Although he wrote an enormous number of poems from his boyhood to his death in 1916, Alan Seeger remains known primarily as a poet of the early years of World War I. In at least one study of the literature of that war, Seeger and other early poets (including Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell) are contrasted with the more cynical and purportedly more truthful poets of 1916-1918, such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The point is sometimes made that the earlier poets, Seeger among them, offered an immature, lofty view of the war that was highly idealized and, hence, thoroughly false. In the words of one critic, Adam Zagajewski, the experiences of the war “thrust writers in the direction of an outraged realism.” Anything that was not either outraged or realistic was contemptible.
In Seeger’s case, such an argument is unfair because his most noteworthy poems clearly detail the human costs of war. These were costs that he, like most other combatants, knew well. In fact, what the poems champion is not warfare and what they glorify is not violence; instead, what the best of Seeger’s poems celebrate is human courage, devotion, and honor.
“Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France”
Apart from “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” Seeger’s most famous poem is “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France,” which was written for public reading in Paris on Memorial Day, a date in the United States set aside to honor those who died in service to their country. At the time the poem was written, early 1916, the United States was neutral and isolationist, and President Woodrow Wilson was lauded for keeping the country out of what was perceived to be a European war.
Seeger’s task, at that historical moment, was not to represent the horrors of war as he surely knew them, but rather to convince his audience that a scant handful of Americans who died in the French Foreign Legion were more truly American than those who wanted to stay out of the war. To the poet, the legionnaires connected directly with those who died in the American Civil War and the American...
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