Alan Seeger, class of 1910
- Published in Books & Publications
M. A. DeWolfe Howe, Memoirs of the Harvard Dead in the War Against Germany, Vol. I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 108-124
Because Alan Seeger was a writer, and a writer who commanded serious attention, there is ample material for a more detailed memoir of him than this can possibly be. A thorough treatment of the subject would involve a careful study of origins and influences, ancestral and individual, with special reference to the more formative years of the young poet's life. Here it must suffice to give the essential facts of his brief but fruitful career, drawing freely upon words of his own to record his attitude towards life and some of his dealings with it.
He was born in New York, June 22, 1888, the son of Charles Louis Seeger. and Elsie (Adams) Seeger. The fact that a part of his boyhood was spent in Mexico, where his father had business interests and sometimes lived, taken together with his somewhat exotic appearance, due to picturesque clothing and a conspicuous mat or thatch of black hair, gave the impression in College that his strangeness was something racial and complete. As a matter of fact his blood was chiefly that of New England, and except for the few years in Mexico, with its many cosmopolitan influences, his vacations in the New Hampshire hills, and a winter in Southern California, his boyhood was subjected to influences no more remote than those of New York City, Staten Island, and Tarrytown, New York, where he was prepared at Hackley School to enter Harvard College. Yet all these spots were spots of beauty----places in which the eye might take a various delight and school itself to the uses of art in whatever form. Especially of the poet it may be said: "As what he sees is, so have his thoughts been."
The poet and the child have this in common, that they are continually passing through "phases." In college Seeger passed through the alternate phases of loathing and loving the whole thing. In the second stage, his mother has written, "he was in perfect despair over having wasted those years and not entered more into the life there." Writing of this time in the final year of his own life he said of it, "I was a devotee of Learning for Learning's sake. My life during those years was intellectual to the exclusion of almost everything else. The events of that life were positive adventures to me. Few, I am sure, have known more than I did then the employ of intellect as an instrument of pleasure. I shut myself off completely from the life of the University, so full, nevertheless, of pleasures. I scoffed at these pleasures that were no more to me than froth. I felt no need of comradeship. I led the life of an anchorite. At an age when the social instincts are usually most lively I came to understand the pleasures of solitude. My books were my friends. The opening to me of the shelves of the college library, a rare privilege, was like opening the gates of an earthly paradise. In those dark alleys I would spend afternoons entire, browsing among old folios, following lines of research that often had no connection with my courses, following them simply for the pleasure of the explorer discovering new countries. I never regret those years. They made their contribution. Their pleasures were tranquil and pure. Their desires were simple and all the means of satisfying them were at hand."
With these student years of delving into obscure books it is interesting to associate the possible origin of the phrase a "rendez-vous with death," which is the core of Seeger's poem best known throughout the world. In "The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century," by Professor Phelps of Yale, there is quoted a letter from Professor Robinson of Harvard telling of the strong impression made upon Seeger by the Irish "Song of Fothad Canainne," which he read in a Celtic Conference, a song which sings: "It is a blindness for one who makes a tryst to set aside the tryst with death." The phrase which Seeger stamped so clearly with his own mintage has been ascribed by others to other sources. But it is certainly plausible that the echo of the early Irish singer may have still rung in the ears of the soldier of the Legion who had once been a student in Harvard College.
The following passages from two letters which Seeger wrote from Mexico in the summer vacation of 1909 to his friend and classmate, Edward Eyre Hunt, show how clearly conscious of his poetic ambitions Seeger was even before his college years were done:
4a DE HUMBOLDT 42, CITY OF MEXICO, MEX.
August 21, 1909.
. . . My purpose in writing you again so soon is a tentative one; I should like to have your opinion on an idea that occurred to me a while ago. Now I suppose all of us who are at present devoting ourselves to poetical expression, "scorning delights and living laborious days," are doing so with the intention sooner or later of collecting what seem to us the best of our productions and publishing them as a first venture. It goes without saying that individually we already have a certain amount of accomplishment that seems fit for such a collection, though perhaps not enough of the best to form a volume. But I thought, why would it not be a pleasant thing if a half-dozen or so of us should combine what seemed to us the best of our work of this kind, which is also too long for the common standard of the college papers, and publish it in a single volume, as the achievement of the best talent of the Class of 1910? And not only this, but call it Vol. I, and affix to it a preface, stating the nature and purpose of the work, and expressing the hope that it be continued in ensuing years. Would not this be something like the Musenalmanachs of German Romanticism? The advantages of the plan seem to me to be these: First, and most important, it would undoubtedly procure a much wider circulation, and consequent recognition, of our work than any individual publication would. Secondly, the expense would be mutual, and we would thereby be enabled to issue it according to our own taste, and in fitting style. To ensure a certain amount of circulation and returns, we could resort, if necessary, to prospectus and subscription. Thirdly, it would not preclude the possibility of including the same material in our later collections, should we wish to do so. Fourthly, it would be an inestimable stimulus to serious literary effort among undergraduates, would be an added bond between men of such tastes, and in the event of anything resembling a "school" rising in our midst, this would be its proper organ. As for a host of minor advantages, such as the pleasure of the undertaking, these need not be dwelt upon.
Personally the idea appeals to me strongly. The contributors, as I fancy it, would be solely members of the graduating class, though this need not be insisted on. The work, as I said before, would be the best individual effort of a kind too long for the magazines; its eligibility would be passed on by the majority of those interested.
The problem of finding an audience is much more difficult today than it was a hundred years ago, for today there is practically no public for poetry as there was in those beloved times when sentimental females hung upon the prolific muse of Byron and Moore, and people watched the press with as eager an interest as today they watch the stock exchange. Indeed, what more thankless undertaking than to publish a volume of verse now-a-days? I should never think of doing so except privately printed. Happy was Keats whose early work was loaded with contumely, compared with the modern bard whose work is simply ignored or else damned with the faint praise of an incompetent reviewer. Revilement is better than total disregard. The Chatterton whom Vigny pictures in his garret is really more fortunate than his present-day counterpart who would not even be able to raise a ripple of excitement on the stagnant waters of modern literary enervation. True, the poet's utterance should be perfectly spontaneous, unpurposive, without a moment's consideration of the world's opinion, its admiration or neglect; and yet even Shelley, I believe, is authority for the discouragement it is to a writer who believes himself possessed of something worth saying, and never an ear to listen. Now this plan I have been speaking of seems to me the best solution, for here we could have at once just the audience we desire. While in a perfectly disinterested way, it appeals to me as the starting of a tradition which would always be a source of delight and might have unthought-of consequences.
If this interests you, impart the idea to some of the other men. Write me too and say what you think of it....
4a DE HUMBOLDT 42, CITY OF MEXICO, MEX.
. . . I am going to live in an attic down on Ash St. No. 16 next year, and I hope you will come around sometime. It has neither heat nor light, except what I can furnish myself, but it has a beautiful view of the eastern sky and is perfectly quiet, which are far more important. Do come around sometime and let us talk over the prospects of the impecunious poet, who hates everything sordid and material, and would prefer a gypsy life to being chained down to an office-desk in Gaza of the Philistines. You, of course, with your reputation, have, no doubt, plenty of good openings; certainly you could be a "young instructor" for the asking. But as for me . . . well
forward, tho I canna see,
I guess and fear.
Seeger's entrance into the life of the College through his later years there took the form especially of frequent and extensive contributions of verse to the Harvard Monthly. This periodical, no longer extant, was then passing through a time when its young poets were scorning capital letters for the beginning of their lines unless capitals would have been required in prose. Seeger lent himself, probably with enthusiasm, to this bizarrerie of print, which disappears even from the verses of undergraduate days included in the volume of "Poems," for there they are, three original pieces of verse placed with the surprisingly mature "Juvenilia" and a Canto of Dante's "Inferno" among the "Translations." It is all the work of an ardent lover of beauty as an end in itself, and possesses to a striking degree that sensuous quality of beauty which marks the whole body of Seeger's poetic writing. This contribution of poetry to the college life of Seeger's undergraduate years was not one that commanded popularity or prominence, but it was the thing he had to give, and he gave it in abundant measure. The value of the gift is much clearer now than it was in 1910.
A college contemporary of Seeger's, John Hall Wheelock, of the Harvard Class of 1908, has told in the anonymous "Point of View " of Scribner's Magazine for January, 1917, of Seeger's utter indifference to the usual incentives, even of young poets. Large as his acknowledged output was, he was constantly reputed to be tearing up verses, unseen by his friends, because he had not satisfied himself with them. A publisher who offered to print his poems soon after he left college is said to have received not even so much as a reply. Mr. Wheelock's descriptions of his first and his last meeting with Seeger present something both of the outward and of the inward aspect of the man:
Seeger was of striking appearance. The writer recalls his first glimpse of him at a rather voluble meeting of one of the literary societies at Harvard where both were at that time undergraduates. Tall and rather sparely built, with a pale, but forceful and strangely immobile and mask-like face, straight black hair cut square across the forehead, and remote eyes, he sat through the entire evening in absolute silence, hardly deigning as much as a reply to questions directly put. At first this might have been attributed to either affectation or shyness, but a certain candor coupled with entire self-possession soon eliminated both solutions. On being questioned by a friend at the close of the discussion as to his extraordinary behavior, he announced with entire naturalness that the conversation had not appealed to him, and added that he was by nature not interested in trivial talk. This episode was characteristic of the man and, incredible as it may seem, carried with it no suggestion of conceit or pose.
The final meeting was three or four years later. Thus Mr. Wheelock records it
I recall now our last talk. It was during the summer before his departure for France in 1912 and on a perfect moonclear August night. I recall the familiar fatalism that he then gave voice to, the fierce discontent and hunger of the man, as of one who seeks blindly something greater than himself, whereby he may be liberated, through which he may reveal himself, to which he may consecrate and surrender his entire soul. I recall then the sudden realization, new to me at that moment, that for some spirits the every-day pressure of life is not sufficient, the everyday demands of life not large nor heroic enough in their claim. As for death well, I recall also his favorite Indian phrase, repeated that evening, and which sums up beautifully his own attitude: "Inshallah, Death is a transient thing!"
Between leaving college in 1910 and going to Paris in 1912 Seeger appears to have led what would commonly be regarded as a life of much futility refusing to "become implicated in any kind of a job," seeming merely, as Mr. Wheelock has expressed it, "well on the way toward becoming a complete dilettante." Seeger himself knew well enough that he was not laying the foundations of the "success" he was wont to scorn. A letter written at this time to a college official with whom he was on terms of friendship contained a curiously revealing and prophetic sentence: "My only salvation will be to die young and to leave some monument which being, if such is possible, more beautiful than the life it commemorates may seem to posterity an only and adequate excuse for that life having been."
A friend of young poets, who saw much of him during this New York period, has written:
Alan was consistently medieval, and although his criticism of any form of art was surprisingly keen he seemed completely ignorant, or, let me say, unconscious of everything that had been written during recent years. I do not think there was any pose about this, and I always remember with amusement a Sunday afternoon when he and B both dropped in unexpectedly to supper. One kept asking if I had seen the latest sonnet by so-and-so which was quite worthy of Keats, and the other was quoting from the Cantique de Soleil of St. Francis and Claudion's De Raptu Persepephone. Neither of my guests seemed to have the slightest comprehension of what the other was talking about and the supper was an amusing affair....
We used to think there was nothing human in the boy, but one night-when fire engines passed he threw open the window and put out his head, after which we commenced to have hope of him. The fact that he made such a disagreeable impression on many people was due, I think, to his unconscious rudeness. He was a consistent hedonist and if someone who did not seem to him beautiful, either mentally or physically, happened to come in while he was with us he would take a book and read until that person left. Of course his life abroad and particularly his life during the war changed and developed him greatly.
As "a consistent hedonist" Alan Seeger found in Paris through the two years before the war abundant opportunity to bear his part in the vie de Bohème which finds its reflections in his "Poems." But this was not all. "In Paris," says Mr. Wheelock,
he was happier than he had ever been before. He made many congenial friends, and a number of distinguished and even celebrated figures in the world of art and letters were strangely drawn to the silent young American, who accepted this recognition with his usual calm and poise as something quite to be expected. Again, he was said to be writing much, but again made no efforts to publish, and his work was hardly shown even to his closest friends. He was still uncertain of himself and his aims, still waiting for that destiny which he felt every day more clearly and steadfastly was somehow in preparation for him.
Seeger's own account of himself when a "devotee of Learning for Learning's sake" has already been quoted. In the same letter he refers to his apostasy from Learning, his following in the path of those, "obsessed by the burning vision of Happiness," who "left the quiet groves of the Academy and went down into the city in search of it." The immediately ensuing passage from the same letter, written, let us remember, after a year and a half of soldiering, is needed to complete Seeger's portrait of himself:
It has been the history of many young men, no doubt. But my hedonism, if such it may be called, was not superficial like that of so many, to whom the emotional means only the sexual. I was sublimely consistent. For seeing, in the macrocosm, all Nature revolve about the twin poles of Love and Strife, of attraction and repulsion, so no less in the microcosm of my individual being I saw the emotional life equally divided between these two cardinal principles. The dedication to Love alone, as Ovid prettily confesses his own in more than one elegy, is good as far as it goes, but it only goes half way, and my aspiration was to go all the gamut, to "drink life to the lees." My interest in life was passion, my object to experience it in all rare and refined, in all intense and violent forms. The war having broken out, then, it was natural that I should have staked my life on learning what it alone could teach me. How could I have let millions of other men know an emotion that I remained ignorant of? Could not the least of them, then, talk about the thing that interested me most with more authority than I? You see, the course I have taken was inevitable. It is the less reason to lament if it leads me to destruction. The things one poignantly regrets are those which seem to us unnecessary, which, we think, might have been different. This is not my case. My being here is not an accident. It is the inevitable consequence, as you see, of a direction deliberately chosen.
The summer of 1914 found Seeger in London, where he vainly sought a publisher for his poems. On his way back to Paris, when war became a certainty, he left his manuscript with a printer in Bruges---not the most prudent choice for safe-keeping---expecting soon to reclaim it for publication. On August 20 he left Bruges to enlist in Paris, and on the 24th enlisted in the Foreign Legion. Near the end of the next month he wrote to his mother from Toulouse, where his regiment of the Legion was drilling:
I hope you see the thing as I do and think that I have done well, being without responsibilities and with no one to suffer materially by my decision, in taking upon my shoulders, too, the burden that so much of humanity is suffering under and, rather than stand ingloriously aside when the opportunity was given me, doing my share for the side that I think right.
Gratitude to Paris for all it had meant to him was a powerfully impelling motive. "To me the matter of supreme importance," he wrote in his diary after nearly a year in the army, "is not to be on the winning side, but on the side where my sympathies lie.... Let it always be understood that I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France." In another place the motive is given a little differently in Seeger's own accounting for the young volunteers of foreign birth who rushed to the French colors:
"Why did you enlist?" In every case the answer was the same. That memorable day in August came. Suddenly, the old haunts were desolate, the boon companions had gone. It was unthinkable to leave the danger to them and accept only the pleasures oneself, to go on enjoying the sweet things of life in defence of which they were perhaps even then shedding their blood in the north. Some day they would return, and with honor---not all, but some. The old order of things would have irrevocably vanished. There would be a new companionship whose bond would be the common danger run, the common sufferings borne, the common glory shared. "And where have you been all the time, and what have you been doing? " The very question would be a reproach, though none were intended. How could they endure it?
Seeger's "Letters" are as much to be read as his "Poems" for any adequate understanding of the wholly pagan and fatalistic philosophy which dominated this disciple of the absolute in beauty and freedom. In the first October of the war he was looking, like the rest of the world, for its early termination: "I think you can count on seeing me at Fairlea next summer, for I shall certainly return after the war to see you all and recuperate." Before the end of the year he was writing in his diary: "There will be war for many years to come in Europe and I shall continue to be a soldier as long as there is war." As the months wore on it became clearer still that a long war lay ahead, but from Seeger came only words of happiness that he was where he was, doing what he did. That was continually the hard work of a good soldier, living fully up to his belief that Strife played just as important a part in the world as Love.
You must not be anxious [he wrote to his mother in June of 1915] about my not coming back. The chances are about ten to one that I will. But if I should not, you must be proud, like a Spartan mother, and feel that it is your contribution to the triumph of the cause whose righteousness you feel so keenly. Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect, not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity. There should be no neutrals but everyone should bear some part of the burden. If so large a part should fall to your share, you would be in so far superior to other women and should be correspondingly proud. There would be nothing to regret, for I could not have done otherwise than what I did and I think I could not have done better. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier. So do not be unhappy but no matter what happens walk with your head high and glory in your large share of whatever credit the world may give me.
The quotations from Seeger's "Letters and Diary" might be extended indefinitely. They would show him with his eyes unfalteringly fixed on the true objects of the conflict, enjoying the loveliness of nature and the pleasures of human intercourse such as the meetings with his fellow Harvard graduates and légionnaires, Victor Chapman and Henry Farnsworth, reading, thinking, leading in general the life out of which such poems as "Champagne (1914-15)," "I Have a Rendezvous with Death," and the "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France" could naturally proceed. In the matter of outward circumstances, he will be found in the front-line trenches of Champagne before the end of October, 1914, on the Aisne, in Alsace, in the 1915-16 Battle of Champagne, sometimes en repos back of the lines, more often at the very front, slightly wounded in February, 1915, and, much later, invalided, through bronchitis, back to Biarritz, whence he wrote to his mother in March of 1916:
I hope you got my letters from the hospital soon enough to be reassured about my not being at Verdun. Of course, to me it is a matter of great regret and I take it as a piece of hard luck.... All climates are alike to me, but the best now are those that smell of powder in the day and are lit by the fusées éclairantes at night.
Back at the Somme front he wrote significantly, to his marraine on June 1, 1916:
The noticeable young man you describe as having seen at Lavenue's was probably myself, for it was my pleasure in those days to be noticeable just as now it is exactly the opposite. Where once it was my object to be individual, it is now an even greater satisfaction to merge into the whole, and feeling myself the smallest cog in the mighty machinery that is grinding out the future of the world, whatever that is to be.
These words were written immediately after Seeger's entirely human disappointment at being so much a cog in the machine that he failed to receive his permission to go to Paris and read in public his "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France" one of the small number of really beautiful poems brought forth by the war. Another poem, his last, a sonnet in which he looked beyond the days of war, was enclosed in a letter to his marraine written June 21, 1916, the day before his twenty-eighth birthday. He had been looking forward eagerly to participation in a great attack, and continued so to do. There was not long to wait. For several days he and his comrades were on the tiptoe of expectation. Seeger's friend and fellow legionnaire, Rif Baer, an Egyptian, has described the final scenes. This was the last of all:
About four o'clock the order came to get ready for the attack. None could help thinking of what the next few hours would bring. One minute's anguish and then, once in the ranks, faces became calm and serene, a kind of gravity falling upon them, while on each could be read the determination and expectation of victory. Two battalions were to attack Belloy-en-Santerre, our company being the reserve of battalion. The companies forming the first wave were deployed on the plain. Bayonets glittered in the air above the corn, already quite tall.
The first section (Alan's section) formed the right and vanguard of the company and mine formed the left wing. After the first bound forward, we lay flat on the ground, and I saw the first section advancing beyond us and making toward the extreme right of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand.
He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend.
The village of Belloy-en-Santerre was taken, though Seeger, fallen, July 4, 1916, among the first in the attack, could but cheer his comrades on as they dashed past the Plot where he lay dying. The fourth strophe of the Memorial Day Ode which he did not read in Paris should be read when he and other American volunteers of the earlier days of the war are remembered:
O friends ! I know not since that war began
From which no people nobly stands aloof
If in all moments we have given proof
Of virtues that were thought American.
I know not if in all things done and said
All has been well and good,
Or if each one of us can hold his head
As proudly as he should,
Or, from the pattern of those mighty dead
Whose shades our country venerates today,
If we've not somewhat fallen and somewhat gone astray.
But you to whom our land's good name is dear,
If there be any here
Who wonder if her manhood be decreased,
Relaxed its sinews and its blood less red
Than that at Shiloh and Antietam shed,
Be proud of these, have joy in this at least,
And cry: "Now heaven be praised
That in that hour that most imperilled her,
Menaced her liberty who foremost raised
Europe's bright flag of freedom, some there were
Who, not unmindful of the antique debt,
Came back the generous path of Lafayette;
And when of a most formidable foe
She cheeked each onset, arduous to stem
Foiled and frustrated them
On those red fields where blow with furious blow
Was countered, whether the gigantic fray
Rolled by the Meuse or at the Bois Sabot,
Accents of ours were in the fierce mêlée;
And on those furthest rims of hallowed ground
Where the forlorn, the gallant charge expires,
When the slain bugler has long ceased to sound,
And on the tangled wires
The last wild rally staggers, crumbles, stops,
Withered beneath the shrapnel's iron showers:
Now heaven be thanked, we gave a few brave drops;
Now heaven be thanked, a few brave drops were ours.