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Collected Poems, 1919-1976

Collected Poems, 1919-1976

by Tate

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One of the early-twentieth century Southern intellectuals and artists of the early twentieth century known as the Agrarians, Allen Tate wrote poetry that was rooted strongly in that region's past—in the land, the people, and the traditions of the American South as well as in the forms and concerns of the classic poets. In "Ode to the Confederate Dead"—


One of the early-twentieth century Southern intellectuals and artists of the early twentieth century known as the Agrarians, Allen Tate wrote poetry that was rooted strongly in that region's past—in the land, the people, and the traditions of the American South as well as in the forms and concerns of the classic poets. In "Ode to the Confederate Dead"— generally recognized as his greatest poem—he delineates both the horror of the sight of rows of tombstones at a Confederate cemetery and the honor that such sacrifice embodies, resulting in "a masterpiece that could not be transcended" (William Pratt).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Allen Tate is the supreme classicist, the most convincingly grandiloquent orator, of his generation. The rhetoric of his monologues, analyzing the sublime decadence of the moral and political scene, is gloomy, scornful and yet icily aloof. The more philosophical poems tease the reader with ironies of existence and morality. Everywhere is an easy 17th-century formality, sureness with myth, and habit of cadence and judgment…. It is simply important to have Tate again in print, accessible to a couple of generations of readers who probably hardly know him.” —John Fuller, on the hardcover publication of Collected Poems 1919-1976 in 1977

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.53(d)

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Collected Poems 1919-1976

By Allen Tate

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2007 Christopher Benfey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-53095-2


    Death of Little Boys

    When little boys grown patient at last, weary,
    Surrender their eyes immeasurably to the night,
    The event will rage terrific as the sea;
    Their bodies fill a crumbling room with light.

    Then you will touch at the bedside, torn in two,
    Gold curls now deftly intricate with gray
    As the windowpane extends a fear to you
    From one peeled aster drenched with the wind all day.

    And over his chest the covers in the ultimate dream
    Will mount to the teeth, ascend the eyes, press back
    The locks—while round his sturdy belly gleam
    Suspended breaths, white spars above the wreck:

    Till all the guests, come in to look, turn down
    Their palms, and delirium assails the cliff
    Of Norway where you ponder, and your little town
    Reels like a sailor drunk in a rotten skiff.

    The bleak sunshine shrieks its chipped music then
    Out to the milkweed amid the fields of wheat.
    There is a calm for you where men and women
    Unroll the chill precision of moving feet.



    If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.

    If your tired unspeaking head
    Rivet the dark with linear sight,
    Crazed by a warlock with his curse
    Dreamed up in some loquacious bed,
    And if the stage-dark head rehearse
    The fifth act of the closing night,

    Why, cut it off, piece after piece,
    And throw the tough cortex away,
    And when you've marvelled on the wars
    That wove their interior smoke its way,
    Tear out the close vermiculate crease
    Where death crawled angrily at bay.



    The wardrobe towers above the table lamp,
    The harpsichord stands sentinel between;
    The clock's tin argument whines out its damp
    Terror, like an eyelid winking through a screen.

    Young bats around the hills like sands are whirring
    Past clouds of roosting vultures sick with flight,
    Till the rag carpet on the hardwood stirring
    Wrinkles to winds which are a swift delight.

    Impanelled walls, raging with gloom, abound
    In commonplaces to moralize the eye—
    Which are white cats whose slick metallic sound
    Cuts to the heart with a half-completed lie.

    And ladies with their nails prepared for tea
    And sunken barques that coast the shores of hell
    And old men vacant of propriety
    Have faintly rung a next-door neighbor's bell.

    On the iron cot the coverlets are neat
    With the bold care of an ecstatic trull
    Who rearranges with impartial feet
    The silence in the caverns of a skull.


    Mr. Pope

    When Alexander Pope strolled in the city
    Strict was the glint of pearl and gold sedans.
    Ladies leaned out more out of fear than pity
    For Pope's tight back was rather a goat's than man's.

    Often one thinks the urn should have more bones
    Than skeletons provide for speedy dust,
    The urn gets hollow, cobwebs brittle as stones
    Weave to the funeral shell a frivolous rust.

    And he who dribbled couplets like a snake
    Coiled to a lithe precision in the sun
    Is missing. The jar is empty; you may break
    It only to find that Mr. Pope is gone.

    What requisitions of a verity
    Prompted the wit and rage between his teeth
    One cannot say. Around a crooked tree
    A moral climbs whose name should be a wreath.


    To a Romantic

    To Robert Penn Warren

    You hold your eager head
    Too high in the air, you walk
    As if the sleepy dead
    Had never fallen to drowse
    From the sublimest talk
    Of many a vehement house.
    Your head so turned turns eyes
    Into the vagrant West;
    Fixing an iron mood
    In an Ozymandias' breast
    And because your clamorous blood
    Beats an impermanent rest
    You think the dead arise
    Westward and fabulous:
    The dead are those whose lies
    Were doors to a narrow house.


    To a Romantic Novelist

    Now that you've written it
    In novels and a few verses,
    Will the pimps and harlots say
    That Destiny's a wit?
    Will the coarse kitchen-wench
    Think she's Desiree
    For the policeman's visit?
    She's hardly such a coward.
    For when it comes to that
    You seem to be looking toward
    A meagre public fate
    —Swelling damnedly fat—
    With a rhetorical hate.
    I think Petronius
    Would not have let you in
    (With Mencken and Hergesheimer)
    In that smugly cankerous
    Incertitude of taste.
    Scan the popular stench
    With wit: the actor rehearses
    To the flattered arbiter.
    And what's the bother about sin?
    It doesn't matter so
    Whether a woman's unchaste.
    Talk to Trimalchio.



    The moon will run all consciences to cover,
    Night is now the easy peer of day;
    Little boys no longer sight the plover
    Streaked in the sky, and cattle go
    Warily out in search of misty hay.
    Look at the blackbird, the pretty eager swallow,
    The buzzard, and all the birds that sail
    With the smooth essential flow
    Of time through men, who fail.

    For now the moon with friendless light carouses
    On hill and housetop, street and marketplace,
    Men will plunge, mile after mile of men,
    To crush this lucent madness of the face,
    Go home and put their heads upon the pillow,
    Turn with whatever shift the darkness cleaves,
    Tuck in their eyes, and cover
    The flying dark with sleep like falling leaves.



    In a valley late bees with whining gold
    Thread summer to the loose ends of sleep;
    A harvester pauses, surprised, in dreams of sheep,
    Across his back the ravellings of the sun.

    No risk of incandescence begs his eyes
    To the stubble horizon, nor ceremony
    Of season slipping absently to fall;
    Only the endless water in the run.

    If always the torture of stillness suddenly
    Argued so brisk and vain an agony,
    One hid in winter could look back and say:

    "Summer, you are the eucharist of death;
    Partake of you and never again
    Will midnight foot it steeply into dawn,
    Dawn veer into day,
    Nor the praised schism be of year split off year.
    All time would be some tatters
    On a figure, and the arrested sun—
    Which are one."


    Retroduction to American History

    Cats walk the floor at midnight; that enemy of fog,
    The moon, wraps the bedpost in receding stillness; sleep
    Collects all weary nothings and lugs away the towers,
    The pinnacles of dust that feed the subway.

    What stiff unhappy silence waits on sleep
    Struts like an officer; tongues next-door bewitch
    Themselves with divination; I like a melancholy oaf
    Beg the nightly pillow with impossible loves.
    And abnegation folds hands, crossed like the knees
    Of the complacent tailor, stitches cloaks of mercy
    To the backs of obsessions.

      Winter like spring no less
    Tolerates the air; the wild pheasant meets innocently
    The gun; night flouts illumination with meagre impudence.
    In such serenity of equal fates, why has Narcissus
    Urged the brook with questions? Merged with the element
    Speculation suffuses the meadow with drops to tickle
    The cow's gullet; grasshoppers drink the rain.
    Antiquity breached mortality with myths.
    Narcissus is vocabulary. Hermes decorates
    A cornice on the Third National Bank. Vocabulary
    Becomes confusion, decoration a blight; the Parthenon
    In Tennessee stucco, art for the sake of death. Now
    (The bedpost receding in stillness) you brush your teeth
    'Hitting on all thirty-two'; scholarship pares
    The nails of Catullus, sniffs his sheets, restores
    His 'passionate underwear'; morality disciplines the other
    Person; every son-of-a-bitch is Christ, at least Rousseau;
    Prospero serves humanity in steam-heated universities, three
    Thousand dollars a year. Simplicity, Flamineo, is obscene;
    Sunlight topples indignant from the hill.
    In every railroad station everywhere every lover
    Waits for his train. He cannot hear. The smoke
    Thickens. Ticket in hand, he pumps his body
    Toward lower six, for one more terse ineffable trip,
    His very eyeballs fixed in disarticulation. The berth
    Is clean; no elephants, vultures, mice or spiders
    Distract him from nonentity: his metaphors are dead.

    More sanitation is enough, enough remains: dreams
    Do not end—lucidities beyond the stint of thought.
    For intellect is a mansion where waste is without drain;
    A corpse is your bedfellow, your great-grandfather dines
    With you this evening on a cavalry horse. Intellect
    Connives with heredity, creates fate as Euclid geometry
    By definition:

      The sunlit bones in your house
      Are immortal in the titmouse,
      They trip the feet of grandma
      Like an afterthought each day.
      These unseen sunlit bones,
      They may be in the cat
      That startles them in grandma
      But look at this or that
      They meet you every way.

    For Pelops' and Tantalus' successions were at once simpler,
    If perplexed, and less subtle than you think. Heredity
    Proposes love, love exacts language, and we lack
    Language. When shall we speak again? When shall
    The sparrow dusting the gutter sing? When shall
    This drift with silence meet the sun? When shall I wake?



    ... party on the stage of the Earl Carroll Theatre on Feb. 23. At this party
    Joyce Hawley, a chorus-girl, bathed in the nude in a bathtub filled with alleged
.—The New York Times

    What are the springs of sleep? What is the motion
    Of dust in the lane that has an end in falling?
    Heroes, heroes, you auguries of passion,
    Where are the heroes with sloops and telescopes
    Who got out of bed at four to vex the dawn?
    Men for their last quietus scanned the earth,
    Alert on the utmost foothill of the mountains;
    They were the men who climbed the topmost screen
    Of the world, if sleep but lay beyond it,
    Sworn to the portage of our confirmed sensations,
    Seeking our image in the farthest hills.
    Now bearing a useless testimony of strife
    Gathered in a rumor of light, we know our end
    A packet of worm-seed, a garden of spent tissues.
    I've done no rape, arson, incest, no murder,
    Yet cannot sleep. The petty crimes of silence
    (Wary pander to whom the truth's chief whore)
    I have omitted; no fool can say my tongue
    Reversed its fetish and made a cult of conscience.
    This innermost disturbance is a babble,
    It is a sign moved to my face as well
    Where every tide of heart surges to speech
    Until in that loquacity of visage
    One speaks a countenance fitter for death than hell.
    Always your features lean to one direction
    And by that charted distance know your doom.
    For death is 'morality touched with emotion,'
    The syllable and full measure of affirmation;
    Give life the innocent crutch of quiet fools.
    Where is your house, in which room stands your bed?
    What window discovers these insupportable dreams?
    In a lean house spawned on baked limestone
    Blood history is the murmur of grasshoppers
    Eastward of the dawn. Have you a daughter,
    Daughters are the seed of occupations,
    Of asperities, such as wills, deeds, mortgages,
    Duels, estates, statesmen, pioneers, embezzlers,
    'Eminent Virginians,' reminiscences, bastards,
    The bar-sinister hushed, effaced by the porcelain tub.
    A daughter is the fruit of occupations;
    Let her not read history lest knowledge
    Of her fathers instruct her to be a petty bawd.
    Vittoria was herself, the contemporary strumpet
    A plain bitch.


Excerpted from Collected Poems 1919-1976 by Allen Tate. Copyright © 2007 Christopher Benfey. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Allen Tate (1899-1979) was born in Winchester, Kentucky, and spent much of his adult life teaching first in the South, then in Minnesota. He is also the author of the novel The Fathers.

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