The Catholic Sensibility of Allen Tate
Essays of Four Decades
By Allen Tate
Publisher: ISI [Intercollegiate Studies Institute] Books
Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Louise Cowan, in the introduction, calls Allen Tate (1899-1979) “the most brilliant if the most neglected literary critic of our century.” In fact, he was not only a critic but also a poet, novelist, and intellectual of the first rank, and the neglect of his work today is due in large part to his conversion, in mid-career, to Catholicism. This would not surprise Tate. He noted ruefully, back in 1931, long before his conversion, that modern intellectuals see religion as a form of “defeatism.” He observed (in an essay in this volume titled “T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday”) that the academic disapproval that greeted T.S. Eliot’s poem upon its publication in 1930 was in part an expression of anti-Christian prejudice. Eliot, lionized for his earlier poems, had joined the Church of England in 1927, thereby scandalizing the intellectual class, which believed — and still believes — that, as Tate put it, “economics, politics, even poetry, and certainly industry, are legitimate modes of salvation, but the historic religious mode is illegitimate.”
Tate’s conviction that religion was legitimate grew slowly and steadily. Living in England and France in 1928 and 1929, Tate wrote to a friend that he was “more and more heading toward Catholicism” because the modern world had reached a point at which compromise was impossible: A thinker must either capitulate to “naturalism” or seek somehow to recover the “religious spirit.” (Ernest Hemingway, one of the many American expatriate artists Tate knew in Europe, wrote from Paris in 1929 that he and Tate had gone to Mass together.) In an essay written in 1930, Tate declared that the medieval Church had provided the only “spiritual unity” possible for the Western mind.
Not until 1950 did Tate receive Baptism, at Christmastide in Morristown, New Jersey, but these essays spanning the years 1928 to 1968 reveal that his thinking over that time was essentially of a piece and that he had long possessed what he called a “Catholic sensibility.” As he told his wife at his baptism, he didn’t know why he had been “such a fool as to wait this long to join the Church.” This collection shows that Tate had developed a profoundly sacramental view of life and that he understood the necessary interdependence of faith and reason. Indeed, he longed for a union of reason and faith such as had been achieved in the Middle Ages. Both before and after his conversion, his model of the true Western poet was Dante (1265-1321).
Tate was not alone in committing himself to “the historic religious mode.” The converts Jacques and Raissa Maritain were his godparents, and Tate’s wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon, had preceded him into the Church by three years. Tate saw a number of friends and associates join the Catholic Church, notably the activist Dorothy Day, the poet Robert Lowell, and the French novelist Julien Green. Conversion for Tate did not mean “defeatism,” of course; nor did it entail conformism. He turned his searching gaze also upon his co-religionists, for Tate was concerned with culture as well as with creed, and he expressed doubt that the modern Catholic sensibility was all that it should be.
In an essay from 1951 titled “The Symbolic Imagination,” he wrote that, whereas the Faith had not changed since Dante’s time, the Catholic sensibility had, and for the worse. He discerned this change, for example, in the works of professedly Catholic poets such as Francis Thompson in the 1890s and Robert Lowell in the 1940s. He observed that their poetry suffered from the same defect as the poetry of modern Protestants and even atheists — a detachment from bodily experience. Even Catholic writers, he complained, had lost their grasp on the “common thing.” They lacked the courage to “face the spiritual truth in its physical body.”
Comparing these modern poems to a passage from the 14th-century writings of St. Catherine of Siena, Tate exclaimed that “the Blood of Christ must be perpetually recreated as a brute fact … where we may smell it, touch it, and taste it again.” He declared that we need writing that begins not at the top, at the angelic part of us, but at the bottom, with our bodies, and that however high our poetry may climb it must carry the body along with it. For Tate, Dante’s Divine Comedy is the supreme model of Catholic sensibility. In the last lines of the Paradiso, Dante reports that what he sees at the very center of the celestial Rose, at the very height of Heaven, is the image of Man, the embodied Word.
Once he became a professed Catholic, Tate had a firm base on which to stand, which allowed him to probe still more deeply into the modern malaise. In an essay from 1952 titled “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” he writes about communion and contrasts it to communication, saying that we have substituted communication for communion. We have taken the means for the end, substituted the part for the whole, and have wound up worshiping our operational techniques. No wonder we are dehumanized and can treat one another as objects. We transmit information exceedingly well, but we do not share our life experiences “in a new and illuminating intensity of awareness.” Communication without communion is incomplete because it does not engage the full substance of our humanity. No political system can ever bring about communion, only the love of God can do it: We must first come “to believe in order to know, and to know in order to do.”
For Tate, then, the remedy for the fragmented Western mind is the renewal of faith in God. He warns that “a society which has once been religious cannot, without risk of spiritual death, preceded by the usual agonies, secularize itself.” The man of letters has a part to play in this renewal: He will reveal “the usurpations of democracy that are perpetrated in the name of democracy” and preserve “the integrity, the purity, and the reality of language wherever and for whatever purpose it may be used.” Through the medium of culture, the man of letters will reveal “the truth of what Jacques Maritain calls the ‘supra-temporal destiny’ of man.” For “the end of social man is communion in time through love, which is beyond time.”
Aware as he was of the sacramentality of the body, Tate saw the early stirrings of what we have come to call the sexual revolution, and he grasped that sexuality, too, was afflicted by the West’s substitution of technique for substance, of means for end. In an essay titled “Narcissus as Narcissus” (1938) he notes the loss of “the general belief that sex must be part of a whole,” and warns that this will entail the loss of personal unity. As early as 1928, in an essay titled “Emily Dickinson,” he points out that the inflation of sex from part to whole has led some critics to the foolish conclusion that “no virgin can know enough to write poetry” and that the spinster poet Dickinson was “starved.” In fact, he says, her life was “one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent.”
Homosexuality, in Tate’s view, is another case of substituting the means for the end, with a resulting loss of integrity. In a 1952 essay on his friend the poet Hart Crane, a homosexual who had killed himself in 1932, Tate observes how homosexuality affects what he calls its “victims”: “They are convinced that they cannot be loved, and they become incapable of loving.” This is not to say that they cannot have a “strong affection,” but they cannot sustain such an affection in a sexual relationship. Tate laments that Crane never achieved the “full human condition,” even though he composed fine poetry out of the desperate conditions of his life, out of some “almost unimaginable horrors of depravity and perversity of will.” In a much earlier piece evaluating Crane’s work, Tate says that his poetry lacks “any rational order of value” and deals in “sensation without point of view.” In short, Crane’s writing mirrors the fragmentation of modern consciousness.
Hand in hand with fragmentation went decline. Tate was an astute critic of the devolution of American intellectual character, noting that the old New England tradition had been “rich in gigantic intellectuals that broke down … in a kind of moral decadence and depravity.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the Transcendentalist “Sage of Concord,” Tate calls the “Lucifer of Concord,” the “light-bearer who could see nothing but light, and was fearfully blind.” Preaching “self-reliance” and individualism, Emerson became unwittingly “the prophet of a piratical industrialism, a consequence of his own transcendental individualism that he could not foresee.” And by the end of the 19th century, the inheritors of the New England intellectual tradition, lacking a religious center, had dwindled into social conformists. Henry James, writing his novels in a post-Emersonian world, turned sin into a failure to do the decent thing, and salvation into respectability.
Here we glimpse the incredible shrinking soul of Western man. Tate sums up the extent of our cultural decline with this shocking statement: “Hitler and Stalin are the Common Man.” What democracy needs is to “allow as many men as possible to make themselves uncommon.” The utopian liberal, says Tate, urges us to give up alienation and conform at all costs; but if we choose to remain human, we must resolve to remain alienated from the prevailing idolatry. The West, says Tate, having turned its back on supernatural religion, now vacillates between two “self-destroying” religions — naturalism and mysticism.
Dissecting naturalism, Tate writes that it is “irrational to believe in omnipotent human rationality,” for it does not prepare us for the experience of evil which is the common lot of our species. Tate finds in the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) a writer whose work was marred by his belief in naturalism. Tate thinks that Hardy wrote best about the characters in his fictional county of Wessex when he was drawing from his immediate experience of people. But since he put his “faith” in a hodgepodge of Darwinism and 19th-century materialism, he could not take the religious life of his people seriously. So he fell to philosophizing about them in “irresponsible abstractions,” the chief of these being Necessity — not the ancient Greek idea, but the banal “Victorian Mechanism.”
Tate treats the other “self-destroying” religion, mysticism, in two essays on the imagination, written after his conversion. At the end of the 16th century — after the Protestant Reformation — a mentality arose in Europe that “denied man’s commitment to the physical world, and set itself up in quasi-divine independence.” Imagination now tried to bypass imagery and go directly to the essence of things. As a result, the intellect of Western man fell into self-worship. Lost was “the external world which by analogy could become the interior world of the mind.”
Tate sees our retreat into the mind as an attempt “to justify our hatred of ourselves — a hatred that may express itself evasively in impossible attempts at human perfectibility, at the expense of human reality, or in disgust with the human condition.” Twentieth-century poets such as Crane and Ezra Pound come at the tail end of this retreat, and their works reveal the wound of separation from the external world. No longer are their images literal. Rather, they point to a separate, paraphrasable meaning. Their language is at times incantatory, as in magic ritual; they seem to be trying to recover a lost reality. What we need is to return to Dante’s symbolic imagination and develop a “disciplined language” that will welcome the fullness of reality as reported by our senses. Instead of imposing our will on experience and trying to possess the world, we should grow in understanding, aware that “understanding, for Dante, was a way of love.”
Dante’s work exemplifies the symbolic imagination, which “conducts an action through analogy, of the human to the divine, of the natural to the supernatural, of the low to the high, of time to eternity.” Here we have a truly sacramental and Catholic sensibility. In John Donne (1572-1631), whom Tate calls “one of the last Catholic allegorists,” the imagination aims high, but that aim is “sighted from a point below.” The impulse to reality, Tate explains, will drive us “through the engrossing image to the rational knowledge of our experience.”
One cannot help but reflect on the recent encyclical Veritatis Splendor when one sees how often Tate speaks of the “truth” as the legitimate aim of the artist and intellectual. It is doubtful, he says, whether “the accelerating decline of modern culture will be checked” without studies that lead to “truth.” And he asks if literary criticism is even “possible without a criterion of absolute truth.” Like St. Augustine (in Of the Profit of Believing), Tate urges us to believe first and foremost, to presuppose “that the full language of the human situation can be the vehicle of truth,” and to assume that a “higher unity of truth” exists, even if it is beyond the full grasp of our understanding.
One sign of Tate’s Catholic sensibility is that he is not afraid to use the word dogma in a positive sense. He asserts (as early as 1936) that “dogma in criticism is a permanent necessity: the value of the dogma will be determined by the quality of the mind engaged in constructing it. For dogma is coherent thought in pursuit of principles.” He is careful to distinguish dogma from preconception or “prejudice,” and he illustrates the distinction with this witty remark, which is still true 64 years later: “If prejudice were dogma, The New York Times Book Review would be a first-rate critical organ.” Another proof of his Catholic sensibility is that Tate values the virtue of humility. He urges the literary critic to cultivate humility, “in order to fulfill his main task — unfolding the knowledge of life contained in the work of art.” A critic needs “the self-abnegation of the saint” to do his work well.
Allen Tate did his work well as a man of letters, but lately, as I said above, neglect has been his portion: For example, in the Norton Anthology of Poetry (shorter fourth edition), a standard college text, Tate is represented by only one poem, his “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” But Essays of Four Decades demonstrates that we may rightly regard him as one of the great American intellectuals of this century. Tate understood well the complexities of literary achievement and literary reputation. Criticized in 1948 for voting to award the prestigious Bollingen Prize for poetry to Ezra Pound (who had been indicted for treason, found mentally unfit, and incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane), Tate explained with exquisite Catholic sensibility, that “in literature as in life nothing reaches us pure. The task of the civilized intelligence is one of perpetual salvage.” The reissuing of Essays of Four Decades may help to salvage the Catholic sensibility of Allen Tate for a generation largely ignorant of his work and badly in need of his wisdom.
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