Ode to the Confederate Dead
|by Allen Tate|
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!
In 1899, John Orley Allen Tate was born in Winchester, Clarke County, Kentucky. He attended Vanderbilt University and graduated magna cum laude in 1922. He married the novelist Caroline Gordon in 1924.
Tate published his first book of poems, Mr. Pope and Other Poems, in 1928. His early work reflects the influence by Baudelaire, Corbière, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Ezra Pound. In 1922, Tate read T. S. Eliot and discovered a kindred spirit. He admired Eliot's adherence to literary tradition and found Eliot's social and political concerns were similar to his own. Tate taught at several colleges and universities and was editor of The Sewanee Reviewfrom 1944 to 1947. He had a great influence not only as a critic but as a mentor to such younger poets as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell. From 1951 until his retirement he was a professor of English at the University of Minnesota. He died in 1979.