Alan Seeger

Alan Seeger (22 June 1888 – 4 July 1916) was an American war poet who fought and died in World War I during the Battle of the Somme, serving in the French Foreign Legion. Seeger was the brother of Charles Seeger, a noted American pacifist and musicologist. He is best known for the poem I Have a Rendezvous with Death, a favorite of President John F. Kennedy. A statue representing him is on the monument in the Place des États-Unis, Paris, honoring fallen Americans who volunteered for France during the war. Seeger is sometimes called the "American Rupert Brooke."

Alan Seeger
Alan Seeger.jpg
Born22 June 1888
Died4 July 1916 (aged 28)
Cause of deathDied of wounds
Military career
Allegiance France
Service/branch French Army
Years of service1914–1916
UnitFrench Foreign Legion
Battles/warsFirst World War

Early lifeEdit

Seeger was born on June 22, 1888, in New York City.[1] According to Alan's nephew, folk singer Pete Seeger, the Seeger family was "enormously Christian, in the Puritan, Calvinist New England tradition",[2] and traced their genealogy back over 200 years. A paternal ancestor, Karl Ludwig Seeger, a doctor from Württemberg, Germany, had emigrated to America during the American Revolution and married into the old New England family of Parsons in the 1780s.[3]

Alan's father, Charles Seeger, Sr., was involved in a sugar refinery business with strong links to Mexico.[1] In 1890, Seeger moved to Staten Island with his parents and his older brother, where his younger sister Elsie was born.[4] His brother Charles Seeger, Jr. was a noted musicologist, and the father of the American folk singers Peter "Pete" Seeger, Mike Seeger, and Margaret "Peggy" Seeger.

For much of his early childhood, Seeger's family was well-to-do. In 1898, declining fortunes caused his father to move the family back to New York City.[4] Due to the move, Seeger left Staten Island Academy to attend Horace Mann School in Manhattan.[1] When he was 12, his family moved to Mexico City, again due to his father's declining business prospects.[1][4]

In 1902, Seeger left Mexico City with his brother to attend Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York, after which he attended Harvard University.[1] His Harvard class of 1910 included the poet T.S. Eliot.[5] During Seeger's first few years at Harvard, he was primarily fixated on intellectual pursuits and did not have a significant social life. However, as an upperclassman and editor at The Harvard Monthly, he found a group of friends that shared his aesthete sensibilities, including Walter Lippmann and John Reed.[6] With Lippmann, he founded a Socialist club at Harvard to protest anti-labor policies at the university.[5]

Once he had graduated from Harvard, Seeger lived with John Reed in Greenwich Village, attempting to establish a career as a poet.[1] While 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.[7] After two years, Seeger left Greenwich Village to move to Paris, where he lived in the Latin Quarter and continued to pursue a bohemian lifestyle.[1]

War Service and WritingEdit

Seeger was living in Paris in 1914, when war was declared between France and Germany. He quickly volunteered to fight as a member of the French Foreign Legion, stating that he was motivated by his love for France and his belief in the Allies.[8] For Seeger, fighting for the Allies was a moral imperative; in his poem "A Message to America," he spoke out against what he saw as America's moral failure to join the war.[5]

During the two years he fought in the French Foreign Legion, Seeger wrote regular dispatches to the New York Sun, as well as poetry.[9] His poems were well received and recognized in both America and Europe, with particular acclaim for his 1916 poem "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen in France."[10] His work was heavily influenced by the Romantic school; as the war progressed, the theme of death grew stronger in his poetry, culminating in what became his most famous poem, "I Have a Rendezvous with Death."[10]

Death and aftermathEdit

Alan Seeger in his French Foreign Legion uniform

In the winter of 1916, he developed bronchitis and spent several months recovering before he returned to the battlefront.[11] He was killed in action in 1916, during a French attack against the Imperial German Army at Belloy-en-Santerre, during the Battle of the Somme.[12] His fellow French Foreign Legion soldier, Rif Baer, later described his last moments: "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."[6][11] After being mortally wounded in no man's land, Seeger cheered on the passing soldiers of the Legion before he finally died from his injuries.[13]

Seeger had previously been falsely reported dead after the Battle of Champagne in October 1915, in which he had fought.[6] The news of his actual death was met with public mourning in both America and France.[14] After the USA entered World War I, Poems, a posthumously published collection of Seeger's war poetry, sold out six editions in a year.[10] The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, who had described Seeger as "the Hedonist" after meeting him in 1911, suggested that it might be best that he had died in the war, "for I don’t believe that he would ever have come anywhere near to fitting himself into this interesting but sometimes unfittable world."[15]

It is assumed that Seeger was buried with other victims of the Belloy-en-Santerre battle at the French National Cemetery in Lihons.[16] After his death, Seeger's parents donated a bell to a local church and planted trees in his honor. Both of their contributions to Belloy-en-Santerre were destroyed during World War II.[14]


"I Have a Rendezvous with Death" by Alan Seeger, as it appears in the book, Poems

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.[citation needed]

Poems was reviewed in The Egoist, where T. S. Eliot commented,

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.[citation needed]

His most famous poem, I Have a Rendezvous with Death, was published posthumously.[12][17] It begins,

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 Springs brings back blue days and fair.

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."[18] The poem continues to resonate today and was quoted by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, in a speech in April 2018.[19]

Memorials and legacyEdit

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.[20]

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.

Alan Seeger Natural Area, in central Pennsylvania, was named by Colonel Henry Shoemaker. It is unknown if Seeger had any connection to the area or why Shoemaker chose to memorialize the poet.[21]

The liberty ship SS Alan Seeger, a tanker, was launched by the California Shipbuilding Corp 5 October 1943, during World War II.[22] After the War was over, she was sold to a private company in 1947 and collided with the USS Von Steuben in 1968 (after a name change to Sealady).

Author Chris Dickon wrote what is widely considered the definitive biography of Seeger in 2017, A Rendezvous With Death: Alan Seeger In Poetry, At War.[23] Dickon spoke about Seeger and his work at the American Library, Paris, shortly after the publication of his book.[24]

On 9 November 2018, an opinion commentary by Aaron Schnoor in The Wall Street Journal honored the poetry of World War I, including Seeger's poem "I Have a Rendezvous With Death".[25]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Foundation, Poetry (18 September 2019). "Alan Seeger". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  2. ^ David King Dunaway, How Can I Keep From Singing (New York: [Random House, 1981, 1990], revised edition, Villard Books, 2008), p. 17.
  3. ^ See Ann M. Pescatello, Charles Seeger: A Life in American Music (University of Pittsburgh, 1992), pp. 4–5.
  4. ^ a b c Hanna, David (20 June 2016). Rendezvous with Death: The Americans Who Joined the Foreign Legion in 1914 to Fight for France and for Civilization. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781621575443.
  5. ^ a b c Slotkin, Richard (24 December 2013). Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 9781466860933.
  6. ^ a b c Friedman, Dick (5 October 2016). "Alan Seeger". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  7. ^ James C. Young, "Yeats of Petitpas'," The New York Times, 19 February 1922
  8. ^ Porch, Douglas (2010). The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force. Skyhorse Publishing Inc. ISBN 9781616080686.
  9. ^ Ripper, Jason (18 February 2015). American Stories: Living American History: v. 2: From 1865. Routledge. ISBN 9781317477051.
  10. ^ a b c Vaughan, David K. (1999). "Seeger, Alan (Poet)". In Holsinger, M. Paul (ed.). War and American Popular Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 215.
  11. ^ a b Ripper, Jason (18 February 2015). American Stories: Living American History: v. 2: From 1865. Routledge. ISBN 9781317477051.
  12. ^ a b "The Great War: Part 1 - Transcript". American Experience. PBS. 3 July 2018. Retrieved 7 May 2019.
  13. ^ Seeger, Alan (1917). Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 214-215, 218. alan seeger.
  14. ^ a b Hanna, David (20 June 2016). Rendezvous with Death: The Americans Who Joined the Foreign Legion in 1914 to Fight for France and for Civilization. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781621575443.
  15. ^ Donaldson, Scott (9 January 2007). Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life. Columbia University Press. p. 309. ISBN 9780231510998.
  16. ^ Gilbert, Martin (29 May 2007). The Somme: Herosim and Horror in the First World War. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 9781429966887.
  17. ^ "Poets Militant" . A treasury of war poetry, British and American poems of the world war, 1914–1919 – via Wikisource.
  18. ^ Seeger, Alan. "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Columbia Point, Boston, MA. Web. Retrieved 28 Jan 2014.
  19. ^ "Not Eager to Defend Iran Deal", The New York Times, 25 April 2018
  20. ^ On 21 January 1917, thirteen 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.
  21. ^ Thwaites, Tom (1979). Fifty Hikes in Central Pennsylvania. Somersworth: New Hampshire Publishing Company. p. 67. ISBN 0-89725-002-8.
  22. ^ "'Alan Seeger' Launched". The Pittsburgh Press. 6 October 1943. p. 6. Retrieved 19 May 2016.
  23. ^ Dickon, Chris. A Rendezvous With Death: Alan Seeger In Poetry, At War. Wickford RI: New Street Communications, 2017.
  24. ^ Chris Dickon @ The American Library in Paris (video). 5 June 2017.
  25. ^ "WSJ – The Great War Produced Some Great Poetry". 9 November 2018. Retrieved 28 April 2019.

External linksEdit