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Ode to the Confederate Dead

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English Literature

You've probably heard the adage "History is written by the victors." This famous quote, largely attributed to Winston Churchill, actually has much older origins that are completely unknown. But the sentiment certainly rang true in the American Civil War, in which the Union defeated the Confederates and welded the states together again. If the South had won the Civil War, American history and modernity would look vastly different. Today, the South's Confederates are positioned as a group of traitorous slaveowners who wanted to tear the United States apart. Allen Tate, a 20th-century Southern poet, was proud of his Southern identity and the values that urged Confederate soldiers to fight in the war. His famous poem 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' (1928) argues that the dead Confederates were heroes fighting for important traditions, not villains in American history.

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' at a glance

Written By

Allen Tate

Publication Date

1928

Meter

Varied, not set

Rhyme Scheme

Varied, not set

Poetic Devices

Extended Metaphor

Allusion

Simile

Personification

Metonymy

Symbolism

Imagery

Alliteration

Frequently noted imagery

Row after row of headstones

Bodies feeding the grass

Rotting stone angels ("a wing chipped here, an arm there")

Blind crab

Flying leaves

Smoky frieze of the sky

Cold pool left by the mounting flood

Sagging gate

Demons out of the earth

Old man in a storm

Crazy hemlocks point with troubled fingers

Hound bitch, toothless and dying in a musty cellar

Salt of their blood stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea

Ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes

Gray lean spiders

Tangle of willows without light

Singular screech-owl's tight invisible lyric

The jaguar leaps for his own image in a jungle pool

The ravenous grave

Shut gate and the decomposing wall

Gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush

Tone

Critical, mournful

Key themes

Human Narcissism

Modernity vs. Tradition

Death as an Equalizer

Meaning

All of humankind should look to Southern traditions for guidance in how to relate to the natural world instead of carrying on with their narcissism and self-centeredness and damning all of nature along with them.

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' by Allen Tate: biographical context

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is Tate's most famous poem and one of the poems that cement his identity as a Southern poet. Tate was born in Kentucky and raised in the southern states, where he grew deeply attached to the culture and history of the past. During his undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University, Tate was invited to join a group of Southern poets who met regularly to discuss their own works as well as other poets. In 1922, the group began publishing their own literary magazine, The Fugitive (1922-1925), which aimed to showcase what southern poets could contribute to American literature.

Tate's identity as a Southerner consumed his life. His works revolved around the central idea that the South needed to remember its history, traditions, culture, and faith and work its way back to what Tate viewed as the golden times, with an agrarian-based society.

The "Confederate dead" refers to American soldiers who fought for the South during the American Civil War. The Civil War lasted from 1861-1865 and began when Southern states began to secede, or withdraw, from the Union following Abraham Lincoln's election as President of the United States in 1860. There had long been tension between the northern states and the southern states over states’ rights, slavery, and westward expansion. Eleven states eventually seceded from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America. The Confederates fought to maintain their traditions and institutions—most notably slavery, on which their agrarian economy depended.

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is less about the pro-slavery stance that has come to be synonymous with the Confederacy, and more about reviving the culture and values of the past that modern Americans have lost. 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' romanticizes the past while critiquing the faults of present society.

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' was published in Tate's first book of poems, Mr. Pope and Other Poems (1928). It is a sub-type of graveyard poetry, attempting to revitalize "dead" Southern values by reflecting on dead confederate soldiers.

In 1938, Tate published 'Narcissus as Narcissus,' an explanatory essay which aimed to shed some light on 'Ode to the Confederate Dead.' It was the only time he wrote an essay explaining the meaning behind his verse. After his death, his wife noted that he was often amused that people thought the poem was directly about literal Confederate soldiers when the central focus was actually much more philosophical about how people relate to the world.¹

Ode to the Confederate Dead, World in Hands, StudySmarter

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is primarily about the dangers of how modern society relates to the world, pixabay

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' literary analysis and meaning

In 'Narcissus as Narcissus,' Tate states that the central themes in 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' are solipsism and Narcissism, "or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature and society."²This is really important to remember when doing a close reading of the poem for literary devices because the poem is so symbolic it is really easy to miss the nuances of Tate's work. In fact, the vast majority of Tate's readers believe that the poem is literally about dead soldiers. And there is definitely some backing to that, so much so that Tate had to write an entire essay defending his intended meaning. The respect for the dead and contempt for the dilapidated cemetery is actually one massive metaphor for honoring old traditions and rejecting modernity. All of the literary devices in the poem are used to build these extended metaphors.

Solipsism: the philosophical idea which states that the world exists because humans perceive it; only the self is sure to exist; existence is entirely centered around the individual's personal mental and physical state

Narcissism: self-centeredness to the degree that the individual only thinks of themselves and not the needs of those around them, leading to entitlement and a lack of empathy

Extended Metaphor

Tate was very influenced by Southern history, as showcased in his poetry, his two biographies on Civil War heroes, and his 1960 novel The Fathers. In this poem, however, Tate uses Civil War history as a metaphor for the way the entire world interacts with nature. The poem begins,

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 rumour of mortality" (1-9).

The speaker is standing in a Confederate cemetery looking at the neat, orderly rows of tombstones. The cemetery is distinguished as a set place of respect and grieving. It is in tune with nature, where the leaves are free to their cycles of death and regrowth. Even the bodies of the Confederate soldiers play a role in the cycle, giving back to nature just as much as they are taking. Their bodies merge with the natural world around them, giving them new life: "the inexhaustible bodies that are not / Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row" (12-13). The spot marks the cemetery as a place where nature and humanity truly benefit from one another.

Extended Metaphor: a metaphor that extends over lines, stanzas, and paragraphs; building on a simple metaphor using extensive imagery, figurative language, and comparisons.

Ode to the Confederate Dead, Graveyard StudySmarterThe dilapidated Confederate cemetery is a metaphor for Southern tradition of the past, which was characterized by a respect for nature, pixabay

The cemetery, however, is largely forgotten as people have become more individualistic. The speaker chastises a universal "you," saying

You who have waited for the angry resolution

Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,

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--" (34-40)

The speaker criticizes the way humanity as a whole is self-centered. Humans have become so focused on their own lives that they feel as though they can avoid death entirely, no longer fearing it. They want gratification immediately and believe that all the pleasures in the world shall be handed over to them. In short, humans have become so full of themselves that they believe the only value to the world is in the way it serves them.

They don't tend to the gravestones, and "the uncomfortable angels...rot / On the slabs" (17-18). The way the stone angels "rot" signifies that the angels (and the graves as a whole) actually represent life and nature. Humans have ignored and degraded the value of nature, only caring about it in terms of how it can be used and how it benefits them. They praise one another for their successes and visions, but they are neglectful of what actually matters, namely the natural world. They are narcissistic and only care about how things can benefit them.

The extended metaphor compares the cemetery to the natural world, and the Confederate soldiers to the old values of the South which had a deep connection to and respect for the natural world. The dilapidated state of the cemetery is humanity's own self-centeredness that has lead them to ignore the needs of the cemetery (ie nature) and allowed it to fall into ruin.

Allusion

As a poem memorializing Southern values by comparing tradition to Civil War soldiers, 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is full of allusions to famous the Civil War. The speaker references battles and a famous Confederate general:

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" (44-48).

Stonewall is an allusion to Confederate General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, who was famously nicknamed "Stonewall" Jackson for his stubbornness in the face of adversity. When Confederate General Bernard Bee saw Jackson fighting back at the First Battle of Manassas, he famously said “Look, men! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!"³ Here, Stonewall is both an allusion to the famous general as well as a pun on the literal stone wall surrounding the cemetery. Stonewall Jackson is largely considered a hero in the South, so positioning him in league with the walls protecting the cemetery affirms that the traditional relationship Southerners had to nature was one of respect and cohabitation, which has since been lost.

Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic

Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, and Bull Run are all famous battles in the American Civil War. The Union won the Battle of Shiloh, the Battle of Antietam, and the Battle of Malvern Hill, while the Confederates won the First and Second Battle of Bull Run. By including both Confederate wins and losses, the speaker shows how the Southern traditions were fought for and ultimately defeated by the human-centered North.

It is also important to note that these are the names that the Union used for the battles, not the Confederates. The Union tended to name battles after landmarks, while the Confederates named them after nearby towns. The fact that the Union names are given in a Southern poem show how the North's ideas dominated the South's.

Ode to the Confederate Dead,  Civil War Battle,StudySmarterThe speaker uses allusions to famous battles in the Civil War, pixabay

There are also allusions to philosophers, who have proposed the ideas that the speaker thinks modern society needs to get back to. The speaker states,

...you know the rage,

The cold pool left by the mounting flood,

Of muted Zeno and Parmenides" (31-33).

Parmenides (born c. 515 BCE) was a pre-Socratic thinker who argued that there is only one true reality. He said the way things change and exist in different forms is merely an expression of one single reality. He believed in monism, where all is one and there are no fundamental divisions in nature. Zeno of Elea (c. 495 - 430 B.C.) was a student and supporter of Parmenides. He also defended Parmenides's monist beliefs. By referring to Zeno and Parmenides as "muted" and "flooded," the speaker shows how other ideas have overpowered theirs and created new divisions between humans and nature that didn't exist before.

Simile

A simile is used to depict the ego of contemporary humans...and not in a positive way. The speaker compares human self-centeredness to both a blind crab and a naive jaguar. He says,

You shift your sea-space blindly

Heaving, turning like the blind crab" (23-24).

The crab is impaired, its movements limited by its blindness. It has energy but is perpetually stuck. Tate compares the crab to a locked-in ego, showcasing how intellectual, industrious men are cut off from the rest of the world. This is more apparent with the reference to a jaguar, so excited to catch his victim that he is unaware of reality:

And in between the ends of distraction

Waits mute speculation, the patient curse

That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps

For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim" (80-83).

The jaguar is so full of himself and his wants that he is unaware of the rest of the world. He leaps at the reflection of himself in an effort to catch prey. His one-track mind keeps him from truly understanding the nuances of the natural world.

The speaker later compares leaves (a cyclical symbol of nature) to an old man crying in a storm. He says,

Cursing only the leaves crying

Like an old man in a storm" (51-52).

The leaves, as a symbol of nature, are mournful and able to feel human suffering. This passage is in response to the lives lost during the major battles of the war. The leaves are able to empathize with human pain, but humanity is not able to empathize with the natural world. Perhaps it is also this dichotomy which makes the leaves mourn. Like an old man caught in a storm, they are wise and weary and feel deeply.

Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like/as.

Personification and Metonymy

Personification is used to create the image of nature as an ancient, active force. The speaker contrasts positive adjectives with negative adjectives and verbs as he says,

Ambitious November with the humors of the year,

With a particular zeal for every slab,

Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot" (15-17).

November, as a metonymy for weather, especially in deep fall, is ambitious, zealous, and full of life. It is also naturally destructive and makes the angels on the graves uncomfortable, staining them as they rot through the seasons. In short, the weather is one extension of nature's power and vitality.

Remember, the graves/angels are a metaphor for how old traditions of the South created a respectful relationship with nature. This doesn't necessarily mean Southerners were spared from nature's destructive power. Nature has a mind of its own and will destroy human-created things without a second thought. Think of earthquakes, trees, winds, and heavy rains which can destroy buildings and reclaim them over time. Nature is in a constant state of regrowth, which is necessary for things to survive.

If nature seems like a kind of antagonistic force here it's because nature does not bend to human whims. And people thinking it should is an example of narcissism, where humanity is so self-centered it only cares about things in relation to them. The speaker is saying that in the traditional sense nature did destroy some of the things that the Southerners worked hard to build. But that is okay because nature should not and does not revolve around humanity.

The speaker personifies most of the natural things in the cemetery. The leaves cry and whisper, the serpent "riots with his tongue," and the screech owl's song "seeds the mind / With the furious murmur of their chivalry" (91, 72-73). Non-human nature is as much an active force as humans themselves are. Some of the actions are a mystery and oddity to human readers, but nature is purposeful and active. Humans don't need to understand the intricacies of nature. Even the trees are personified:

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point

With troubled fingers to the silence which

Smothers you, a mummy, in time" (53-55).

The trees are crazy and troubled. They point to abstract ideas and invisible places. But it doesn't matter if their ways are obscure to humanity, for we are dependent on them. Personification essentially depicts nature as an all-powerful force separate from humanity, that humans do not understand but that they rely on.

Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

Metonym: the substitution of the name of a thing or concept for something that is closely associated with it

Symbolism and Imagery

There are several symbols in the poem, mostly to depict how death is an equalizing force that eventually ends all living things. The symbolism is heightened by the use of highly descriptive imagery. Symbolism creates a shift away from the themes of narcissism and solipsism, in which humans are the center of the universe, and towards universal truths of nature, in which everything eventually becomes one in death. Symbolism is present in both the mummy and the hound:

Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

The hound bitch

Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar

Hears the wind only" (55-58).

The mummy and the dying hound are symbols of humankind's attempted influence over life and death. Mummies and domesticated dogs are images personal to humans. Both the mummy and the hound are remembered for their relationship to human culture, not their actual value. As death is the ultimate equalizer, the value humans have placed on these symbols only applies to the temporal, which is ignorant and reductive to the true nature of things. Human value doesn't count for all that much in death.

Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.

Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses

Ode to the Confederate Dead, egyptian mummy StudySmarterThe mummy symbolizes humankind's attempted influence over death, pixabay

The poem also ends with the imagery of a serpent, the ancient symbol for death:

The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,

Riots with his tongue through the hush--

Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!" (90-92).

The serpent in a natural habitat is set in contrast to the human-centered images of the mummy and nature. The serpent is truly natural—a being which exists outside of human value. The serpent is given control over the grave because he represents pure, natural death. All of humanity eventually succumbs to the same death as other natural things.

Humans try to fight death by positioning themselves as the possessor of value. People decide what matters and what doesn't by how well things serve them. It's narcissistic and separates humans from the natural world, as they devalue nature. But the serpent is a reminder that narcissism does nothing for their own prospects in death. Being narcissistic gives them a feeling of power in life, but it is useless in death.

Alliteration

Alliteration is used throughout the poem to hint at the power of the serpent and death in the last stanza as the repetition of the "S" sound dominates the poem. "S" sounds like the hissing of a snake or serpent, creating a feeling of unease. Repetition of the "S" sound occurs throughout the entire poem with "sea-space," "sky, the sudden call," "sagging gate, stopped," "Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken," "setting sun," and "stiffens the saltier." The "S" sound also foreshadows the penultimate image of the snake as the sentinel, before the ultimate image of the ravenous grave takes one in death.

Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words

Ode to the Confederate Dead, Serpent, StudySmarterAlliteration of the "S" sound foreshadows death's serpent in the last stanza, pixabay

Remember to read the poem aloud to hear the repetition of the "S" sound throughout the lines! There are more instances of alliteration throughout the poem that don't use "S," such as the "W" in line 27: "You know who have waited by the wall." Pay attention to the other instances of alliteration as well as the dominant "S", and consider what effect they have.

Rhyme Scheme

There is no set rhyme scheme in the poem, and the lines where there is rhyme are sporadic and unpredictable. In lines 6-9 there is an ABAB kind of structure with

To the seasonal eternity of death;

Then driven by the fierce scrutiny

Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,

They sough the rumour of mortality."

But in lines 69 and 70, in the middle of the tenth stanza, the lines form a couplet (though not of the same meter):

In a tangle of willows without light

The singular screech-owl's tight."

The speaker plays with rhyme throughout the poem, as each stanza has a different, sporadic rhyme scheme. This could show the tension between the traditional way of life, where things were neat and orderly and the contemporary way of life, where people are self-centered and do as they please.

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' themes

Human Narcissism

Tate himself said the poem is predominately about narcissism and solipsism. He argues that modern human beings, in general, are self-centered and self-serving. Humans view things as valuable, not for their inherent worth, but for what they can provide. Human beings are narcissistic in life because it gives them a feeling of power. Consider the hound:

The hound bitch

Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar

Hears the wind only" (56-58).

The hound is a possession, that is controlled from her birth until her death. If she was a wild animal, she could die with dignity out in the natural world. But humans have dictated her worth and keep her in a musty cellar where the sound of the wind is her only companion until she dies. While a hound is naturally a wild creature, the hound's life and value is reduced to what humans afford her.

Humans live their life as if everything should work for them:

You who have waited for the angry resolution

Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,

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--" (34-40).

Humans believe death to be unimportant as they accumulate material wealth to escape it. They praise their circumstances for being so beneficial to them when they have molded the very world to their liking and positioned themselves at the center. In short, modern humans are narcissistic, thinking the world revolves around them.

Modernity vs. Tradition

The vast majority of technological advancements are created to make life easier and more enjoyable for mankind. However, humans don't really care about the cost that industry has on the environment. The Southern way of life before the Civil War was largely dependent on agriculture, raising plants and livestock to nourish the country. The speaker says that living in this way created mutualistic relationships between the natural world and the Southerners. They needed nature to be healthy in order for them to grow their plants and survive.

But after the Civil War, slavery became illegal, making it impossible for Southerners to farm on the massive scale that they were able to before. Thus, they were forced to become more industrial-like the North and invest in new industries. The speaker argues that being so industrial has created this division between modern people and the natural world. Instead of respecting it and using it in a sustainable way, they viewed it as a commodity and exploited it. The speaker argues that modernity and industry have led people to become more narcissistic. They no longer care about their connection to the world.

Death as an Equalizer

The final theme in the poem positions death as the ultimate equalizing force. Throughout the poem, the speaker foreshadows inevitable death with references to the blind crab, old man, dying hound, and mummy. The last stanza outright states that death is unavoidable and indiscriminate:

The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,

Riots with his tongue through the hush--

Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!" (90-92).

It doesn't matter how much wealth humans accrue in life or how far their narcissism drives them at the expense of others. The value that humans have created for themselves means nothing in the face of the serpent who counts everything equally. The poet argues that modern people need to restore their traditional relationship to the land because the narcissistic life that they have come to value as deliverance from death is merely a fallacy.

Ode to the Confederate Dead - Key takeaways

  • 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is American poet Allen Tate's most famous poem.
  • The poem was published in 1928 and positions the Confederate soldiers who died attempting to protect the Southern way of life as heroes.
  • The graveyard is a metaphor for the traditional way of life where nature was valued. The way the graveyard has been left to ruin is a metaphor for humanity's narcissism that leads them to neglect nature.
  • The end of the poem expresses that the human belief that narcissism will act as deliverance from death is a myth, as death will come for everyone and everything.
  • The themes in the poem are Human Narcissism, Modernity vs. Tradition, and Death as an Equalizer.

1. Helen Tate, January 7, 2010. Looking Beyond the Confederate Dead. https://chapter16.org/looking-beyond-the-confederate-dead/

2. Allen Tate, Part 2, Reason in Madness, 1941

3. Charleston Mercury on July 25, 1861 https://www.vmi.edu/museums-and-archives/jackson-house-museum/history/jackson-faq/#:~:text=Jackson's%20nickname%20was%20first%20applied,standing%20like%20a%20stone%20wall!

Ode to the Confederate Dead

According to Allen Tate himself, the most prominent theme in 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is human narcissism and solipsism. The other themes are modernity vs. tradition and death as an equalizer.

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is not a straightforward ode. The dead are actually a metaphor, so instead of memorializing the dead, the speaker is actually memorializing the past and urging modern readers to reclaim their traditional relationships.

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' was published in 1928. It allegedly took Tate several years to write.

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is a long lyric poem and a subtype of graveyard poetry. 

The rhyme scheme varies throughout the poem so there is no set rhyme scheme. 

Final Ode to the Confederate Dead Quiz

Question

What is 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'? 

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Answer

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is America poet Allen Tate's most famous poem, published in 1928.

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Question

What kind of poem is 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'? 

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Answer

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is a long lyric poem and a subtype of graveyard poetry. 

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Question

Is 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' an ode? 

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Answer

It is an ode in name only. It doesn't address a particular event or person, instead of reflects on the more philosophical state of the world in comparison to the past and to death.   

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Question

What historical event is 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' inspired by? 

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Answer

'Ode to the Confederate Dead' is inspired by dead Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War. The speaker viewed the soldiers as heroes who died fighting for their traditional way of life. 

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Question

What is the poem really about? 

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Answer

Many people think the poem is literally a elegy for dead Confederate soldiers. It is actually much more philosophical in nature. The speaker uses the Confederate soldiers and graveyard as a metaphor for the traditional connection to nature and the ruined state of the cemetery for human narcissism. 

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Question

What is 'Narcissus as Narcissus'? 


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Answer

'Narcissus as Narcissus' is an essay Tate published in 1938 that explains what he was attempting in 'Ode to the Confederate Dead.' In this essay, Tate states that the themes of the poem are solipsism and narcissism. The entire poem is a metaphor, and not a literal memorial. 

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Question

How is the theme of narcissism depicted in the poem? 

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Answer

Narcissism is depicted entirely through metaphors, comparing the traditional Southern relationship to nature to contemporary society's relationship to nature. The cemetery is representative of the natural world, the dead soldiers are the old traditions, and the ruined state of the cemetery is modernity's neglect. Essentially, modern people are so focused on themselves and how the world can benefit them that they feel a sense of entitlement and only value the natural world in the ways it can help them. 

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Question

What role does symbolism play in the poem? 

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Answer

Symbolism is used to depict death. First, the mummy and the hound are used as symbols for how humans attempt to control life and death. Finally, the serpent is a symbol for natural death which is indiscriminate and inevitable. 

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Question

What role does personification play in the poem? 

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Answer

Personification is used to present nature as an active force that is mysterious and doesn't always benefit humans. The nature in the poem acts of its own accord, which pushes back against the narcissistic control humans feel they have over the world. 

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Question

What are the themes of 'Ode to the Confederate Dead'? 

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Answer

Human Narcissism and Solipsism

Tradition vs. Modernity

Death as an Equalizer 

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