Allen Tate was born near Winchester, Kentucky the son of John Orley Tate, a businessman, and Eleanor Parke Custis Varnell. In 1916 and 1917 Tate studied the violin at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
Tate began attending Vanderbilt University in 1918 where he met fellow poet Robert Penn Warren. Warren and Tate were invited to join a group of young Southern poets under the leadership of John Crowe Ransom known as the Fugitive Poets and later as the Southern Agrarians. Tate contributed to the group's magazine The Fugitive and to the agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand published in 1930. Tate also joined Ransom to teach at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
In 1924 Tate moved to New York City where he met Hart Crane, with whom he had been exchanging correspondence for some time. During a summer visit with Warren in Kentucky, he began a relationship with Caroline Gordon, whom he married in New York in May 1925. Their daughter, Nancy, was born in September. He and Gordon were divorced in 1945 and remarried in 1946. Though devoted to one another for life they could not get along, and Tate married the poet Isabella Gardner in the early fifties. While teaching at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis he met Helen Heinz, a nun enrolled in one of his courses, and began an affair with her. Gardner divorced Tate and he married Heinz in 1966. They moved to Sewanee, Tennessee. In 1967 Tate became the father of twin sons, John and Michael. Michael died at eleven months from choking on a toy while left in the care of a babysitter. A third son Benjamin was born in 1969.
In 1924, Tate began a four-year sojourn in New York City where he worked freelance for the The Nation, contributed to the Hound and Horn, Poetry magazine, and others. He worked as a janitor, and lived la vie boheme in Greenwich Village with Caroline Gordon, and when urban life proved too overwhelming, repaired to "Robber Rocks", a house in Patterson, New York, with friends Slater Brown and his wife Sue, Hart Crane, and Malcolm Cowley. He would, some years later, contribute to the conservative National Review as well.
1928 saw the publication of Tate's most famous poem "Ode To the Confederate Dead," not to be confused with "Ode to the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery" written by Civil War poet and South Carolina native, Henry Timrod. In 1928, Tate also published a biography Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier.
In 1929 Tate published a second biography Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall.
The 1930s found Tate back in Tennessee working on social commentary influenced by his agrarian philosophy. In addition to his work on I'll Take My Stand he published Who Owns America? which was a conservative response to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. During this time Tate also became the de facto associate editor of The American Review, which was published and edited by the fascist Seward Collins. Tate saw The American Review as an organ for popularizing the work of the Southern Agrarians, but he objected to Collins's open support of Mussolini and Hitler and condemned fascism in an article in The New Republic in 1936.
In 1938 Tate published his only novel The Fathers which drew upon the knowledge of his mother's ancestral home in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Tate was a poet in residence at Princeton University until 1942. He founded the Creative Writing program at Princeton, and mentored Richard Blackmur, John Berryman and others. In 1942, Tate assisted novelist and friend Andrew Lytle in transforming The Sewanee Review, America's oldest literary quarterly, from a modest journal into one of the most prestigious in the nation. Tate and Lytle attended Vanderbilt together prior to collaborating at The University of the South.