Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Alan Seeger (1888–1916) was an American poet who served in World War I with the French Foreign Legion. He was killed in the Battle of the Somme, in 1916. His poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” was published posthumously in 1917. The poem is written from his perspective as a soldier in the war, stoically anticipating a meeting between himself and death.
Perhaps the most significant quotation from the poem is the first line of the poem, which is repeated twice more and is also the poem’s title: “I have a rendezvous with Death.” Perhaps the first point to note about this line is the use of the word rendezvous. As well as alluding to the fact that Seeger served in the French Foreign Legion, the word also has, in the English language, romantic connotations, implying that the speaker’s anticipated meeting with Death is, to him, not as grave or ominous as such a meeting might ordinarily be. The fact that Death is capitalized also suggests that the speaker imagines death in a personified form, which perhaps undercuts the seriousness of the meeting. It sounds as if he is anticipating a casual, friendly meeting with a familiar acquaintance.
The speaker also says that he shall meet with Death “when Spring comes back with rustling shade / And apple-blossoms fill the air.” In poetry, spring often symbolizes new life, so here it seems ironic that the speaker associates this season with his rendezvous with Death. The implication is that the speaker anticipates that this meeting with Death will not simply be an end but a new beginning, perhaps in the afterlife.
The presentation of Death as a welcoming figure is continued in the second stanza with the lines, “he shall take my hand, / And lead me into his dark land / And close my eyes.” The fact that the speaker anticipates Death taking him by the hand and leading him on into the "dark land," implies that Death is a protective, guiding figure, almost as if Death is, to the speaker’s mind, a paternal figure. There is also a gentleness implied in the phrase, “And close my eyes.”
In the third stanza, the speaker imagines a destiny preferable to that of meeting Death. He imagines being “deep / Pillowed in silk and scented down, / Where love throbs out in blissful sleep, / Pulse to pulse, and breath to breath.” The last line, “Pulse to pulse, and breath to breath,” implies two lovers, side by side. It is a conventionally romantic, intimate scene and is a stark counterpoint to the imagined rendezvous with Death.
At the time of his death, Seeger was only 28 years old. He was a young man, still with much life left to live. In the last line of the poem he declares that he will be, “to (his) pledged word . . . true” and that he “shall not fail that rendezvous” with Death. If we take the speaker and the poet to be one and the same, then he proved true to his word and indeed died soon after. Thus we know that he likely didn’t ever again experience that “blissful sleep” or the intimacy of being “Pulse to pulse, and breath to breath” with a lover. This dramatic irony adds a touch of pathos to the poem and specifically to the poet's anticipation of death.