Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628
Born in 1888, Alan Seeger spent most of his early years in New York City. From 1900 to 1902, he lived with his family in Mexico, where his father had business interests; for much of the next eight years, Seeger lived in Mexico off and on, acquiring what he called a fair command of Spanish and a deep appreciation for Mexican culture.
In 1906, Seeger matriculated at Harvard University, where he studied literature and served as editor of the Harvard Monthly. After graduating in 1910, Seeger moved back to New York, to the then-quiet neighborhood of Greenwich Village, where he tried to make ends meet with poetry, occasional journalism, and a short-term job as a library clerk. In a letter he wrote to a potential employer in New York in 1910, Seeger wrote that he knew from boyhood that he wanted to be a poet and seriously considered no other profession. In the same letter, he noted that he had been offered a job with good potential for advancement in a publishing firm but was not going to take the position.
By 1912, Seeger had begun to realize that New York did not offer a productive environment for his attempts to write and grow as a poet. In the middle of 1912, Seeger left New York for Paris, joining a small colony of American expatriates, most of whom were artists or writers. At that time, Paris was a world center for the arts; French culture seemed particularly attractive and nonjudgmental to those who wanted to pursue new directions in music, poetry, sculpture, and painting. Although by nature a conservative poet whose models were John Keats, Lord Byron, Arthur Rimbaud, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Seeger also found Paris a congenial place in which to write. In “Paris,” Seeger delights that:
looking out over the domes and towersThat chime the fleeting quarters and the hours,While the bright clouds banked eastward back of themBlush in the sunset, pink as hawthorn flowers,You cannot fail to think, as I have done,Some of life’s ends attained, so you be oneWho measures life’s attainment by the hoursThat Joy has rescued from oblivion.
By July, 1914, Seeger had assembled a collection of poems and was actively seeking a publisher. However, this volume—or any other collection of his poems—was not published in his lifetime.
In August, 1914, the start of World War I, Seeger volunteered to serve in the French Foreign Legion. In letters, Seeger observed that he did so not out of dislike for Germany—in fact, he counted himself an admirer of German culture—but out of love for France. Like many other expatriate Americans in Paris in 1914, Seeger enlisted because he wanted to protect France and its culture in the war. In addition, Seeger joined the legion because he saw warfare as a heroic enterprise and anticipated that the war would change the course of Western civilization and because he felt he owed it to his friends, especially those who did not have the freedom to choose.
Seeger saw his share of combat and hardship during the first two years of the war, which gave a thorough fatalism to many of his best poems. Service in the field damaged Seeger’s respiratory system, and in 1916, he was hospitalized for acute bronchitis. While convalescing, Seeger wrote his most famous poem, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” In early July, 1916, in the early phases of the Battle of the Somme, Seeger and his detachment were ordered to Belloy-en-Santerre, a small town near Amiens. Contemporary reports indicate that the French forces were expected to capture fortified German positions by means of a bayonet charge across open fields. In the early stages of the attack, on July 4, 1916, Seeger was hit by machine-gun fire and died while trying to dress his wound.
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