Friday 20 April 2018

Poetry: The French Foreign Legion man of verse

Alan Seeger
Alan Seeger

Ulick O'Connor

This year is the 100th anniversary of the death of a young American poet whom Yeats's father, the painter, had discovered when he lived in New York during the First World War. His name was Alan Seeger and he was the uncle of Pete Seeger, the singer and leader of the modern folk-music revival.

Alan Seeger was one of a group who had formed around John Butler Yeats in New York in Petipas Restaurant, which included among its customers America's finest artist at the time, John Sloan, along with writers Padraic Colum and Conrad Aiken.

America was not at that time at war. Seeger, however, felt that he should join the French Foreign Legion as an example to other young Americans.

He believed that the Germans were destroying French culture and that he ought to hoist a flag for art.

"It is not only that Paris and the France I love shall not cease to be the glory and the beauty that it is is the reason that I engage in the war."

Seeger was shot dead in the summer of 1916 going over the top of the trench in the Battle of the Somme. His poem I have a Rendezvous with Death must rank among the best verse produced by writers in that awful conflict.

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 1888-1916

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