Allen Tate, 79, the southern literary renaissance's great man of letters, died early yesterday, 10 days after being admitted to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, Tenn. He had been bedridden with emphysema for several years.
Although a dyed-in-the-wool southerner, Mr. Tate became the most cosmopolitan of American critics and was one of the first to espouse the modernism of T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner. He won numerous literary awards -- five major prizes in the past two years -- but popular success eluded him and he became, instead, the "poet's poet."
Allen John Orley Tate was born in Kentucky and spent most of his childhood and youth in Nashville and the District of Columbia area.
An alumnus of Georgetown Prep, Mr. Tate graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 1922. At Vanderbilt, he helped found a literary magazine called The Fugitive, through which he and his colleagues, including Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom and Merrill Moore, explored the intellectual and socioeconomic traditions of the South. This later grew into the "agrarian movement" that prefigured the southern renaissance.
"As a young man, as a college student, Allen single-handedly invented for himself what you would call the modern poetic style before he'd ever read Eliot or Crane," Warren recalled recently. "He was a brilliant mind... I was constantly amazed by him."
In his late 20s, Mr. Tate and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon, moved to Greenwich Village in New York, and lived off his acerbic and witty freelance criticism. What was to become his best known poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," was first published in 1927.
The poet based the physical description of the "Ode" on the Confederate cemetery in Richmond, which he saw as a child:
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 mortaility. 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 !
In 1928 he and Gordon simultaneously were awarded Guggenheim fellowships.
Subletting Ford Maddox Ford's Paris apartment, Mr. Tate and his wife entered the expatriate circle presided over by Gertrude Stein. He thought F. Scott Fitzgerald the most attractive of the group, but spent more time with Ernest Hemingway. "We were pretty friendly," he recalled in a recent interview, "but I think if I'd been writing prose, he wouldn't have had me around."
Returning to the United States in 1930. Mr. Tate embarked upon the writers' standard academic circuit, teaching, lecturing and publishing. By 1939 he had become head of the creative writing program at Princeton University.
He was a legend among young, aspiring writers. Then Princeton student William Meredith, who now holds the poetry chair at the Library of Congress, remembers the "authority of his criticism." The young Robert Lowell, in a fit of hero worship, pitched a pup tent in Mr. Tate's yard for several weeks, relishing the propinquity.
In 1942, Mr. Tate was named to the chair of poetry at the Library of Congress. His Victorian house across the Anacostia River turned into a literary menage. Novelist Brainard Cheney and his wife, Frances, former president of the American Library Association, shared the rent, Katherine Anne Porter lived in the basement, Meredith slept on the porch, and John Peale Bishop stayed in the guest room.
Mr. Tate was at the height of his reputation in the 1940s, transforming the Sewanee Review into one of the leading literary magazines in the country. He was considered the perfect dinner companion -- witty, perhaps a little acidic, and immaculately dressed -- addicted to classical music and charades, a chain-smoker and a passionate fan of ice cream. He had an unshakeable composure and a southern gallantry that women found extremely attractive.
Mr. Tate and his wife, who shared a "profound psychic and spiritual relationship," according to Cheney, were divorced, remarried and divorced.
In 1959, Mr. Tate married Boston socialite and author Isabella Stewart Gardner, but the marriage quickly disintegrated, and in 1966 he married a former student, Helen Heinz, who survives. They lived in Sewanee, Tenn., moving back to Nashville two years ago.
Mr. Tate had written relatively little in the past several years, being almost blind as well as bedridden. He worked intermittently on his memoirs. In 1977 his "Collected Poems: 1919-1976" was awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize by Saturday Review.
Mr. Tate is also survived by a daughter, Nancy Wood, of Mexico, and two sons, John Allen and Benjamin Bogen Tate, of Nashville.