American poet Alan Seeger is best remembered for "I Have a Rendezvous with Death," a poem that foreshadowed Seeger's death in battle during World War I. Seeger lived a bohemian (unconventional) lifestyle in New York's Greenwich Village before moving to France in 1912. When war broke out in 1914, he was one of the first Americans to enlist in the French Foreign Legion (a branch of the French military open to foreigners). In letters to his family and to American periodicals, he expressed the idealism and courage of many young men of his generation who answered the call of duty in World War I. On the Fourth of July 1916, nearly a year before the United States entered the war, came Seeger's own death, as he fell in battle while trying to liberate a French village from the Germans. A collection of his works, Poems, was published in 1916 and included several dozen lyrics, odes, and sonnets. "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" is the only one that is well-known today.
A Privileged Childhood
Alan Seeger was born in New York City on June 28, 1888, the son of businessman Charles Louis Seeger and Elsie Simmons Adams Seeger. Alan had an older brother and a younger sister. His father made a large fortune from sugar refineries in Mexico, so the family lived in comfortable circumstances on Staten Island, the most rural of the five boroughs of New York City. Alan's brother, a musicologist (a person who studies music as a field of research), was the father of Pete Seeger (1919–), activist and folksinger.
Alan Seeger got his education at prestigious private schools, such as the Staten Island Academy and the Horace Mann School in Manhattan. When he was twelve years old, the Seegers moved to Mexico City, and Alan helped his parents produce a family magazine they called the Prophet. The time he spent in Mexico later inspired him to write a number of poems that describe that country as a vivid and exotic land. In one of them, "An Ode to Antares," Seeger paints himself as a "fond romanticist" encountering a carefree environment where "The tropic sunset's bloom on cloudy piles / Cast out industrious cares with dreams of fabulous isles." In "Tezcotzinco," he imagines native people strolling through the gardens of an ancient Aztec king, their "Bare bodies beautiful, brown, glistening, / Decked with green plumes and rings of yellow gold." Seeger's health was not good, and his parents thought the high altitude of Mexico City was too difficult for him; so in 1902 the young man returned to the United States to enroll at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. He then spent a year with a tutor in southern California before going back East to study at Harvard College, where he was editor of the Harvard Monthly. At Harvard, he became interested in Celtic literature, and he wrote many original poems as well as translations from Dante (1265–1321) and other classical writers.
Graduating from Harvard in 1910, Seeger returned to New York City and began associating with the bohemian and avant-garde (experimental; innovative) artists and writers who were then living in Greenwich Village. For a time, he shared an apartment with a Harvard classmate, John Reed (1887–1920), who later became an avid supporter of the revolution in Russia and of the Communist government that replaced the czar's rule there. (Communism is a system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single party holds power with the goal of equally dividing all goods among the people.)
Ever a restless soul, Seeger thought that New York was too limiting for him, so in 1912 he moved to Paris. There he took up residence in the Latin Quarter with other expatriates (people who live in another country and sometimes give up their citizenship) from the United States and Europe. It was during this period that he wrote a collection of poems that he called Juvenilia. Seeger also enjoyed taking long hikes through the French countryside. In the summer of 1914, he visited London to try to find a publisher for Juvenilia. But then World War I broke out; he returned to France and became one of the first Americans to join the French Foreign Legion, a choice that fit his idealistic and risk-taking personality.
A Soldier in the French Foreign Legion
After basic training at Rouen, Seeger was assigned to Battalion C of the Second Regiment of the foreign legion, which was based at Toulouse in the south of France. From that city he wrote a letter to his mother in September 1914; an excerpt, quoted in the online "Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger," expresses the reasoning behind his commitment to fight for France: "… in this universe strife and sternness play as big a part as love and tenderness, and cannot be shirked by one whose will it is to rule his life in accordance with the cosmic forces he sees in play about him." In another letter from the same source, Seeger refused to think of the dangers of combat, instead describing the fighting in the most positive and idealistic of terms: "Every day, from the distance to the north, has come the booming of the cannon around Reims and the lines along the Meuse [River]… . But imagine how thrilling it will be tomorrowand the following days, marching toward the front."
The United States was not involved in World War I until 1917, but many American newspaper readers learned of the situation on the front lines through a series of letters Seeger wrote for the New York Sun. Painting a vivid picture of the lone-liness of sentry duty or the experience of lying in the trenches as shells burst overhead, Seeger's accounts helped Americans understand the plight of the typical soldier caught up in a horrendous conflict. But for Seeger, fighting for a noble cause was an act of deep spiritual satisfaction. He wrote to his mother in July 1915, in a letter quoted in the online "Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger": "Whether I am on the winning or the losing side is not the point with me: it is being on the side where my sympathies lie that matters, and I am ready to see it through to the end… . [H]ad I the choice I would be nowhere else in the worldthan where I am." Seeger's letters also reveal how much he admired the French, who seemed to him far more sincere and passionate about their cause than the Germans did.
In the spring of 1916, Seeger took two months' leave from the foreign legion to recover from an attack of bronchitis. He visited Biarritz and Paris and arranged to have the manuscript of Juvenilia sent to him. He concluded that there was "much that was good in it, but much that was juvenile, too," and he decided he was "not so anxious to publish it as it stands." The collection was later published by Charles Scribner's Sons in an edition titled Poems. It included the contents of Juvenilia, four translations of classical Greek or Roman poems, and a group of twenty-three "Last Poems" written from the time of his enlistment until his death in 1916. "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" was included among these "Last Poems," as was "A Message to America," a rather controversial poem that called on the United States to unite under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), who wanted to lead troops in France but could not persuade President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) to let him do so.
Death on the Western Front
When Seeger returned to the front after his recovery from bronchitis, he participated in daring, sometimes dangerous enterprises, like wandering out at night, alone, toward the German trenches. Once he even stuck his calling card on the barbed wire surrounding the enemy's trenches, explaining his risky mission by quoting a line of poetry by Walt Whitman (1819–1892): "courting destruction with taunts, with invitations."
Among the poems Seeger wrote during this period was "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France." Few remember this ode today, but William Archer, the Scottish critic who wrote the introduction to Poems, thought it was Seeger's best work, "the crown of the poet's achievement." In it, Seeger praises the French for accepting American volunteers like himself and making it possible for them to earn "that chance to live the life most free from stain / And that rare privilege of dying well."
On July 4, 1916, the 140th anniversary of U.S. independence, Seeger was granted the privilege he had described: Just twenty-eight years old, he was killed by machine-gun fire while trying to liberate the village of Belloyen Santerre. Nearly a year after Seeger's death, more of his work was published in an edition called Letters and Diaries. The United States had just entered World War I, and the publication of this collection gave American readers a personalized account of day-to-day life on foreign battlefields. Though Seeger's death may seem like a tragic loss, Seeger himself probably would not have seen it this way. In fact, in the introduction to Poems, William Archer wrote that "Of all the poets who died young, none has died so happily."
For More Information
Moore, T. Sturge. Some Soldier Poets. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Hove, 1920.
Seeger, Alan. Letters and Diaries. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917.
Seeger, Alan. Poems. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1973.
Weinstein, Irving. Sound No Trumpet: The Life and Death of Alan Seeger. New York: Crowell, 1967.
"Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger." [Online] http://www.ukans.edu/~libsite/wwiwww/Seeger/Alan1.htm (accessed April 2001).
"Selected Poetry of Alan Seeger (1888–1916)." Representative Poetry Online. [Online] http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/authors/seeger.html (accessed April 2001).
Minor Poets of World War I
As educated young men from across the United States and Canada joined the battles of World War I, they also joined in recording their feelings about the war, often in poetry. Though their work is not as acclaimed as that of Seeger or the famous British poets Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967), two poets from North America have attracted attention because of their work.
Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918)
Once a staff writer for the New York Times, Joyce Kilmer is known primarily as the author of "Trees" ("I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree …"). He also wrote "The White Ships and the Red," a poem about the sinking of the Irish passenger ship Lusitania. German submarines sank the ship in 1915, an act of wartime aggression. Some of Kilmer's other poems about war are included in his third collection, Main Street, published in 1917, the same year he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was killed in action in France in July 1918 and buried near Seringes.
John McCrae (1872–1918)
This Canadian physician had written a few poems during the Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa, where he served as a medical officer in the British army. He performed similar military duties during World War I and died in France of an infection he contracted while serving there. He is remembered for a fifteen-line poem called "In Flanders Fields," which appeared in Punch, the British magazine, on December 8, 1915. Its opening lines—"In Flanders fields, the poppies blow / Between the crosses row on row …"—evoke the image of World War I military cemeteries in Europe. Immortalized by McCrae's poem, the red poppy is still regarded as a symbol of veterans of that conflict.