Alan Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

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