Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Rendezvous With Death: Alan Seeger In Poetry, At War
Reviewed by David F. Beer

A Rendezvous With Death: Alan Seeger In Poetry, At War

by Chris Dickon
New Street Communications, 2017

When poets are celebrated for one or two key poems, it's easy to forget that they may have produced a whole volume or two of work worth reading and may also have led intriguing and inspired lives. This is particularly true if the poet died young and under tragic circumstances. Among such WWI poets are Francis Ledgwidge, Joyce Kilmer, Charles Sorley, Hedd Wyn, Wilfred Owen, and sadly many others. However, for Americans the best known of these is likely to be Alan Seeger and his poem that gives this volume its title. Thus it's fitting that now, just over a hundred years after Seeger's death, a biography of the poet should appear that is fairly comprehensive, insightful, and evenhanded.

Chris Dickon's A Rendezvous with Death takes us from the poet's birth in 1888 through affluent childhood in an idyllic Staten Island punctuated by family sojourns in Mexico. Given Alan Seeger's background, he inevitably attended Harvard but then gravitated to the bohemian life of Greenwich Village before leaving in 1912 for Paris, where he lived happily on the West Bank. When war broke out he didn't hesitate to enlist in the French military, where he and some 30 or 40 other young American volunteers were assigned to the French Foreign Legion due to their foreign nationality. He adjusted well to life and combat in the Legion until his death in battle at Belloy-en-Santerre on 4 July 1916. From an early age until his death he wrote poetry and also became known for his contributions from the front to American journals and newspapers.

This book nicely fleshes out the brief details I've outlined above. From a happy childhood in a close family with attentive parents and a gifted brother and sister (his brother Charles was the father of the folk singer Pete Seeger), Alan was exposed to literature, music, and the scenic beauty of Mexico. Some of his earliest poems, which he later labeled "Juvenilia", were a response to the beauty and history of Mexico. As a youth he didn't enjoy the best of health, and his physical growth was slow. His brother once referred to him as "a scrawny runt" but later he was to grow tall and eventually tough enough for the Legion. In his teenage years he gradually became introverted and at Harvard he was seen as a reclusive scholar. In his bohemian years in New York and Paris he had few close friends, and later in the Legion and at the front he would take every opportunity to go apart to read or to write.

Much of Seeger's poetry shows the influence not just of his circumstances but also of his abiding interest in the medieval world of stately knights and chivalry. He saw war as "an inevitable condition of man" (79) and came to view the most honorable death as that of the knightly warrior in combat. He was happier in the war than he had ever been, and in a letter to his mother, after a long march to the Champagne, he wrote that he was feeling fine and

. . . in my element, for I have always thirsted for this kind of thing, to be present always where the pulsations are liveliest. Every minute here is worth weeks of ordinary experience. . . This will spoil one for any other kind of life. (102–103)

His frequent letters to his mother are often cited in the book since they reveal so much of Seeger's thought and feelings. As Chris Dickon carefully shows, these thoughts and feelings are the germs of Seeger's poetic life, a life that at the end had become immersed in a sort of cosmic spirituality and fascination for death. From this his greatest poem sprang.

Many of Seeger's other poems are cited in this book and are tellingly placed in the circumstances they were written in, including the ones urging the U.S. to enter the war. Other people are also considered in some detail if they played a part in the poet's life and development, such as his father with his business ventures in America and Mexico. Others we meet are a Unitarian minister, a teacher, a woman in Biarritz to whom Seeger wrote love sonnets, the American ambassador to France, and a few of Seeger's fellow Harvard students who also joined the Legion. The Marquis de Lafayette also plays a part in this book as the historical figure who loomed large in Seeger's thinking.

The book doesn't end with the poet's death. Three final chapters give detailed accounts of memorials, commemorations, and ceremonies in the century since 1916. In photos and text, the restoration of the Monument for the American Volunteers Fallen for France in Paris, once forgotten and vandalized, is described, as are dedications to Seeger in the village near where he fell.

American Volunteers Fallen for France Memorial in Paris
Top Figure Is Said to Represent Alan Seeger

His body was never found, but a marker includes his name in front of the ossuary where his bones are thought to be. If you'd like to look into the life and poems of Alan Seeger, going deeper than an appreciation of the one poem he is best known for, then I recommend this book. Also, the complete poems are available, as is another volume containing his letters and diary. In these, as the Scot William Archer states in his introduction to the first book of Seeger's poems, we can find

. . . a very rare spirit…the record of a short life, into which was crowded far more of keen experience and high aspiration—of the thrill of sense and the rapture of soul—than it is given to most men, even of high vitality, to extract from a life of twice the length.

David F. Beer