John Orley Allen Tate was born in Winchester, Kentucky, on November 19, 1899, the third son of Eleanor Varnell and John Orley Tate. His early education was somewhat sporadic, but in 1918 he entered Vanderbilt University, where he began to dedicate himself to literature in the company of such writers as John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren, with whom he was active in the Fugitive and Agrarian movements. In 1924 Tate married Caroline Gordon. In 1959 he married Isabella Gardner, and, in 1966, Helen Heinz.
Best known as a poet, Tate is also the author of biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis as well as of The Fathers, a complex, brilliant novel set against the background of the Civil War. His many critical essays have constituted a shaping force in modern literature. In addition, he served as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (1943-1944), edited The Sewanee Review (1944-1945), and taught at several universities, including Princeton, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of Minnesota.
Tate’s earlier poetry, best represented by the famous “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” is classical in attitude as well as in execution. The ode is a profound meditation which transcends its nominal subject to treat the theme of the self’s struggles in a faithless era. Another major poem, “The Mediterranean,” parallels Tate’s interest in his own past with Aeneas’s search for a home after the fall of Troy. In later poetry, Tate softened the austerity of his classicism in poems which seek to integrate physical and imaginative vision; these efforts culminate in “The Maimed Man,” “The Swimmers,” and “The Buried Lake.”
As a critic, Tate has been identified with the New Critics, who argued for the autonomous nature of the literary work, the reading of which should not be influenced by knowledge external to the work itself. It should be noted, however, that his approach to literature did not employ the “scientific” method of such New Critics as I. A. Richards. In an almost Socratic fashion, Tate sought to unravel in detail the terms on which a literary work presents itself to a reader. Allen Tate’s essays and poems, each shedding light on the other, stand as major achievements in American literature.