Biography of Alan Seeger
Alan Seeger was an American poet who fought and died in World War I serving in the French Foreign Legion. A statue to his memory and to the memory of his comrades, Americans who had volunteered to fight for France, was erected in the Place des États-Unis, Paris. He was contemporary with poet T.S. Eliot.
Born in New York on June 22, 1888, Seeger moved with his family to Staten Island at the age of one and remained there until the age of 10. In 1900, his family moved to Mexico for two years, which influenced the imagery of some of his poetry. His brother Charles Seeger, a noted musicologist, was the father of the American folk singer, Pete Seeger.
Seeger entered Harvard in 1906 after attending several elite preparatory schools, including Hackley School.
At Harvard, he edited and wrote for the Harvard Monthly. After graduating in 1910, he moved to Greenwich Village for two years, where he wrote poetry and enjoyed the life of a young bohemian.
During that time, he attended soirées at the Mlles. Petitpas' boardinghouse (319 West 29th Street), where the presiding genius was the artist and sage John Butler Yeats, father of the poet.
Having moved to the Latin Quarter of Paris to continue his seemingly itinerant intellectual lifestyle, on August 24, 1914, Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion so that he could fight for the Allies in World War I (the United States did not enter the war until 1917)
He was killed in action at Belloy-en-Santerre on July 4, 1916, famously cheering on his fellow soldiers in a successful charge after being hit several times by machine gun fire. One of his more famous poems, I Have a Rendezvous with Death, was published posthumously. Indeed, a recurrent theme in both his poetic works and his personal writings prior to falling in battle was his desire for his life to end gloriously at an early age.
Seeger's poetry was not published until 1917, a year after his death. Poems, a collection of his works, was relatively unsuccessful, due, according to Eric Homberger, to its lofty idealism and language, qualities out of fashion in the early decades of the 20th century.
Poems was reviewed in The Egoist, where the critic— T.S. Eliot , Seeger's classmate at Harvard—commented that,
"Seeger was serious about his work and spent pains over it. The work is well done, and so much out of date as to be almost a positive quality. It is high-flown, heavily decorated and solemn, but its solemnity is thorough going, not a mere literary formality. Alan Seeger, as one who knew him can attest, lived his whole life on this plane, with impeccable poetic dignity; everything about him was in keeping."
On 4 July 1923, the President of the French Council of State, Raymond Poincaré, dedicated a monument in the Place des États-Unis to the Americans who had volunteered to fight in World War I in the service of France. The monument, in the form of a bronze statue on a plinth, executed by Jean Boucher, had been financed through a public subscription.
Boucher had used a photograph of Seeger as his inspiration, and Seeger's name can be found, among those of 23 others who had fallen in the ranks of the French Foreign Legion, on the back of the plinth. Also, on either side of the base of the statue, are two excerpts from Seeger's "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France", a poem written shortly before his death on 4 July 1916. Seeger intended that his words should be read in Paris on 30 May of that year, at an observance of the American holiday, Decoration Day (later known as Memorial Day):
They did not pursue worldly rewards; they wanted nothing more than to live without regret, brothers pledged to the honor implicit in living one's own life and dying one's own death. Hail, brothers! Goodbye to you, the exalted dead! To you, we owe two debts of gratitude forever: the glory of having died for France, and the homage due to you in our memories.
"I Have a Rendezvous with Death" was one of President John F. Kennedy's favorite poems. His wife Jacqueline memorized it and would often recite it upon his request.
In the 1993 film In the Line of Fire, the assassin Mitch Leary (played by John Malkovich) cites I Have a Rendezvous with Death as President Kennedy's favorite, and says that it is "not a good poem."
A shortened form of Seeger's poem I Have a Rendezvous with Death was featured in the Joseph Kosinski-directed trailer for the video game Gears of War 2 that debuted during E3 2008.
Actor Darren McGavin joined The First Poetry Quartet to recite "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" in Poetry from World War I: The Men Who Marched Away presented on PBS.
Alan Seeger's Works:
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Alan Seeger Poems
I Have A Rendezvous With Death
I have a rendezvous with Death At some disputed barricade, When Spring comes back with rustling shade And apple-blossoms fill the air—
A shell surprised our post one day And killed a comrade at my side. My heart was sick to see the way He suffered as he died.
Do You Remember Once . . .
Do you remember once, in Paris of glad faces, The night we wandered off under the third moon's rays And, leaving far behind bright streets and busy places, Stood where the Seine flowed down between its quiet quais?
A Message To America
You have the grit and the guts, I know; You are ready to answer blow for blow You are virile, combative, stubborn, hard, But your honor ends with your own back-yard;
In the glad revels, in the happy fetes, When cheeks are flushed, and glasses gilt and pearled With the sweet wine of France that concentrates The sunshine and the beauty of the world,
I have a rendezvous with Death At some disputed barricade, I have a rendezvous with Death At some disputed barricade,
Ode In Memory Of The American Volunteers...
(To have been read before the statue of Lafayette and Washington in Paris, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1916). I
To see the clouds his spirit yearned toward so Over new mountains piled and unploughed waves, Back of old-storied spires and architraves To watch Arcturus rise or Fomalhaut,
I loved illustrious cities and the crowds That eddy through their incandescent nights. I loved remote horizons with far clouds Girdled, and fringed about with snowy heights.
At The Tomb Of Napoleon
I stood beside his sepulchre whose fame, Hurled over Europe once on bolt and blast, Now glows far off as storm-clouds overpast Glow in the sunset flushed with glorious flame.
First, London, for its myriads; for its height, Manhattan heaped in towering stalagmite; But Paris for the smoothness of the paths That lead the heart unto the heart's delight. . . .
Oft when sweet music undulated round, Like the full moon out of a perfumed sea Thine image from the waves of blissful sound Rose and thy sudden light illumined me.
Broceliande! in the perilous beauty of silence and menacing shade, Thou art set on the shores of the sea down the haze of horizons untravelled, unscanned. Untroubled, untouched with the woes of this world
Translations: Dante - Inferno, Canto Xxv...
Florence, rejoice! For thou o'er land and sea So spread'st thy pinions that the fame of thee Hath reached no less into the depths of Hell. So noble were the five I found to dwell
Exiled afar from youth and happy love,
If Death should ravish my fond spirit hence
I have no doubt but, like a homing dove,
It would return to its dear residence,
And through a thousand stars find out the road
Back into earthly flesh that was its loved abode.