Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Alan Seeger penned "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" as a young man who, from all accounts, was in constant search of the next grand adventure. In World War I, he joined the French Legion as an American, as the United States had not yet entered this war. It was in this war in France that Seeger had his own meeting with Death.

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Although there are hints of a military setting in the poem in phrases such as "disputed barricade" and "scarred slope of battled hill," the poem itself does not read as a strict military narrative and even those terms can be interpreted as metaphors for difficult or uncertain circumstances. Therefore, this particular rendezvous is general enough to be applicable to any reader, regardless of the setting in which he encounters death.

The repetition of the title occurs four times in the relatively short poem. This serves two purposes. First, the narrator seems to be marching forward toward the inevitable. He understands that death is approaching, and there is a sense of duty and honor in going forward to meet this ultimate end. There is not a tone of regret and there is no hint of fear. The narrator, through the repetition, conveys that he realizes what is coming. The final line both hints at this repetition and brings it to closure: "I shall not fail that rendezvous." Interestingly, this line becomes symbolic for the author's own end of life, almost foreshadowing the events that unfolded in war.

The word rendezvous itself is French, significant because of the location in which the poem was penned. It also connotes a somewhat light meeting, as one would use when meeting a friend. This is an interesting choice, using it to establish an agreed-upon location with Death, a situation many would find fearsome. The use of rendezvous further solidifies that the narrator holds no fear or apprehension about the end he realizes is coming.

The rhyme pattern changes from stanza to stanza, signifying the unpredictable nature of meeting Death. Although there is predictability in knowing that each person will eventually have his own rendezvous with Death, there is no predictability in knowing how or when that meeting will come. Moving from stanza to stanza in an irregular rhyme pattern furthers this idea.

The narrator also juxtaposes the idea of dying with imagery of spring in each of the three stanzas. Spring is often symbolic of rebirth, hope, and new beginnings, so while the narrator realizes that his end is coming and is accepting of that fate, he also longs for the new beginning that will follow.

The Poem

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Last Updated on July 24, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

A short elegy in iambic tetrameter, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” has three stanzas of six, eight, and ten lines that employ irregular rhyme. Elegy is a lyric poetic form that traditionally takes as its subject a meditation on death or other similarly grave theme. In its classical form, in both Latin and Greek poetry, the elegy was distinguished more for its use of the elegiac meter, the dactylic hexameter—an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables—than for its subject matter. The elegy has been a popular form throughout the English poetic tradition. Geoffrey Chaucer, John Donne, Thomas Gray, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson all wrote in the conventional form. Elizabethan poets often used the elegy for love poems which they called “complaints.” A typical example in American poetry can be found in Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

In “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” the American poet Alan Seeger modernized the elegy by employing an iambic meter that gives his poem a more regular, even cadence and by emphasizing the theme of impending death. Not occasioned by the death of someone else, as elegies generally are, Seeger’s poem meditates on his own possible death during World War I, when he was serving on the Western Front. In fact, Seeger was killed in action in the war at the Battle of the Somme.

An atypical lyric on the war, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” alludes to the realities of the war only sparingly in phrases such as “disputed barricade,” “some scarred slope,” and “some flaming town.” The poem’s title announces its theme of death, while suggesting, through its use of the word “rendezvous,” that the poet is heading toward his meeting with death involuntarily. “Rendezvous” suggests a prearranged coming together at a particular time and place. In this context it implies a deliberate or willed connection with death, which reinforces the root meaning of the word, derived from Old French for “presenting oneself.” Seeger’s use of the word also echoes his reasons for joining the army in the first place: He wished to stand up and be counted in the struggle against the cultural darkness that German military expansion represented to him and the Allies during the early years of the conflict.

The poem opens with Seeger contemplating his death in the springtime—a particularly jarring note because spring is normally associated with the renewal of life after the “death” of winter. The second stanza reverses this disjunctive note as the poet hints that his journey into death’s “dark land” with the “closing of his eyes” and quenching of his breath might be avoided and that he may yet once again experience the seasonal return of life and “meadow-flowers.”

The third stanza begins with a conventional comparison between death and sleep by contrasting “blissful sleep” with its dear “hushed awakenings” to the finality of death from which no one awakens. However, the elegy concludes with the poet’s reiteration that his death comes, not unexpectedly, but as a result of his “pledged word,” the word of a soldier who has volunteered to embrace death as a part of his profession. It is a rendezvous that the poet-soldier will not fail to keep: As spring “trips north again this year,” at midnight in some burning town he may meet his end.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393

The presence of death in the poem is softened by the recurring references in each stanza to springtime and the life-giving urges that spring evokes. The poet says that the season will bring back “blue days and fair” with “rustling shade,” “apple-blossoms,” and “meadow flowers.” Reminiscent of Geoffrey Chaucer’s description of spring in his prologue to The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), Seeger’s poem also “throbs,” pulses, and breathes with the reawakening of life’s urges. Its references to spring—a time the poet may well not live to see—add an especially poignant note to the possibility of his dying.

The poem’s personification of death also contributes to its touching mood by emphasizing both the acceptance and tenderness of death. Its second stanza describes meeting death in terms almost of friendship. Death will take the poet by the hand and lead him into his “dark land.” It is an image suggesting a gentle, coaxing death, not one that arrives violently or unannounced. Such imagery evokes Seeger’s traditional grounding in the classics. This poem reminds one of the cicerone, or guide, in Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320) who shepherds his charge through the mazes of the underworld, instructing him at every turn. In Seeger’s poem, however, the guide will not lead him safely through the pitfalls of Hell and out again but will close the poet’s eyes and quench his breath. Here death is gentle but also insistent, and the journey he presages is terminal.

In the third stanza, Seeger introduces sleep imagery—using a traditional trope of death as a “little” sleep, comparing and contrasting to the finality of death. He does this by employing a seductive and inviting sexual imagery. Sleep is described as “deep/ Pillowed in silk” and “scented down.” In this “sleep,” “Love throbs” and pulse is “nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,” and awakenings are “hushed” and “dear.” The Association of love with death is deeply rooted in the traditions of poetry. With its conceit of a “rendezvous,” which also has overtones of a meeting of lovers, this poem’s connection of love and death becomes all the more suggestive. Such comparisons join with the final couplet of the poem in which the poet uses the term “pledge,” another word often applied to meetings between lovers, which additionally expands the meaning of the poem.

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