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War poet Alan Seeger and his rendezvous with death

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November 8th, 2017
Alan Seeger as a French Legionnaire.

Alan Seeger as a French Legionnaire.

 

It is difficult to say how familiar people are with him. Some may have heard his name; others may have read his poems; and still others might recognize his face. 

More than 100 years after his violent death, poet Alan Seeger’s spirit is very much alive, thanks in large part to the efforts of author and historian Michael Hill.

Hill, who has served as a researcher to best-selling authors such as David McCullough, Michael Korda, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Jon Meacham, has recently completed a book about Seeger’s life and his service in the French Foreign Legion during World War I. War Poet: The Life of Alan Seeger and His Rendezvous With Death tells the story of an extraordinary writer, who despite his youth, possessed an intelligence and intuition well beyond his years.

“I’ve researched many impressive figures throughout my career, but Seeger’s untold story really stood out to me,” says Hill, who won an Emmy as coproducer of Ken Burns’ documentary series The Civil War. “He’s probably best known for his famous poem, “I Have a Rendezvous With Death,” but he also had an admirable passion for life and was a brave soldier.”

Free spirit

Born in New York in 1888, Seeger enjoyed a privileged upbringing in a highly intellectual family. In 1906, he enrolled at Harvard University, where he edited and wrote for the Harvard Monthly

Following his graduation in 1910, he relocated to Greenwich Village and lived as a free-spirited poet, keeping company with literary greats the likes of John Butler Yeats. But unable to find a publisher for his work, he struck out for Paris in 1912 in hopes of meeting success in Europe. 

Despite his continued failure to publish his poetry, Seeger fell in love with the City of Light. When war broke out in 1914, he readily came to the defense of his adopted home, enlisting in the French Foreign Legion.

“Seeger wanted to be part of something momentous,” explains Hill. “He reasoned that life wasn’t worth living if you didn’t try to make your mark; he believed in what he was fighting for.”

An avid diarist and letter writer, Seeger had an exquisite eye for detail. He was perceptive both in his understanding of humanity and in his interpretation of his surroundings.

Beautiful and horrifying

World War I through his eyes was beautiful, horrifying, and all too real. 

Seeger’s war poems and diary entries offer portraits of the picturesque French countryside intermingled with visceral descriptions of bombed-out villages; the stench of rotting corpses; and the filth, grime, and pestilence of the soldier’s daily existence in the trenches of the Western Front.

Seeger often scribbled verse to the staccato chatter of machine gun fire and the explosions of artillery shells. His work was without pretense, untainted by ambitions of wealth and fame. 

It was art in its purest form, produced under the most emotional of circumstances. That’s what makes Seeger’s story important.

Like so many young men who went to war, Seeger rapidly came of age. He entered the fray driven by romantic ideals of heroism and soon tasted the privations of combat. 

His writing reflects this transition.

“As you read his diary, letters, and poems, you see him evolve,” says Hill. “His experience in combat kindled an almost fatalistic spark wherein he was content to die for a cause he thought worthwhile.”

Hill believes this is why “I Have a Rendezvous With Death” has resonated over the decades. Published after Seeger’s death by a machine gun barrage during the Battle of the Somme (1916), the poem highlights his premonition of a youthful and glorious end in combat.

“In my research, I found this poem used in funerals and memorial ceremonies from the Vietnam War to the present-day conflicts in the Middle East,” he says. “Seeger was at peace with the prospect of death because he considered it a sacrifice made for something bigger than himself. 

“I think that speaks to the extraordinary man that he was.”

Of course, Seeger never knew how great an impact his work would have on people. His death was, as one writer put it, among “the most romantic incidents of the war,” and his poetry, “the authentic voice of…war’s ennobling glory.”

Authors Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald alluded to Seeger in their own writing; and John F. Kennedy regularly recited verses of “Rendezvous”—a fitting anthem of the president’s own death. 

Yet the true inspiration here is in the story of Seeger’s short life, and Hill’s masterful biography is proof enough.

 


 

I Have a Rendezvous With Death

Alan Seeger

 

I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade,

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple-blossoms fill the air—

I have a rendezvous with Death

When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

 

It may be he shall take my hand

And lead me into his dark land

And close my eyes and quench my breath—

It may be I shall pass him still.

I have a rendezvous with Death

On some scarred slope of battered hill,

When Spring comes round again this year

And the first meadow-flowers appear.

 

God knows ‘twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear...

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.

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