As Confederate statues are toppled, let’s recall that most of them were raised to reverse the gains achieved by recently freed slaves, reminding them who was actually in control. Displaying the Confederate flag performed—and performs—a similar function.
More powerful than commemorative statues and flags, however, is literature, which can lend respectability to an otherwise sordid past. I therefore find myself returning to Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” a poem that unfortunately is so good that it has done a fair amount of damage.
[Side note: My parents knew Tate when I was growing up in Sewanee, although I never talked to him. He raised the status of the Sewanee Review in the mid-1940s and retired here in the 1960s.]
At first glance, the poem seems more about forgetting than remembering. Nature attacks the Confederate graves—“the headstones yield their names to the element”—and reminds of us of our own mortality as well. In the wind whirring and the dead leaves flying, we see “the seasonal eternity of death”:
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 rumor 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.
To write about forgetting, however, is to remember, and the poet remembers a heroic version of the Confederacy, one that contains no mention of slavery. When he asserts that storied names and battles will, like dead leaves, “plunge and expire,” he paradoxically draws the reader’s attention to those names and battles. Our duty, he implies, is to regard death as unimportant and “praise the vision/And praise the arrogant circumstance/Of those who fall”:
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.
Having reminded us of fabled battles, however, the poet then quickly acknowledges that they will fade with time (“they will not last”). Memories of General Stonewall Jackson, whom Tate eulogized in a biography as “the good soldier,” will crumble like the “decomposing wall” around the cemetery. Echoing T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” Tate regards us today as no longer “arrogant” or “immoderate” but instead “lost in the orient of the thick and fast” and smothered by silence:
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.
Or as Eliot puts it,
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Rather than become maudlin about how we have fallen away from greatness and see only our death, however, Tate stoically looks death in the eye: “We shall say only the leaves/ Flying, plunge and expire.” In this, he differs from fellow agrarian Donald Davidson, who criticized “Ode to the Confederate Dead” for its bleak vision. (A Thomas Hubert essay alerted me to the contrast.)
Davidson’s poem “Lee in the Mountains” is far more sentimental and hopeful, even though it imagines Robert E. Lee as an aging college president who decides against rallying a new generation of southern men to the noble cause. As Davidson sees it, the North reneged on its surrender conditions and went on to lash “the bound and trampled states.” (Davidson makes no mention of those whom southerners like Lee had literally lashed, bound, and sometimes trampled.) As a result, the South is now subjected to the tyrannical rule of “little men.” Davidson imagines Lee wondering,
Was it for this
That on an April day we stacked our arms
Obedient to a soldier's trust? To lie
Ground by heels of little men,
Forever maimed, defeated, lost, impugned?
I suspect that some of those Davidson sees as maiming and defeating are African American legislators and their Northern supporters.
Davidson notes that Lee himself doesn’t openly indulge in such self-pity—“if all were told as it cannot be told”—so the poet does it for him. Then he does what Tate refuses to do: he imagines all coming out right in the end, although it will be God rather than renewed military conflict that will bring this about:
It is not the bugle now, or the long roll beating.
The simple stroke of a chapel bell forbids
The hurtling dream, recalls the lonely mind.
Young men, the God of your fathers is a just
And merciful God Who in this blood once shed
On your green altars measures out all days,
And measures out the grace
Whereby alone we live;
And in His might He waits,
Brooding within the certitude of time,
To bring this lost forsaken valor
And the fierce faith undying
And the love quenchless
To flower among the hills to which we cleave,
To fruit upon the mountains whither we flee,
Never forsaking, never denying
His children and His children's children forever
Unto all generations of the faithful heart.
In other words, the long arc of history bends towards white supremacy.
Tate, even while memorializing what he regards as a heroic past, ends on a more somber note. Eschewing any sentimental wish fulfillment, he acknowledges that, unlike green and cyclical nature, we individual humans are headed for “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!
Such fatalism, however, is a more subtle form of self-pity. It may seem heroic to stoically accept one’s death and the death of one’s heroes, but the end result is that the Confederate dead loom even larger.
I’m pretty sure that few of those Trump supporters waving Confederate flags and defending Confederate statues have read Tate or Davidson, but a similar self-pity lies at their core. It’s not so much that they want to make America white again (after all, people of color have been here from the beginning) but for black and brown people to show them due deference again. Same for far too many police. If artists come along to make their longing poetic and heroic, well, that simply confirms and elevates their seething resentment.
Until the Confederacy and American slave society are seen as the abominations they were—no gauzy, nostalgia-drenched images allowed—racists will use them as weapons against people of color. That’s why laudatory odes written to the Confederacy are so dangerous.
Further thought: While Davidson’s Lee feels betrayed, Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart recently described the real betrayal, one tacitly accept by Lee:
If slavery remains our nation’s original sin, then the 12-year period after its demise known as Reconstruction is an ongoing national betrayal.
During Reconstruction (1865-1877) newly freed African Americans officially became Americans and were granted “equal protection of the laws.” They were legally able to be educated. Black men could vote and hold elective office. But with these gains came a horrifying backlash whose effects continue to be felt today. Just how horrific is detailed in a new report from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
Reconstruction in America: Racial Violence after the Civil War, 1865-1876 adds to EJI’s incredible research that pushes the nation to face its appalling past. “In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative issued a new report that detailed over 4,400 documented racial terror lynchings of Black people in America between 1877 and 1950,” writes EJI founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson. “We now report that during the 12-year period of Reconstruction at least 2,000 Black women, men, and children were victims of racial terror lynchings.”
Don’t gloss over the “at least” in that sentence. As the EJI report notes, thousands more were raped, assaulted or injured in racial terror attacks in the South during Reconstruction. But the tragedy is even worse than that. “The rate of documented racial terror lynchings during Reconstruction is nearly three times greater than during the era we reported on in 2015,” the report explains. “The deadly attacks Black communities endured in the first years of freedom—and the institutions that tolerated that violence—laid a foundation for the era of racial terror lynching that followed and the segregation and inequality that endure still.”
Atlantic’s Adam Sewer, meanwhile, demythologizes Lee in a thorough Atlantic article, including during the time he was college president:
There were at least two attempted lynchings by Washington students during Lee’s tenure, and Pryor writes that “the number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that he either punished the racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors, or turned a blind eye to it,” adding that he “did not exercise the near imperial control he had at the school, as he did for more trivial matters, such as when the boys threatened to take unofficial Christmas holidays.” In short, Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward black people carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.
Lee died in 1870, as Democrats and ex-Confederates were commencing a wave of terrorist violence that would ultimately reimpose their domination over the southern states. The KKK was founded in 1866; there is no evidence Lee ever spoke up against it. On the contrary, he darkly intimated in his interview with the Herald that the South might be moved to violence again if peace did not proceed on its terms. That was prescient.