THE IMPRESSION the poet Allen Tate gave was a mixture of fire and lace, a combination often found in Southern writers of the '20s whose fierce and troubled love of their region bestowed an aristocratic bearing that was sometimes unbearable. Mr. Tate liked to say outrageous things. He liked to do outrageous things, such as listing his membership in the Poe Society in "Who's Who" -- a society invented in a New York speak-easy when Mr. Tate was at dinner with the critics Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley. "We were drinking that red Italian ink, and decided that Poe was neglected, and founded the society. It hasn't met since."
He was the quintessential Southerner. He wasn't merely raised and schooled there; he believed the literary center of the country was in the South; and he had a case. Like William Butler Yeats who stumped for the Irish literary renaissance at the turn of the century, so Mr. Tate claimed a Southern renaissance in the persons of William Faulkner, Stark Young, John Crowe Ransom and others. Among them he saw a definite Southern school of writing, a literature whose unity sprang from the relative stability of Southern life, and from the so-called "agrarian revolt" against big cities and the North.
What Mr. Tate was really in revolt against was the present. He like to think of himself as a true Jeffersonian, seeking a return to a "nation of small, independent freeholders." In many ways he lived in another world, one from which he wrote his poems. In the most famous of these, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," he asked: "What shall we, who count our days and bow / Our heads with a commemorial woe, / What shall we say of the bones?" His poetry was almost defiantly intellectual, like his own exaggerated cranium. As a poet, he saw himself as a hawk, "gradually circling around the subject, threatening it, filling it with suspense, and finally accomplishing its demise without ever quite using the ultimate violence upon it." In fact, there was often too much circling in his poems.
Still, he saw his own world clearly, whatever one may think of it. And if he regarded Gettysburg as Troy, and the old South as an elegant and stately civilization fallen to the crass, he was not so narrowly regional in his desires for a rich American culture. He believed in the elegance of democracy. And he spoke beautifully for a time to which he fully knew we could not return.