I Have a Rendezvous with Death Analysis

Alan Seeger

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.