The lyric poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead” was written by Allen Tate over a period of ten years. “Ode” was published in 1937, and it was the only poem about which Tate wrote an explanatory essay entitled, ‘Narcissus as Narcissus. “1 The poem is constructed to tell the thoughts of persona as he stops by the gate of a Confederate graveyard. Persona’s thoughts and reflections upon the soldiers who died is the subject of the poem; through imagery and diction, the reader is allowed to then unearth the theme of the poem: a combination of two philosophies about the human mind, narcissism and solipsism.
However, in order to understand the connection between the soldiers and the abstract theories of narcissism and solipsism, it is crucial to understand persona. The imagery and diction written by Tate but effectually used by persona is the connection between the subject and the theme. While Tate does not make many historical allusions, the one stanza that begins, “Stonewall, Stonewall… “2 makes reference to Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate general, and several battles that took place during the Civil War.
Also, two metaphorical allusions are made when Tate writes, “The gray lean spiders come… “3 which is a metaphor for the gray uniforms the Confederates wore, and “The singular screech-owl’s tight / Invisible lyrics seeds the mind / with the furious murmur of their chivalry. “4 The latter is a reference to the high, screeching call of the Confederate soldiers as they went into battle. Persona stops by the gate of a Confederate graveyard.
While there, persona reflects on the Confederate soldiers who have died, and by doing so, is prompted to explore himself on a more intellectual level. Often during the poem persona speaks directly to the Confederate dead, or to their graves; however, upon closer reading, persona is speaking about himself (often in conflict with himself) when speaking to the dead. The subject of the poem is clearly the Confederate soldiers who died in battle, seen and reflected upon through the eyes of persona.
Through persona, we learn of the intensity and arrogance of the soldiers, of “… those who fall / rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision – – / Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall. “5 Persona says to the dead that they know “The twilight certainty of an animal,”6 or rather, the knowledge of when one is going to die – much like an animal that is fatally wounded. He also speaks of “Those midnight restitutions of the blood. “7 Restitution, which is giving back, implies a cycle of birth and death, of being born from the earth and then upon death giving back.
“… the furious murmur of their chivalry,”8 and “… the desires that should be yours tomorrow,”9 both give a sense of intense want, of longing to protect their chivalry, or really, to protect the image of the Old South before the Civil War ravaged through it. However, when persona speaks about the graves of the Confederate soldiers, he offers a different tone – one of seasonal destruction, desolation, and anonymity. 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:10 These lines speak of the humors (whose literal translation is four different liquids in the human body, or, metaphorically, the different characteristics of each of the four seasons) which “rot” the graves, of the wind that “stains” and “chips” each grave, of angels that are “uncomfortable” because they are eternally carved into stone.
This diction choice is unpleasant and gives a desperate, almost fatal, sense to the graves of these soldiers, which when living, persona described with words such as “desires,” “arrogance,” and “chivalry. ” Toward the end of the poem, persona says, “What shall we say of the bones, unclean, / Whose verdurous anonymity will grow? / The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes / Lost in those acres of insane green? “11 These lines about “unclean” and “ragged” bodies of the dead tell the reader that persona thinks of these soldiers as anonymous, and “lost” in the bright, growing, changing world around him.
Much like the leaves that persona describes throughout the poem in breaks of two lines, the Confederate soldiers are of an uncountable number – so many, in fact, that they cannot possibly each be remembered, they cannot each have a name. The transition in this poem from subject, the reflections upon the Confederate dead by persona, and the theme, can be found in three primary examples of poetic tools in the poem: visual imagery, allusion, and diction. The most obvious connection is that of the jaguar. 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. 12 When persona uses this concept of night being the beginning and the end, he is referring to the darkness before birth and darkness upon death, therefore being the beginning and end of life. Because persona says that birth and death are “ends of distraction,”13 he means that he is focused on either his birth or his death, and therefore entirely devoted to his own life – or really, narcissism. This narcissistic view is again emphasized with the jaguar.