The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, MARCH 29, 1936
That For Tate:
Classics And Soil
By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: In 1940, at a writer's conference in Charlotte, Cash met Allen Tate, the subject of this ascerbic article; he subsequently succinctly summarized his impression to a friend: "A pompous ass."
Mr. Allen Tate, who first came to notice as a member of the Fugitive group at Nashville, is a good poet. He would be a better poet, I think, if only he could get over being so enormously impressed by the fact that Allen Tate has read the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, carefully studied the more esoteric mannerisms of John Donne, and delved at length into French literature and medieval scholasticism. But it is no use laying down rules for poets; we have to take them as we find them--and as God made 'em. And as I say, Mr. Tate is a very good one. All the four volumes of verse he has turned out have genuine distinction in them.
But for the last five years Mr. Tate has been attempting to set up for a prose writer also. It has never been an entirely fortunate undertaking. Still, the two biographies with which he began are not wholly bad. They were a little hard to read, certainly; the medium in which they were cast was somewhat overangular, too abrupt; and what was worse, it was often precious and obscure. Nevertheless, if you could bring yourself to wade into it, you discovered that, in many places at least, it had the merit of a striking forcefulness.
Alas, however, Mr. Tate has not been content to leave it at that. Since the publication of the symposium, "I'll Take My Stand," in 1931, he has shown an ever-increasing inclination to set up, not only for a prose writer but also for a philosopher, both moral and political. The issue of that inclination is embodied in the present volume, made up of papers and reviews originally published in the pages of the Nation, the New Republic, the Virginia Quarterly, Poetry, and Hound and Horn, the American Review, and various other of the little reviews, living and dead.
The book is perfect proof of the following passage from William Hazlitt:
"Poets (as it has been said) have such seething brains, that they are disposed to meddle with everything, and mar all. They make bad philosophers and worse politicians. They live for the most part in an ideal world of their own, and it would perhaps be as well if they were confined to it. Their flights and fancies are delightful to themselves and to everybody else, but they make strange work with matter of fact, and if they were allowed to act in public affairs, would soon turn the world the wrong side out. They indulge only their own flattering dreams or superstitious prejudices, and make idols or bug-bears or whatever they please, caring as little for history or particular facts as for general reasoning. They are dangerous leaders..."
Mr. Tate's lucubrations, I understand, are in great vogue at present with the college boys of the South, and even of America generally, as being greatly novel and exciting. But readers of a little wider experience than the sophomores will immediately recognize that the argument Mr. Tate presents with such an oracular flourish is in reality only the standard argument of the Neo-Medievalists--a stock argument which has been knocking about the world for a hundred and twenty-five years now.
And precisely what does a Neo-Medievalist argue? Well, that there is a "form" normal to human society when it is "completely human"--that this form is the feudal form in use in Europe during the Middle Ages--that men can only be true men when they are arranged in castes, planted on the land instead of in cities, and given great lords to be their masters. That authority is necessary to man not only in the political realm but in the spiritual as well, that what we currently call "myths" are in reality profound emanations from the soul of humanity, which embody profound truths of subjective experience--that religion, properly speaking, is only the whole corpus of these " myths," and that without them it is impossible--that therefore the position of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages is the only one which can be normal to the human spirit when it is "really human," and "sees life whole" and not in terms of intellectual abstractions. That, these things being true, it inevitably follows that everything we have thought and done since about 1500--including particularly democracy, the industrial revolution, a growth of the humanitarian spirit, and the rise of the rationalistic and skeptical attitude--is all wrong, and has only resulted in chaos. That if we are to escape complete disaster, we have got to reverse ourselves, to think ourselves back into feudalism, into abject respect for authority, into a purely agricultural polity, and into the habit of making and believing in myths
It is obviously as sensible as proposing that, by taking thought, we should get ourselves removed to the moon. And in Mr. Tate's case it means nothing save that he is at bottom a romantic poet, likes to fancy that if only he had been fortunate enough to be born in those find glamorous old times, he'd have been the Sieur Alain, at the least, swinging gloriously back and forth from singing in the courts of love and praying in the gorgeous twilight of Chartres or Cluny, to riding forth in shining panoply to the search for the Sangreal or the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre. Historically, of course, it is far more likely that Mr. Tate would have been only a serf, condemned to labor sixteen hours a day on the dungheap, to be beaten a couple of times a day for wasting too much of his breath singing, to go hungry to a bed of straw without any covering, and lie shivering through the night while the wind and rain swept practically unchecked through the sieve of a hut.
But mere fact and probability, as Hazlitt observes, do not bother a poet. Nor a Neo-Medievalist. These last, indeed, all hold these things in such withering scorn, that like Mr. Tate, they constantly proclaim that anybody who pays any attention to them is only a dull oaf without "a sense of history." This "sense" seems to be a very special faculty from Heaven vouchsafed only to poets and Neo-Medievalists--or rather to persons who are both poets and Neo-Medievalists.
What is true of Mr. Tate's Neo-Medievalism also holds good for that special adaptation of it which appears in several of the essays here--is that Neo-Confederate position, or, as he likes to call it, his Agrarianism. And if you don't know what that means--why, briefly, it is this: that the Old South was just such a society as those dead ones of the Twelfth century in Europe toward which the Neo-Medievalists yearn so hotly--an illuminated page out of the past somehow miraculously preserved to the Nineteenth century. Yes, and that if the present South, and with it the rest of America, is not to be utterly damned, it is going to have to burn the factories and take itself back to being like that Old South--or like the thing which the Neo-Medievalists say it was.
Mr. Tate did not invent this notion. In its main outline it was invented by his former professor at Vanderbilt, John Crowe Ransom--another poet. And professor Ransom's notion is itself, of course, only the result of the meeting and the marriage of Neo-Medievalism with the ancient Southern sentimentality. At bottom, it is only a somewhat sophisticated version of the late lamented Thomas Nelson Page's dream of the old plantation--of his confusion of the Old South with Cloud-Cuckoo-Town.
For the glory of beautiful letters, I wish Mr. Tate would leave off dazzling (and uselessly muddling) the sophomores, retreat to his ivory tower, and, locking himself in with his Muse, leave the business of philosophy to less soaring fellows.
Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas. By Allen Tate, 240 pp. Scribners. New York. $2.50.
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