Who was Allen Tate?

In prominence as a New Critic, Allen Tate stands next to Ransom. Born in Kentucky, he studied at Georgetown and Washington, and graduated in 1922 from Vanderbilt University, Tennessee. He edited Hound and Horn from 1931-34, and Swanee Review from 1944-46. His important critical works include Reactionary Essays in Poetry and Ideas (1936), Reason in Madness and The Forlorn Demon (1953).

Allen Tate is opposed to theories which connect literature with history, sociology, or with any other of the sciences, or which would like to use it for propaganda. The critic should concentrate his attention on the poem, and see how well it has been done. He is not concerned with questions like “Why has it been done as it has been done?” or “How it should be done?” etc. In his view as to what and how it should have been done, is not criticism. The purpose of a poem is not to confirm any theory, for then it would be no poem but propaganda. The notion that poetry has some moral and social ends is not poetic but philosophical.

While Ransom stressed that poetry deals exclusively with objects, and rigorously excluded ideas from its domain, Tate is more receptive to ideas. There are certain ideas and beliefs which are the common heritage of the people and the poets, and if such ideas and beliefs are used by the poets, they, sharing those beliefs with the readers, would be left free to concentrate on the structure of poem. For example, Dante shared belief in medieval theology with his readers, and thus he could concentrate fully on its structure and the artistic gain was enormous. Similar is the case with the Paradise Lost by Milton. In the modern age, there is no commonly shared system of beliefs and ideas, and so art tends to be abstract. Lack of such a common animating idea is a fatal deficiency in American literature. In other words, Tate like T.S. Eliot believes in the importance of tradition. Poets should make use of tradition, of traditional beliefs and ideas, but they should also modify tradition by their use of it. In this way, in the work of a great poet, there is always a ‘tension’ between tradition and experiment, between the old and the new, and this ‘tension’ is ultimately resolved and harmonized.

The term tension is constantly recurring in Tate’s criticism. In Tension and Poetry, 1938, according to Pritchard, Tate has developed a “Kinetic explanation of the poem in contrast to Ransom’s relatively static structure and texture”. To examine the poem as a whole, the result of the union of texture and structure, is the duty of a critic. Poetry has two meanings: denotative (indicated or signified by a sign) and connotative (emotional). “To indicate the denotative aspects of language, Tate uses the term extension; to denote its connotative aspects, intension. The equilibrium of these two forces in tension gives poetry its meaning.”

Tate expresses himself strongly against historical criticism and moral judgment. The critic should not make a moral judgment; rather he should deliver a total judgment about the work of art as a whole. Sociologists and historical approaches omit a large part of human experience, the spiritual and the emotional, for example, and are, therefore, not the right approaches to literary criticism. The critic must look at literary works as objects. He must first decide in what respect the work possesses objectivity, testing it not according to its subject matter, which does not share this objectively, but by its formal qualities. He considers both the literary genre and the entire individuality of the work. He examines past authors’ works in the light of the formal objective expression of our time. Form in the past works must be tested in comparison with our mastery of it today. Former authors, he agrees with Howells, should be reassessed every generation or two.

Written by Lucas Beaumont

Generalist. Wikipedia contributor. Elementary school teacher from Saskatchewan, Canada.

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