Alan Seeger

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Alan Seeger in his French Foreign Legion uniform.

Alan Seeger (22 June 1888 – 4 July 1916) was an American poet who fought and died in World War I during the Battle of the Somme serving in the French Foreign Legion. Seeger was the uncle of American folk singer Pete Seeger, and was a classmate of T.S. Eliot at Harvard. He is most well known for having authored the poem, I Have a Rendezvous with Death, a favorite of President John F. Kennedy. A statue modeled after Seeger is found on the monument honoring fallen Americans who volunteered for France during the war, located at the Place des États-Unis, Paris. He is sometimes called the "American Rupert Brooke."

Early life[edit]

Born in New York on June 22, 1888, Seeger moved with his family to Staten Island at the age of one and remained there until the age of 10. In 1900, his family moved to Mexico for two years, which influenced the imagery of some of his poetry. His brother Charles Seeger, a noted pacifist and musicologist, was the father of the American folk singers Peter "Pete" Seeger, Mike Seeger, and Margaret "Peggy" Seeger.

Seeger entered Harvard in 1906 after attending several elite preparatory schools, including Hackley School.

Writing[edit]

At Harvard, he edited and wrote for the Harvard Monthly. Among his friends there (and afterward) was the American Communist John Reed, though the two had differing ideological views, and his Harvard class also included T.S. Eliot and Walter Lippmann, among others. After graduating in 1910, he moved to Greenwich Village for two years, where he wrote poetry and enjoyed the life of a young bohemian. During his time in Greenwich Village, he attended soirées at the Mlles. Petitpas' boardinghouse (319 West 29th Street), where the presiding genius was the artist and sage John Butler Yeats, father of the poet William Butler Yeats.[1]

Having moved to the Latin Quarter of Paris to continue his seemingly itinerant intellectual lifestyle, on August 24, 1914, Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion so that he could fight for the Allies in World War I (the United States did not enter the war until 1917).

Death[edit]

He was killed in action at Belloy-en-Santerre on July 4, 1916, famously cheering on his fellow soldiers in a successful charge after being hit several times by machine gun fire.

Poetry[edit]

A portrait of a young Alan Seeger

Seeger's poetry was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in December 1916 with a 46 page introduction by William Archer. Poems, a collection of his works, was relatively unsuccessful, due, according to Eric Homberger, to its lofty idealism and language, qualities out of fashion in the early decades of the 20th century.

Poems was reviewed in The Egoist, where the critic—T. S. Eliot, Seeger's classmate at Harvard—commented that,

Seeger was serious about his work and spent pains over it. The work is well done, and so much out of date as to be almost a positive quality. It is high-flown, heavily decorated and solemn, but its solemnity is thorough going, not a mere literary formality. Alan Seeger, as one who knew him can attest, lived his whole life on this plane, with impeccable poetic dignity; everything about him was in keeping.

One of his more famous poems was I Have a Rendezvous with Death, published posthumously. A recurrent theme in both his poetic works and his personal writings was his desire for his life to end gloriously at an early age. This particular poem, according to the JFK Library, "was one of John F. Kennedy's favorite poems and he often asked his wife (Jacqueline) to recite it."[2]

Memorial[edit]

Memorial to American Volunteers, Place des États-Unis, Paris

On 4 July 1923, the President of the French Council of State, Raymond Poincaré, dedicated a monument in the Place des États-Unis to the Americans who had volunteered to fight in World War I in the service of France. The monument, in the form of a bronze statue on a plinth, executed by Jean Boucher, had been financed through a public subscription.[3]

Boucher had used a photograph of Seeger as his inspiration, and Seeger's name can be found, among those of 23 others who had fallen in the ranks of the French Foreign Legion, on the back of the plinth. Also, on either side of the base of the statue, are two excerpts from Seeger's "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France", a poem written shortly before his death on 4 July 1916. Seeger intended that his words should be read in Paris on 30 May of that year, at an observance of the American holiday, Decoration Day (later known as Memorial Day):

They did not pursue worldly rewards; they wanted nothing more than to live without regret, brothers pledged to the honor implicit in living one's own life and dying one's own death. Hail, brothers! Goodbye to you, the exalted dead! To you, we owe two debts of gratitude forever: the glory of having died for France, and the homage due to you in our memories.

References[edit]

  1. ^ James C. Young, "Yeats of Petitpas'," New York Times, 19 February 1922
  2. ^ Seeger, Alan. "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Columbia Point, Boston, MA. Web. Retrieved 28 Jan 2014.
  3. ^ On 21 January 1917, 13 days before the severance of diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany, an evening devoted to honoring the Americans serving as volunteers in French military units was held at the Comédie-Française in Paris. Hosted by the Under-Secretary of State in the military government, René Besnard, this ceremony marked the launch of a public subscription drive with the object of erecting a monument to the American volunteers.

External links[edit]