Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

John Samuel Tieman: The Sadness Of Alan Seeger

The American poet Alan Seeger died July 4, 1916 — 100 years ago today.

There are many cliches about this or that “forgotten war”. World War I is by no means forgotten. But a century has dulled the pain of it.

Alan Seeger is a sad figure. He died when he was only twenty-eight. He died in a battle that is considered one of history’s great wastes, the Battle of The Somme. The Somme, usually considered a British/German battle, did have a French component on the right. Seeger was in the French Foreign Legion. He was one of a million casualties.

To read of his life is like finding the introduction to a novel, but no novel. He was a classmate of T. S. Eliot, and a roommate of John Reed. (He was the uncle of Pete Seeger.) But unlike Eliot’s modernism, Seeger embraced the traditional. And, unlike Reed’s revolutionary vision, Seeger volunteered to fight for the Allies. Yet he was friends with poets and writers who shaped modernism and revolutionary thought. Didn’t someone once say that life’s saddest thought is “What might have been”?

Easily Alan Seeger’s most famous poem is “I Have A Rendezvous With Death.” It is often compared to Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”. Like Brooke, Seeger’s surviving poetry is clearly the work of a young man. A depressed young man, who, not long after penning this poem, died of a bullet wound to the stomach.


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—
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.

Alan Seeger died when he was just twenty-eight. Twenty-eight. That cannot be repeated enough. Not everyone who dies in war is young. But most are. So it is curious that, when we read about World War I, many of the histories dwell on the youth of the technology rather than the youth of the soldier. Powered airplanes were barely a decade old. Machine guns were a relatively new technology. Tanks. Submarines. Mustard gas. And Alan Seeger was twenty-eight. It is well to recall that the linguistic root that gives us the word infantry also gives us infant.

Copyright 2016 John Samuel Tieman. The poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger is in the public domain.



2 comments on “John Samuel Tieman: The Sadness Of Alan Seeger

  1. Chris Dickon
    May 12, 2017

    When the Monument to American Volunteers Fallen for France was dedicated at le Place des États-Unis in Paris on July 4, 1923 it was the statue of the young poet-soldier Alan Seeger that stood on its crown. He had joined the French Foreign Legion upon the first invasion of France in August 1914, fought in the trenches of Aisne, Champagne and the Somme, written the signal poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” urged his fellow Americans to action in defense of the country he loved, and died on a battlefield near Belloy-en-Santerre on July 4, 1916. His contribution would resonate in France into the 1930s, and his poetry into the following century. One hundred years after his death, his memory would still be honored in Paris and in the Somme on the Fourth of July, 2016.

    A Rendezvous with Death: Alan Seeger in Poetry, at War, by Chris Dickon, is the first comprehensive and fully sourced biography of a young man whose life moved from Staten Island to Mexico, Harvard University, Greenwich Village, the Left Bank of Paris and death in the Somme. In spirit, he had lived in the era of chivalry and the knight, and was mortally wounded while reportedly in song, with a smile on his face, cheering his fellows on into battle.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. sharondoubiago
    July 4, 2016

    Thank you so much on Alan Seeger, of whom I’ve never known. “But I’ve a rendezvous with Death/At midnight in some flaming town.” “…the linguistic root that gives us infantry also gives us infant.”

    Liked by 1 person

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