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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

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.


Another poet-soldier of World War 1 killed in action, this, Alan Seeger's most famous (though not best) poem strikes me as egotistical and self-aggrandizing.  Compared to other poets of World War 1 such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and even Rupert Brooke, Seeger seems more concerned with some strange melange of glory and fate than he does with the war, humanity, or any sort of spiritual message.

Seeger sees his death (indeed, he did die in 1916 during the war) as a fated rendezvous, something unavoidable, to be met in the springtime, surrounded by beauty.  Yet the images all ring hollow.  So what?  "I to my pledged word am true, I shall not fail that rendezvous."  There is no take away from this other than that Seeger seems eager to die, and for no great cause, no higher power, nothing other than an almost self-serving interest in his own mortality.  The sentiment feels empty.  While he does say it would surely be better to die in comfort, as in sleep, surrounded by love, he continues to insist that he has a rendezvous with Death to meet.

I think the reason I find this poem so off-putting is that compared to the other poets of World War 1, it lacks meat or substance.  Rupert Brooke's poetry represents the optimism the youth of Europe, specifically Britain, felt about answering what many perceived as a glorious call to war, unaware of the new horrors which awaited them.  His was poetry of hope, as yet unbroken by what was unquestionably the most horrific application of violence against man up to that point in history.  It had all the youthful optimism and hope one could imagine, and today is a sad memorial to a collective cultural innocence long choked to death by vile gas.  Owen's poetry represents the despair, the crushed hopes, the utter horror that the Great War came to represent for Europe.  Today, it is a chilling account of the horrors of trench warfare and the senselessness of violence.  Seeger's poetry, though?  It feels empty and vainglorious, unfocused and lacking.  Maybe I am being too harsh, but compared to his contemporaries, Seeger reads like a young man dreaming about a glorious death for no other reason than to die.

3 comments:

  1. If you read about Seeger, you are partly correct. He did love combat and seemed to relish the idea of some glorious death while fighting.

    However, he did believe in the cause of France. He was an American living in Paris (he'd fallen in love with the place and seemingly had little desire to leave) and volunteered within a few weeks of the war for the Foreign legion. He wrote back to the states saying basically that any American who loved living in France should be wiling to die for her.

    Unlike most Americans who served with the French, he did not go into the Air Service. He actually enjoyed the trench life as a sort of breaking away the trappings of modernity into the true rugged humans we are supposed to be.

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    1. Thanks for the perspective, CJ. I should have done more biographical research into Seeger and his views on the war before writing on his poetry, though I do stand by my assessment of it as a poem.

      I am glad to know more about it, though. Interestingly, I can understand the US-French connection of the poem a bit. A flying ace in the War, Raoul Lufbery, had his childhood home in my hometown in Connecticut, though he was a French citizen. He joined the war effort with the French, and worked with the US as well. I can see where Seeger's desire to protect France would come into play in motivating his pen.

      Thanks again!

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    2. Not sure if the last note went through, but basically I gave some more background on Seeger. Supposedly after he was shot, he cheered his comrades on as the marched past him on the attack.

      He died on the 4th of July 1916. There's a monument in Paris dedicated to the American volunteers, and it's based on Seeger's likeness.

      http://reflex.ologie.free.fr/pics/eos400/2007_01_12/place-etats-unis-12jan07-04.JPG

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