May 27, 2016

Alan Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

The Gray and the gray. "Confederate veteran reunion, Washington, 1917"

Row after row with strict impunity
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 wind
         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 hemp,
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 the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?

         Leave now
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!

Posted by Vanderleun at May 27, 2016 4:06 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

This poem is more stirring than any I've read in a long time.

This line:
" . .You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time."

The imagery throughout - shattering.

On reading a poem like this I wish I were in a group where one could explore meanings.

The stanza:

"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 the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?"

I would so appreciate others' sense of this.

Posted by: Cathy at November 11, 2008 4:28 PM
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 the grave In the house? The ravenous grave?

"In the house" is probably a reference to Lincoln's "House Divided" speech in June of 1858. Setting up the grave "within the house" after the war suggests honoring those who died to preserve the separation. Some "more hopeful" clearly thought the idea would help reconcile the two sides, but he seems to think such a reconciliation attempt might destroy the Union.

Of course, I come from a family one side of which fought with Sherman while the other did what they could to avoid conscription by the Confederacy, to the point of fighting a pitched gun duel in Arkansas as a result of which three family members, including a 16-year-old girl, were killed by the conscriptors. Most of those who survived went as far north and west as they could get. So that's my notion of the "ravenous grave."

Posted by: Demosophist at November 11, 2008 9:34 PM

Also, if the sign behind the troopers refers to their membership in Nathan Bedford Forrest's force ("Troop" refers to cavalry) then it's sort of whimsical to think that my great grandfather had been chasing these fellows southward toward Mobile, and they escaped. As it happens I'd just posted a picture of my great grandfather taken around the same time that the picture above was taken, just before I read Gerard's piece. It's on Winds of Change. I also posted and transcription of my great grandfather's recollections in which he talks about chasing these guys. Hows that for coincidence?

Posted by: Demosophist at November 11, 2008 11:20 PM

Veterans Day was, of course, a product of World War I, so both of these pictures predate that holiday. However, Memorial Day would have been well established by 1917, and grew out of the Civil War experience. It's not clear which side thought of placing flowers on the graves of their dead first, but the Grand Army of the Republic (all Union veterans) popularized the practice. I suppose it's conceivable that both pictures were taken on Memorial Day (Decoration Day?), 1917.

Posted by: Demosophist at November 12, 2008 12:07 AM

All honour to those who fought to keep other human beings in perpetual involuntary servitude.

Or maybe not. The jihadis are also fighting for what they believe in; if one honours the Southern "patriots" one ought to honour them too.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at November 13, 2008 2:22 PM

Commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, General John Logan, officially proclaimed Decoration Day: To be observed on 30 May 1868 with flowers placed on the graves of Union AND Confederate soldiers. On 4 June 1914 President Woodrow Wilson dedicated the CSA Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, the former home of CSA General R. E. Lee, before thousands of former Union and Confederate soldiers.

Posted by: hoodathunkit at May 27, 2013 3:16 PM

I went to my family's cemetery in northwest GA this weekend. The Sons of the Confederacy had put Confederate flags on the graves of those who had served in the war against federal tyranny, the same federal tyranny America suffers under today.

Posted by: twolaneflash at May 27, 2013 5:07 PM

What of the gentle man, that killed with no recourse.
More the pity ?

Posted by: u.k(us) at May 27, 2013 6:54 PM

It wasn't that simple, Fletch. It's true much of the southern "elite" was convinced of the "virtues" of slavery, and wanted to expand it to the west, but the average Confederate soldier--who owned no slaves, and may have come from a part of the South, like Texas or upland North Carolina, where slavery was rare--was more concerned about fighting what he viewed as an outside invasion. It was a complex war with complex causes and motives, but the common soldiers on both sides for the most part conducted themselves with honor. And that is what I, a northern boy, will remember this day when we Americans pay homage to our fallen soldiers.

Posted by: waltj at May 27, 2013 9:38 PM

Talk about pharting in an elevator --

Yo, Bill, try that line at Arlington sometime; I'll hold your beret.

Posted by: Anon at May 28, 2013 9:28 AM


A recreation of what is thought to be the authentic rebel yell can be found here:

My Five Points (Manhattan) Mick ancestors would have heard this coming at them in places like Virginia and the Carolinas.

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at May 29, 2013 9:46 AM

waltj - Well said my friend.

Posted by: tripletap at May 24, 2014 4:20 AM

The Confederate Vets in 1917 appear to be in better shape than most Americans today, particularly Southerners.

Posted by: Lorne at May 24, 2014 4:59 AM

The sneer quotes around patriots is convincing evidence of ignorance.

"Shall we take the act to the grave?" could be a question of what one is to do with conviction: act on it and chance destruction? "Set up the grave within the house" may refer to nurturing rebellious allegiance in private.

A stirring poem to be sure.

Posted by: Dan Patterson at May 24, 2014 8:17 AM

Painting of (then) Col NB Forrest' charge at Shiloh:

More Americans died in this one battle than in all three of America's previous wars combined.

Posted by: Deo Vindice at May 24, 2014 8:29 AM

The poem is moving and is an excellent piece of the poet's art, but my curiosity was piqued by the presence of the lone female on the end of the front row in the picture. Each of those old vets likely has a worthy story to tell about how he made his way to be in that memorial portrait, but the imagination brims with possibilities of how that lone sad eyed lady came to join them.

Posted by: Djaces at May 24, 2014 9:41 AM

I think its a mistake to try to tease out literal meanings in a poem. If that were truly possible there would be no need for a poem.
Let it run through your fingers like water and taste it.

Posted by: pbird at May 25, 2014 8:41 AM

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am, among all people, most richly blessed.

~ A Confederate Soldiers Prayer

Posted by: Cond0011 at May 25, 2014 8:35 PM

"All honour to those who fought to keep other human beings in perpetual involuntary servitude."

The Union was fine with slavery so long as they were making profits from it.

Abolishing slavery did not become a goal of the war until nearly two years after the war began.

So what were they fighting for those first two years?

Posted by: DiogenesLamp at May 31, 2016 8:05 AM