Alan Seeger

Alan Seeger’s “Rendezvous with Death”


As we commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme we remember the thousands who perished and bestow special attention on the literary figures who took part. We are reminded that it was here that J.R.R. Tolkien fought, Saki died, Robert Graves went missing in action, A.A. Milne was invalided out and Siegfried Sassoon earned a Military Cross.

In addition, Alan Seeger, an American poet, was killed on the fourth day of the campaign at Belloy-en-Santerre.

Seeger was a classmate of T.S. Eliot’s at Harvard. He enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle in New York before moving to Paris to continue it on the Continent. When war was declared, however, he sobered up and joined the French Foreign Legion in order to fight for the country he had grown to love.

His poetry was not particularly well-received on its publication in 1916. Eliot wrote the most positive review but even this only praised its ‘solemnity’ and ‘dignity’, recognising that it was out of step with the spirit of the early 20th Century. But like many before and since, the means and timing of Seeger’s demise contributed to the longevity of his reputation, especially as he had written a poem with one of the most emotive titles of the entire war: I Have a Rendezvous with Death. Almost fifty years later, John F Kennedy, himself subject to a notorious and violent end, proclaimed it as the President’s favourite poem.

Seeger’s legacy can also be said to have continued through the work of his nephew Pete Seeger, the famous folk singer, who recorded the events of his own time in verse.

 

I Have a Rendezvous with Death juxtaposes the life-renewing imagery of Spring with the finality of 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.  

 

Seeger died in July, on a summer’s day, although the scent of apple may well have filled the air as the Somme area is known for the production of cider. One hundred years on it still lingers in our imaginations, as we remember his contribution to our literary heritage along with his sacrifice on the battlefield.

 

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I have been working for Oxford Open Learning since 2010 and love helping my students with their English and History courses. As a teacher and personal tutor, I have taught pupils from all around the world, aged from three to adult. I am often to be found with my head in a book and sometimes I have four or five on the go at the same time. I love learning about History and Art and am passionate about literature.

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