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
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 THE CONFEDERATE
Row after row with strict
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 mortality.
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!--
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:
The brute curiosity of an angel's stare
Turns you, like them, to stone,
Transforms the heaving air
Till plunged to a heavier world below
You shift your sea-space blindly
Heaving, turning like the blind crab.
Dazed by the wind, only the
The leaves flying, plunge
You know who have waited by the wall
The twilight certainty of an animal,
Those midnight restitutions of the blood
You know--the immitigable pines, the smoky frieze
Of the sky, the sudden call: you know the rage,
The cold pool left by the mounting flood,
Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.
You who have waited for the angry resolution
Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,
You know the unimportant shrift of death
And praise the vision
And praise the arrogant circumstance
Of those who fall
Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision--
Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.
Seeing, seeing only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire
Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth--they will not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run.
Lost in that orient of the thick-and-fast
You will curse the setting sun.
Cursing only the leaves crying
Like an old man in a storm
You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.
The hound bitch
Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar
Hears the wind only.
Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea,
Seals the malignant purity of the flood,
What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
The gray lean spiders come, they come and go;
In a tangle of willows without light
The singular screech-owl's tight
Invisible lyric seeds the mind
With the furious murmur of their chivalry.
We shall say only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire
We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing;
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.
What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up
In the house? The ravenous grave?
The shut gate and the decomposing wall:
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush--
Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!
Alice grown lazy, mammoth
but not fat,
Declines upon her lost and twilight age;
Above in the dozing leaves the grinning cat
Quivers forever with his abstract rage:
Whatever light swayed on the perilous gate
Forever sways, nor will the arching grass,
Caught when the world clattered, undulate
In the deep suspension of the looking-glass.
Bright Alice! always pondering to gloze
The spoiled cruelty she had meant to say
Gazes learnedly down her airy nose
At nothing, nothing thinking all the day.
Turned absent-minded by infinity
She cannot move unless her double move,
The All-Alice of the world's entity
Smashed in the anger of her hopeless love,
Love for herself who, as an earthly twain,
Pouted to join her two in a sweet one;
No more the second lips to kiss in vain
The first she broke, plunged through the glass
Alone to the weight of impassivity,
Incest of spirit, theorem of desire,
Without will as chalky cliffs by the sea
Empty as the bodiless flesh of fire:
All space, that heaven is a dayless night,
A nightless day driven by perfect lust
For vacancy, in which her bored eyesight
Stares at the drowsy cubes of human dust.
--We too back to the world shall never pass
Through the shattered door, a dumb shade-harried
Being all infinite, function depth and mass
Without figure, a mathematical shroud
Hurled at the air--blessed without sin!
O God of our flesh, return us to Your wrath,
Let us be evil could we enter in
Your grace, and falter on the stony path!
There are wolves in the next room waiting
With heads bent low, thrust out, breathing
At nothing in the dark; between them and me
A white door patched with light from the hall
Where it seems never (so still is the house)
A man has walked from the front door to the stair.
It has all been forever. Beasts claw the
I have brooded on angels and archfiends
But no man has ever sat where the next room's
Crowded with wolves, and for the honor of man
I affirm that never have I before. Now
I have looked for the evening star at a cold
And whistled when Arcturus spilt his light,
I've heard the wolves scuffle, and said: So this
Is man; so--what better conclusion is there--
The day will not follow night, and the heart
Of man has a little dignity, but less patience
Than a wolf's, and a duller sense that cannot
Smell its own mortality. (This and other
Meditations will be suited to other times
After dog silence howls his epitaph.)
Now remember courage, go to the door,
Open it and see whether coiled on the bed
Or cringing by the wall, a savage beast
Maybe with golden hair, with deep eyes
Like a bearded spider on a sunlit floor
Will snarl--and man can never be alone.
Quem das finem,
rex magne, dolorum?
Where we went in the boat
was a long bay
A slingshot wide, walled in by towering stone--
Peaked margin of antiquity's delay,
And we went there out of time's monotone:
Where we went in the black hull no light moved
But a gull white-winged along the feckless wave,
The breeze, unseen but fierce as a body loved,
That boat drove onward like a willing slave:
Where we went in the small ship the seaweed
Parted and gave to us the murmuring shore,
And we made feast and in our secret need
Devoured the very plates Aeneas bore:
Where derelict you see through the low twilight
The green coast that you, thunder-tossed, would
Drop sail, and hastening to drink all night
Eat dish and bowl to take that sweet land in!
Where we feasted and caroused on the sandless
Pebbles, affecting our day of piracy,
What prophecy of eaten plates could landless
Wanderers fulfil by the ancient sea?
We for that time might taste the famous age
Eternal here yet hidden from our eyes
When lust of power undid its stuffless rage;
They, in a wineskin, bore earth's paradise.
Let us lie down once more by the breathing side
Of Ocean, where our live forefathers sleep
As if the Known Sea still were a month wide--
Atlantis howls but is no longer steep!
What country shall we conquer, what fair land
Unman our conquest and locate our blood?
We've cracked the hemispheres with careless hand
Now, from the Gates of Hercules we flood
Westward, westward till the barbarous brine
Whelms us to the tired land where tasseling corn,
Fat beans, grapes sweeter than muscadine
Rot on the vine: in that land were we born.
I myself saw furious with
Neoptolemus, at his side the black Atridae,
Hecuba and the hundred daughters, Priam
Cut down, his filth drenching the holy fires.
In that extremity I bore me well,
A true gentleman, valorous in arms,
Distinterested and honourable. Then fled
That was a time when civilization
Run by the few fell to the many, and
Crashed to the shout of men, the clang of arms:
Cold victualing I seized, I hoisted up
The old man my father upon my back,
In the smoke made by sea for a new world
Saving little--a mind imperishable
If time is, a love of past things tenuous
As the hesitation of receding love.
(To the reduction of uncitied littorals
We brought chiefly the vigor of prophecy,
Our hunger breeding calculation
And fixed triumphs.)
I saw the thirsty dove
In the glowing fields of Troy, hemp ripening
And tawny corn, the thickening Blue Grass
All lying rich forever in the green sun.
I see all things apart, the towers that men
Contrive I too contrived long, long ago.
Now I demand little. The singular passion
Abides its object and consumes desire
In the circling shadow of its appetite.
There was a time when the young eyes were slow,
Their flame steady beyond the firstling fire,
I stood in the rain, far from home at nightfall
By the Potomac, the great Dome lit the water,
The city my blood had built I knew no more
While the screech-owl whistled his new delight
Stuck in the wet mire
Four thousand leagues from the ninth buried city
I thought of Troy, what we had built her for.
Think about it at will: there
Which is the commentary; there's that other,
Which may be called the immaculate
Conception of its essence in itself.
It is necessary to distinguish the weights
Of the two methods lest the first smother
The second, the second be speechless (without
I was saying this more briefly the other day
But one must be explicit as well as brief.
When I was a small boy I lived at home
For nine years in that part of old Kentucky
Where the mountains fringe the Blue Grass,
The old men shot at one another for luck;
It made me think I was like none of them.
At twelve I was determined to shoot only
For honor; at twenty not to shoot at all;
I know at thirty-three that one must shoot
As often as one gets the rare chance--
In killing there is more than commentary.
One's sense of the proper decoration alters
But there's a kind of lust feeds on itself
Unspoken to, unspeaking; subterranean
As a black river full of eyeless fish
Heavy with spawn; with a passion for time
Longer than the arteries of a cave.
Kentucky, July 1911
Kentucky water, clear springs:
a boy fleeing
To water under the dry Kentucky
His four little friends in
tandem with him, seeing
Long shadows of grapevine wriggle and run
Over the green swirl; mullein
under the ear
Soft as Nausicaa's palm; sullen
Savage as childhood's thin harmonious tear:
O fountain, bosom source undying-dead
Replenish me the spring of
love and fear
And give me back the eye that looked and fled
When a thrush idling in the
Unwound the cold dream of
--Along the creek the road was winding; we
Felt the quicksilver sky.
I see again
The shrill companions of that
Bill Eaton, Charlie Watson, 'Nigger' Layne
The doctor's son, Harry Duesler
The flute; and Tate, with
water on the brain.
Dog-days: the dusty leaves where rain delayed
Hung low on poison-oak and
And we were following the
Of water, that bells and bickers all night long.
'No more'n a mile,' Layne
said. All five stood still.
Listening, I heard what seemed
at first a song;
Peering, I heard the hooves come down the hill.
The posse passed, twelve horse;
the leader's face
Was worn as limestone on an
Then, as sleepwalkers shift from a hard place
In bed, and rising to keep
a formal pledge
Descend a ladder into empty
We scuttled down the bank below a ledge
And marched stiff-legged in
our common fright
Along a hog-track by the riffle's
Into a world where sound shaded the sight
Dropped the dull hooves again;
the horsemen came
Again, all but the leader:
it was night
Momently and I feared: eleven same
Whose Corpse had died again
in dirty shame.
The bank then levelling in a speckled glade,
We stopped to breathe above
I gazed at its reticulated
Recoiling in blue fear, and felt it roll
Over my ears and eyes and
lift my hair
Like seaweed tossing on a
I rose again. Borne on the copper air
A distant voice green as a
Against a grave: 'That dead
The melancholy sheriff slouched beneath
A giant sycamore; shaking
He plucked a sassafras twig
and picked his teeth:
'We come too late.' He spoke to the tired dead
Whose ragged shirt soaked
up the viscous flow
Of blood in which It lay discomfited.
A butting horse-fly gave one ear a blow
And glanced off, as the sheriff
kicked the rope
Loose from the neck and hooked
it with his toe
Away from the blood.--I looked back down the slope:
The friends were gone that
I had hoped to greet.--
A single horseman came at
a slow lope
And pulled up at the hanged man's horny feet;
The sheriff noosed the feet,
the other end
The stranger tied to his pommel
in a neat
Slip-knot. I saw the Negro's body bend
And straighten, as a fish-line
Yields to the current that
it must subtend.
The sheriff's Goddamn was a murmured curse
Not for the dead but for the
That boxed the cortege in
a cloudy hearse
And dragged it towards our town. I knew I must
Not stay till twilight in
that silent road;
Sliding my bare feet into
the warm crust,
I hopped the stonecrop like a panting toad
Mouth open, following the
That floated to the court-house
square its load
Of limber corpse that took the sun for shroud.
There were three figures in
the dying sun
Whose light were company where
three was crowd.
My breath crackled the dead air like a shotgun
As, sheriff and the stranger
The faceless head lay still.
I could not run
Or walk, but stood. Alone in the public clearing
This private thing was owned
by all the town,
Though never claimed by us
within my hearing.
Tate, "Narcissus as Narcissus" (on "Ode to the Confederate Dead")
Academy of American Poets
American Poetry: An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology
of Modern American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2000), ed. Cary
A. Underwood, "Mother Wanted Me Home" (from Allen Tate: Orphan of the
South, Princeton UP, 2000)
Yezzi, "The Violence of Allen Tate" (review essay of Allen Tate, Essays
of Four Decades, and Thomas A. Underwood, Allen Tate: Orphan of
the South, in The New Criterian Online)
Da Costa, "The Fugitive" (review of Thomas A. Underwood, Allen Tate:
Orphan of the South, in The New York Times On the Web)