilight certainty of an animal,
Those midnight restitutions of the blood
You know--the immitigable pines, the smoky frieze
Of the sky, the sudden call: you know the rage,

The cold pool left by the mounting flood,
Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.
You who have waited for the angry resolution
Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,
You know the unimportant shrift of death
And praise the vision
And praise the arrogant circumstance
Of those who fall
Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision—
Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

In the fourth movement, the speaker engages the first person "you"—addressing himself—he thus reveals how he has been contemplating the fate of these fallen. He has known "rage" which rendered his heart a "cold pool left by the mounting flood, / Of muted Zeno and Parmenides."

The expansive universe of philosophy allows the mind to envision "the unimportant shrift of death" and "Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision." The speaker's emotion mounts as he continues to muse on the unique event that brought everything together in this place "by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall."

Fifth Movement: Another Pause

Seeing, seeing only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

The speaker again pauses with a refrain/bridge which again focuses on "the leaves"—the elements give the cemetery its atmosphere. The speaker stops periodically to observe the neutral leaves. The leaves have been flying and now they "plunge and expire."

Sixth Movement: The Symbolic Stone Wall

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.

The speaker now reports on his vision of the troops moving at "Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run," and in a play on words, the mentions General Stonewall Jackson but makes it clear that he is also referring to the actual stone wall around the cemetery as well.

The speaker tells himself he will "curse the setting sun," a metaphoric image of the dead and the act that brought them here.

Seventh Movement: Another Respite

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

Again, time for a respite from the intense emotion that brings the speaker to a near frenzy of thought that tangles the mind; again it is the leaves but this time they meld in the mind of the "old man in a storm." Even the leaves are now "crying."

Eighth Movement: Pointing to Death

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

Returning from the refrain/bridge interlude, the speaker is still quite affected and thus offers only a partial thought but it is so clear that he seems to actually hear the confusion of war among the "crazy hemlocks" that point to death.

Ninth Movement: The Dogs of War

The hound bitch
Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar
Hears the wind only.

The speaker's memory has become like a dog in a cellar who can listen only to the wind. The speaker has now moved the respite of leaves to a violent, melancholy image of the dogs of war.

Tenth Movement: Mocking the Salt of the Ocean

Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea,
Seals the malignant purity of the flood,
What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
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.

The speaker now tackles the heart of his melancholy at experiencing the musing of all those men who died for the confederacy. He colorfully avers that the salt in the blood of the dead has stiffened and mocks the salt in the sea.

The speaker questions just what the living who contemplate the carnage can do, think, feel, and believe. He wonders what the living can actually say about the "unclean bones" lost in the enormity of the grass that will continue to grow on and on indefinitely.

Other natural elements and creatures will continue to visit this scene even as the human speaker has done. The gray spider will leave its essence, and the screech owl will salt his "lyric seeds" in the mind.

Eleventh Movement: Growing Intensity of Sadness

We shall say only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

Again the speaker pauses with the refrain/bridge, which he allows to visit the leaves as they come, fly, and "expire." The speaker grows more intense with sorrow as he continues to muse on all the death and destruction caused by the war. His bitterness bites into the very natural setting that will continue to gather around the graves of the fallen heroes.

Twelfth Movement: Conquered by Sorrow

We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing:
Night is the beginning and the end
And in between the ends of distraction
Waits mute speculation, the patient curse
That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps
For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.

Now it occurs to the speaker that the leaves represent the only natural creature that continues to move and "expire" again and again in this atmosphere. To the human mind contemplating such devastation and death, the night seems like "the beginning and the end."

The speaker finds that "mute speculation" awaits "ends of distraction," and a slow burning curse still moves across the vision like stones placed on the eyes. The mind closes in on itself like a cat that makes its own image a victim as it leaps into "a jungle pool."

Thirteenth Movement: How to Transcend Such Devastation

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?

The speaker is now so steeped in the notion of the "grave" that he wonders just how one is to take away these curses of melancholy. Shall one install a grave in his own house? This devastating knowledge that he now carries in his heart moves him to call out his question,"the ravenous grave?"

Fourteenth Movement: A Serpent Sentinel

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!

The speaker then finally commands himself to leave this hallowed ground. The green serpent of leaves that rustles in the mulberry bush will continue to keep watch over the "row after row" of headstones The speaker concludes with the stark image and claim that the serpent of leaves has become, "Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!"

Battle of Shiloh

Source

Battle of Antietam

Source

Battle of Bull Run

Source

Questions & Answers

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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