I Have a Rendezvous with 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 day 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.
- (c) Alan Seeger, June 22, 1888 - July 4,1916
The romance of Death, the seductive power of eternal nobility through self-sacrifice. Alan Seeger's vision - his Death - as Ingmar Bergman's Death in Seventh Seal, scythe in hand, leading the dance across the hilltops - haunts the imagination and refuses to leave. The astonishing imagery tears less gently at our hearts with knowing his fate.
“I Have a Rendezvous with Death” was President John F. Kennedy's favorite poem. As President Kennedy, Mr. Seeger voiced quiet certainty of his fate - and of the poetic means to his own immortality. More than embrace, both seemed compelled to pursue a noble death.
A Harvard graduate in 1910, Alan Seeger lazed in the artistic atmosphere of Greenwich Village for two years. An American citizen whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, he moved to his beloved Paris to pursue his dream of literary expression. The honor of war was in his blood: Seegers fought in both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
In August 1914, Mr. Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion in the defense of France. For two years, from September 27, 1914 until June 28, 1916, Mr. Seeger wrote poignant and thoughtful poems, diary entries, letters, postcards and news commentaries from the front lines of World War I. Hints of “Rendezvous” are found in a letters he wrote to an associate and friend at Harvard, “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.” - and on May 22, 1915, “If it must be, let it come in the heat of action. Why flinch? It is by far the noblest form in which death can come. It is in a sense almost a privilege...”
June 21st, 1916, Alan Seeger wrote his last poem - a sonnet - on the eve of his twenty-eighth birthday - included in his last letter to his marraine (godmother), Mrs. Weeks:
Clouds rosy-tinted in the setting sun,
Depths of the azure eastern sky between,
Plains where the poplar-bordered highways run,
Patched with a hundred tints of brown and green,
Beauty of Earth, when in thy harmonies
The cannon's note has ceased to be a part,
I shall return once more and bring to these
The worship of an undivided heart.
Of those sweet potentialities that wait
For my heart's deep desire to fecundate
I shall resume the search, if Fortune grants;
And the great cities of the world shall yet
Be golden frames for me in which to set
New masterpieces of more rare romance.
- (c) Alan Seeger
Two weeks later, on the 4th of July, 1916, twenty-two months after entering the French Foreign Legion, Mr. Seeger and his battalion were the first wave on the battlefield just outside Belloy-en-Santerre. Caught in deadly cross-fire, his company was decimated - Alan Seeger fell on a beautiful French hillside in a fusillade of German machine gun fire but lived long enough to cheer as the surviving Legionnaires liberated the village.
The following day, the victims of the Battle of the Somme were buried on the battlefield:
There, on the outskirts of the little village,
The soldier rests. Now round him undismayed
The cannon thunders, and at night he lies
At peace beneath the eternal fusillade. . .
That other generations might possess
From shame and menace free in years to come
A richer heritage of happiness,
He marched to that heroic martyrdom.
- (c) Alan Seeger (extract from “Champagne, 1914-15”)
Eric Anderson, provost of Eton College, England, delivered the sermon on the seventieth anniversary of the dedication of Memorial Church (built to honor Harvardians who died in World War I). He began with Harvard poet Alan Seeger:
“Seeger . . . is memorialized in the church with others who kept their own rendezvous in war. The First World War was one of those rare historical moments when a fundamental human attitude changes. In 1914 it was still possible to talk with pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war. By 1919, the Western world knew war for what it is... The war to end wars turned out to be just another bloody episode in the long-running saga of the struggle between human heroism and human wickedness.”
In 1917, Mr. Seeger's Harvard classmate, T. S. Eliot, wrote of Mr. Seeger's poetry:
“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.”
Alan Seeger's brother, a Harvard graduate in music, Charles Seeger fought against the war: in 1916 - the year Alan Seeger was killed in battle - Charles Seeger was fired from his job as the first Head of the Music Department at the University of California for his opposition to World War I. Charles Seeger was married to Ruth Crawford Seeger, one of America's finest woman composers; he was later recognized as a composer and the “Father of Musicology” (the historic and scientific study of music). Additionally, Charles Seeger fathered America's legendary folk-singer, Pete Seeger (composer of “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” - and mentor to Bob Dylan). Charles Seeger died at the age of 92 in 1976 - fifty years after he lost his little brother on a battlefield in southern France.
Alan Seeger's Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France was to have been read in Paris, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1916 - before the statue of Lafayette and Washington. His commanding officer would not let him leave the battlefield to perform the reading... The end of the forth strophe:
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.
- (c) Alan Seeger
“I Have a Rendezvous with Death” was also one of my mother's favorite poems.
Her interest came from President Kennedy speaking of it so often...
~ Scott Nilsson
Atlanta, Georgia - USA / 2nilssons.com
Copyright © 2002 by Scott Barricks Nilsson - All Rights Reserved
- Copyright 1924
One Hundred and One Famous Poems
Poems by Alan Seeger - Copyright 1916, by Charles Scribner's Sons
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