Allen Tate's "Ode on the Confederate Dead"
McGavock Confederate Cemetery, Franklin, TN
Battle of Shiloh
Battle of Antietam
Battle of Bull Run
Tate's ode features a dazzling stretch of stark imagery and frenzied musing that confounds even the speaker as he speaks.
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.
First Movement: "Row after row with strict impunity"
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: "Autumn is desolation in the plot"
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: "Dazed by the wind, only the wind"
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: "You know who have waited 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: "Seeing, seeing only the leaves"
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: "Turn your eyes to the immoderate past"
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: "Cursing only the leaves crying"
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: "You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point"
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 hound bitch"
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: "Now that the salt of their blood"
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: "We shall say only the leaves"
Again the refrain/bridge visits the leaves as they come, fly, and "expire."
Twelfth Movement: "We shall say only the leaves whispering"
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: "What shall we say who have knowledge"
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: "Leave now"
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!"
Poet Allen Tate reading his "Ode on the Confederate Dead"
Collected Poems 1919-1976
This collection includes "Ode on the Confederate Dead"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes