English Literature
Ode to the Confederate Dead

Ode to the Confederate Dead

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'Ode to the Confederate Dead': A Poetic Exploration of Southern Identity and Values

As the saying goes, "History is written by the victors" - a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill. However, the origins of this phrase are unknown and stretch back far beyond Churchill's time. This adage holds true in the American Civil War, where the Union emerged triumphant over the Confederates, reuniting the states. If the Confederacy had been victorious, American history and society would have taken a vastly different path. Today, the Confederates are often portrayed as traitorous slave owners seeking to tear the United States apart. But for 20th-century Southern poet Allen Tate, his Southern identity and the values of the Confederate soldiers were a source of pride. In his renowned poem 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' (1928), Tate argues that these soldiers were heroes fighting for important traditions, rather than the villains often depicted in American history.

Overview of 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' by Allen Tate: A Look at the Poet's Life

Considered Tate's most famous work, 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' solidified his reputation as a Southern poet. Born in Kentucky and raised in the southern states, Tate developed a deep attachment to the culture and history of the region. During his time at Vanderbilt University, he was invited to join a group of Southern poets who regularly met to discuss their own works and those of their peers. In 1922, the group founded their own literary magazine, The Fugitive, which aimed to showcase the unique contributions of Southern poets to American literature. Tate's Southern identity heavily influenced his writing, as he emphasized the importance of remembering the South's traditions, culture, and faith. He believed in the need to return to a more "golden" time, where society was centered around agriculture.

The "Confederate dead" in the poem refer to soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War, which lasted from 1861-1865. The war erupted after Southern states seceded from the Union following Abraham Lincoln's election as President in 1860. Tension between the northern and southern states, primarily over issues such as states' rights, slavery, and westward expansion, had long been brewing. Eleven states ultimately seceded, forming the Confederacy and fighting to preserve their way of life, which included the institution of slavery, crucial to their agrarian economy.

However, 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is not an ode to the pro-slavery stance often associated with the Confederacy. Instead, it romanticizes the past while also critiquing faults of modern society. The poem reflects on the loss of old Southern values and the need to revive them. It was first published in Tate's debut collection, 'Mr. Pope and Other Poems' (1928), and belongs to the genre of graveyard poetry, which aimed to resurrect the values of the past through reflection on the dead.

In 1938, Tate published an essay titled 'Narcissus as Narcissus' to shed light on the meaning behind 'Ode to the Confederate Dead.' This was the only time he wrote an essay explaining the underlying themes of his poem. His wife later revealed that he found it amusing how people assumed the poem solely paid tribute to Confederate soldiers when, in fact, it was a philosophical commentary on human perception of the world.¹

Symbolism and Meaning in 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'

In 'Narcissus as Narcissus,' Tate explains that the central themes of 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' are solipsism (the theory that only one's own mind is certain to exist) and narcissism (excessive self-love and admiration).² This is an important aspect to keep in mind when closely analyzing the poem's literary devices, as its heavy use of symbolism may obscure Tate's intended meaning. In fact, many readers interpret the poem literally as a tribute to fallen soldiers. Tate had to defend his original intention through his essay.

In Conclusion

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' explores the dangers of how modern society perceives and relates to the world. It serves as a reminder of the importance of remembering and preserving the traditions and values of the past. While it may mention Confederate soldiers, the poem ultimately speaks to a broader theme of the human condition.

The significance of honoring old traditions and rejecting modernity is often symbolized by the respect for the dead and disregard for a dilapidated cemetery.

Intricate Use of Literary Devices in Allen Tate's 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'

Poet Allen Tate's 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is a masterful exploration of the theme of societal changes and their impact on humanity's relationship with nature. Through the effective use of various literary devices, Tate builds extended metaphors that highlight the dangers of self-centeredness and neglect towards the natural world.

The poem's extended metaphors are centered around the philosophical concepts of solipsism and narcissism. Solipsism, the belief that the world exists because of human perception, and narcissism, excessive self-centeredness, are intertwined throughout the poem. These concepts are relevant to the speaker's observations in the poem, emphasizing the impact of societal changes on humanity's relationship with nature.

The Civil War as a Metaphor for Humanity's Connection to Nature

Tate, deeply influenced by Southern history, uses the Civil War as a metaphor for society's relationship with nature. The speaker stands in a Confederate cemetery, where orderly rows of tombstones represent a place of respect and grieving. This cemetery exists in harmony with nature, as the leaves freely go through their cycles of death and rebirth. Even the bodies of the soldiers contribute to this cycle, merging with the natural world and giving back to it. This symbolism highlights the beneficial relationship between humanity and nature.

The Dilapidated Confederate Cemetery as a Reflection of Forgotten Southern Traditions

The poem's extended metaphor is further developed through the dilapidated state of the Confederate cemetery. It represents the forgotten Southern traditions characterized by a deep connection to and reverence for nature. However, as people have become more self-centered and individualistic, they have neglected and allowed this tradition to decay.

The Narcissistic Nature of Society

The speaker's chastising of a universal "you" in the poem emphasizes society's narcissistic nature. Humans are more focused on their own desires and gratification in the present moment, disregarding death and the value of nature. They believe that the world exists solely to serve them, exemplifying their self-centeredness.

Neglect Towards the Natural World and its Consequences

The neglect shown towards the graves and "uncomfortable angels" reflects humanity's disregard for the natural world and its exploitation for personal gain. The contrast between the decaying cemetery and the soldiers who represent old values is a powerful symbol of the consequences of self-centeredness.

Allusions to the Civil War and Southern Values

The poem is also full of allusions to the Civil War, serving as a tribute to the South and its traditions. Battles and famous Confederate leaders are referenced, highlighting the significance of this historical event in shaping Southern values.

The Loss of Traditional Southern Beliefs

The term "Stonewall" is derived from the nickname of Confederate General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson. During the First Battle of Manassas, Confederate General Bernard Bee famously exclaimed, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!"³ This reference not only alludes to the famous general but also serves as a pun on the literal stone walls surrounding the cemetery. Stonewall Jackson, revered as a hero in the South, is positioned alongside the walls of the cemetery, reaffirming the traditional Southern relationship with nature of respect and cohabitation that has been lost over time.

Allusions to Significant Battles in the American Civil War

The poem also references battles such as Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, and Bull Run. These battles saw victories for both the Union and the Confederacy, but ultimately the North's focus on human-centered ideas prevailed over the Southern ideals. These battles, often referred to by the Union's naming convention of landmarks rather than the Confederates' use of nearby towns, demonstrate the dominance of Northern beliefs over those of the South.

Philosophical References

The speaker also makes allusions to philosophers, such as Zeno and Parmenides, who proposed ideas that the speaker believes modern society should return to. Parmenides, a pre-Socratic thinker, held the belief in monism – the idea that all things are ultimately one and there are no fundamental divisions in nature. Zeno, a student and supporter of Parmenides, also subscribed to this notion. However, the speaker metaphorically describes their beliefs as "muted" and "flooded," indicating that they have been overshadowed by other, conflicting ideas that have created divisions between humans and nature.

In Conclusion

Allen Tate's 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is a powerful and thought-provoking exploration of the tension between honoring old traditions and embracing modernity. With intricate metaphors and allusions, Tate highlights the consequences of humanity's increasing self-centeredness and loss of connection with the natural world. It serves as a cautionary reminder to cherish and respect our relationship with nature before it's too late.

In this piece, the speaker utilizes various literary devices to portray the ego of modern society in a negative light. Through similes, they compare humans to a blind crab and a naive jaguar, highlighting the self-centeredness and limited perspective of humans. Additionally, the speaker personifies leaves, representing them as an old man crying in a storm, to symbolize the cyclical nature of the world and its ability to empathize with human suffering. However, humans fail to empathize with nature, emphasizing the disconnect between humanity and the natural world.Nature is depicted as a powerful and ever-evolving force through the use of personification and metonymy. This reinforces the idea that nature operates on its own terms and is not static. The speaker also alludes to significant battles and philosophers, and uses powerful imagery and comparisons to convey their message that modern society needs to return to a respectful and harmonious relationship with nature.In this poem, November is personified as a month full of ambition and zeal, but also destructive. It is used as a metonym for weather, specifically in late fall. The speaker also mentions how November has the power to make the angels on graves uncomfortable and stain them as they rot through the changing seasons. This symbolizes the power and vitality of nature.Graves and angels are further used as metaphors to illustrate the traditional Southern relationship with nature, one of respect and cohabitation. However, this does not mean that Southerners were spared from nature's destructive force. Nature operates on its own terms and can destroy human-made structures without a second thought. This is seen in natural disasters such as earthquakes and strong winds, but it is necessary for the growth and survival of nature. The speaker highlights the narcissism of humans who believe that nature should revolve around them.Through personification, nature is depicted as an active force that humans are reliant on for survival. The poem also utilizes metonymy to represent weather and the respectful relationship between Southerners and nature. Symbolism and imagery are also prevalent, with death symbolizing an equalizing force that ultimately reduces human value and influence to nothing. The mummy and hound mentioned in the opening lines represent human attempts to control life and death, but in the end, their value is insignificant compared to the true power of nature.

The Symbolism of Death in "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

The end of "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is marked by the powerful imagery of a serpent, a timeless symbol of death. This serpent is depicted in its natural habitat, in contrast to the human-centered images of the mummy and nature. As a symbol of pure, natural death, the serpent serves as a reminder that humanity cannot control or fully understand the forces of nature.

The Power of Nature

The poem beautifully portrays the vitality of nature and reinforces the idea that humans are merely a small part of a much larger and more powerful force. Literary devices such as personification, metonymy, symbolism, and imagery are used to enhance the poem's meaning and message. Through this, we are reminded of the awe-inspiring power and unrelenting force of nature.

The alliteration throughout the poem adds to the impact of the repeated "S" sound, reflecting the serpent's power and foreshadowing the ultimate image of death as a ravenous grave. Reading the poem aloud further emphasizes this effect, with other instances of alliteration contributing to the overall impact.

The Clash of Traditional and Modern Society

An important theme in the poem is human narcissism. The speaker, like the modern human, is self-absorbed and views things only in terms of what they can provide for their own desires. This is evident in the descriptions of the dying hound and the speaker's critique of the modern human's obsession with material possessions and need to dominate and exploit the natural world for personal gain.

Furthermore, the irregular rhyme scheme symbolizes the tension between traditional and modern ways of life. While traditional societies are organized and controlled, modern society is driven by selfish desires and a need for power.

The Disconnect between Humans and Nature

The poem also reflects on the clash between modernity and tradition. The Southern way of life before the Civil War was based on a mutualistic relationship with nature, relying on the land for sustenance. However, with the rise of industrialization, nature became seen as a commodity to be exploited for personal gain.

The end of slavery after the Civil War further perpetuated this disconnect, with Southern farmers forced to adapt to the industrialization of the North. This deepened the divide between modern society and the natural world, resulting in a detached and narcissistic view of nature.

In Conclusion

Through "Ode to the Confederate Dead," poet Allen Tate reflects on the themes of human narcissism, the clash between modernity and tradition, and the ultimate power and inevitability of death. The use of literary devices and the imagery of the serpent convey the poet's message, serving as a poignant reminder of our insignificance in the face of nature's timeless power.

Examining the Themes of Death, Nature, and Narcissism in Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

Throughout the ages, death has been depicted as an inevitable and impartial force, from the blind crab to the dying hound. Even those who are deemed successful and powerful by society will eventually meet their demise. This is a universal truth that is portrayed in Allen Tate's poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead."

Published in 1928, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is considered one of Tate's most renowned works. It pays tribute to the Confederate soldiers who lost their lives defending their way of life. However, beyond this specific historical context, the poem also delves into deeper themes that are relevant to readers even in modern times.

The Neglect of Nature as Represented by the Graveyard

In the poem, Tate uses the graveyard as a metaphor for the traditional relationship between humans and nature. The decaying and neglected state of the graveyard symbolizes society's disregard for the natural world. This is a stark reminder of the consequences of human actions on the environment.

The speaker in the poem urges modern readers to reconnect with the land and reject the narcissistic lifestyle that has been glorified. This is a call for a return to a more balanced and respectful relationship with nature.

Human Narcissism and Modernity

By referencing the Confederate soldiers, Tate draws a comparison between the societal values of the past and present. The soldiers fought for their way of life, while the modern world is consumed by self-obsession and superficial achievements.

The poem serves as a commentary on the dangers of human narcissism and how it has been glorified in modern society. It reminds readers that true fulfillment and connection cannot be found in vanity and materialistic pursuits.

Rejection of the False Promise of Deliverance from Death

In conclusion, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that highlights the detrimental effects of human narcissism and society's disconnection from nature. It serves as a reminder to value and respect the natural world and to reject the false belief that society's superficial accomplishments will offer deliverance from death. As modern readers, it is up to us to heed this message and strive for a more harmonious existence with the world around us.

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