THIS book contains the undesigned, but all the more spontaneous and authentic, biography of a very rare spirit. It contains the record of a short life, into which was crowded far more of keen experience and high aspiration---of the thrill of sense and the rapture of soul---than it is given to most men, even of high vitality, to extract from a life of twice the length. Alan Seeger had barely passed his twenty-eighth birthday, when, charging up to the German trenches on the field of Belloy-en-Santerre, his "escouade" of the Foreign Legion was caught in a deadly flurry of machine-gun fire, and he fell, with most of his comrades, on the blood-stained but reconquered soil. To his friends the loss was grievous, to literature it was---we shall never know how great, but assuredly not small. Yet this was a case, if ever there was one, in which we may not only say "Nothing is here for tears," but may add to the well-worn phrase its less familiar sequel:
Nothing to wail
Or knock the breast, no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise, or blame,---nothing but well and fair,
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.
Of all the poets who have died young, none has died so happily. Without suggesting any parity of stature, one cannot but think of the group of English poets who, about a hundred years ago, were cut off in the flower of their age. Keats, coughing out his soul by the Spanish Steps; Shelley's spirit of flame snuffed out by a chance capful of wind from the hills of Carrara; Byron, stung by a fever-gnat on the very threshold of his great adventure---for all these we can feel nothing but poignant unrelieved regret. Alan Seeger, on the other hand, we can very truly envy. Youth had given him all that it had to give; and though he would fain have lived on---though no one was ever less world-weary than he---yet in the plenitude of his exultant strength, with eye undimmed and pulse unslackening, he met the death---he had voluntarily challenged, in the cause of the land he loved, and in the moment of victory. Again and again, both in prose and in verse, he had said that this seemed to him a good death to die; and two years of unflinching endurance of self-imposed hardship and danger had proved that he meant what he said.
I do not, I repeat, pretend to measure him with Shelley, Byron or Keats, though I think none of them would have disdained his gift of song. But assuredly he is of their fellowship in virtue, not only of his early death, but of his whole-hearted devotion to the spirit of Romance, as they understood it. From his boyhood upward, his one passion was for beauty; and it was in the guise of Romance that beauty revealed itself to him. He was from the first determined not only to write but to live Romance, and when fate threw in his way a world-historic opportunity, he seized it with delight. He knew that he was dicing with Death, but that was the very essence of his ideal; and he knew that if Death won the throw, his ideal was crowned and consummated, for ever safe from the withering touch of time, or accidental soilure. If it had been given to Swinburne to fall, rifle in hand, on, say, the field of Mentana, we should have been the poorer by many splendid verses, but the richer by a heroic life story. And would his lot have been the less enviable? Nay, surely, much the more. That is the thought which may well bring solace to those who loved Alan Seeger, and who may at first have felt as an unmixed cruelty the cutting short of so eager, so generous, so gallant a life.
The description "Juvenilia" attached to the first series of these poems is of his own choosing. It is for the reader to judge what allowance is to be made for unripeness, whether of substance or of form. Criticism is none of my present business. But I think no discerning reader can fail to be impressed by one great virtue pervading all the poet's work---its absolute sincerity. There is no pose, no affectation of any sort. There are marks of the loving study of other poets, and these the best. We are frequently reminded of this singer and of that. The young American is instinctively loyal to the long tradition of English literature. He is content to undergo the influence of the great masters, and does not seek for premature originality on the by-paths of eccentricity. But while he is the disciple of many, he is the vassal of none. His matter is always his own, the fruit of personal vision, experience, imagination, even if he may now and then unconsciously pour it into a mould provided by another. He is no mere echo of the rhythms of this poet, or mimic of that other's attitude and outlook. The great zest of living which inspires him is far too real and intense to clothe itself in the trappings of any alien individuality. He is too straightforward to be even dramatic. It is not his instinct to put on a mask, even for purposes of artistic personation, and much less of affectation.
If ever there was a being who said "Yea" to life, accepted it as a glorious gift, and was determined to live it with all his might, it was Alan Seeger. Such a frame of mind is too instinctive and temperamental to be called optimism. It is not the result of a balancing of good and ill, and a reasoned decision that good preponderates. Rather it is a direct perception, an intuition, of the beauty and wonder of the universe an intuition too overpowering to be seriously disturbed by the existence of pain and evil, some of which, at any rate, has its value as a foil, a background, to joy. This was the message---not a philosophy but an irresistible emotion---which he sought to deliver through the medium of an art which he seriously studied and deeply loved. It spoke from the very depths of his being, and the poems in which it found utterance, whatever their purely literary qualities, have at least the value of a first-hand human document, the sincere self-portraiture of a vivid and virile soul.
There are three more or less clearly-marked elements in a poet's equipment---observation, passion, reflection, or in simpler terms, seeing, feeling and thinking. The first two are richly represented in the following poems, the third, as was natural, much less so. The poet was too fully occupied in garnering impressions and experiences to think of co-ordinating and interpreting them. That would have come later; and later, too, would have come a general deepening of the spiritual content of his work. There had been nothing in either his outward or his inward life that could fairly be called suffering or struggle. He had not sounded the depths of human experience, which is as much as to say that neither had he risen to the heights. This he no doubt recognised himself, and was not thinking merely of the date of composition when he called his pre-war poems "Juvenilia." Great emotions, and perhaps great sorrows, would have come to him in due time, and would have deepened and enriched his vein of song. The first great emotion which found him, when he rallied to the trumpet-call of France and freedom, did, as a matter of fact, lend new reality and poignancy to his verse; but the soldier's life left him small leisure for composition. We must regard his work, then, as a fragment, a mere foretaste of what he might have achieved had his life been prolonged. But, devoted though he was to his art, he felt that to live greatly is better than to write greatly. The unfulfilment of his poetic hopes and dreams meant the fulfilment of a higher ambition.
Alan Seeger was born in New York on June 22nd, 1888. His father and his mother belonged to old New England families.
When he was a year old his parents removed to Staten Island, which forms, as it were, the stopper to the bottle of New York harbour. There he remained until his tenth year, growing up along with a brother and a sister, the one a little older, the other a little younger, than himself. From their home on the heights of Staten Island, the children looked out day by day upon one of the most romantic scenes in the world---the gateway to the Western Hemisphere. They could see the great steamships of all the nations threading their way through the Narrows and passing in procession up the glorious expanse of New York Bay, to which the incessant local traffic of tug-boats, river steamers and huge steam-ferries lent an ever-shifting animation. In the foreground lay Robbins Reef Lighthouse, in the middle distance the Statue of Liberty, in the background the giant curves of Brooklyn Bridge, and, range over range, the mountainous buildings of "down town" New York---not then as colossal as they are to-day, but already unlike anything else under the sun. And the incoming stream of tramps and liners met the outgoing stream which carried the imagination seaward, to the islands of the buccaneers, and the haunts of all the heroes and villains of history, in the Old World. The children did not look with incurious eyes upon this stirring scene. They knew the names of all the great European liners and of the warships passing to and from the Navy Yard; and the walls of their nursery were covered with their drawings of the shipping, rude enough, no doubt, but showing accurate observation of such details as funnels, masts and rigging. They were of an age, before they left Staten Island, to realize something of the historic implications of their environment.
In 1898 the family returned to New York, and there Alan continued at the Horace Mann School the education begun at the Staten Island Academy. The great delight of the ten-year-old schoolboy was to follow the rushing fire-engines which were an almost daily feature in the life of the New York streets. Even in manhood he could never resist the lure of the fire-alarm.
Two years later (1900) came a new migration, which no doubt exercised a determining influence on the boy's development. The family removed to Mexico, and there Alan spent a great part of the most impressionable years of his youth. If New York embodies the romance of Power, Mexico represents to perfection the romance of Picturesqueness. To pass from the United States to Mexico is like passing at one bound from the New World to the Old. Wherever it has not been recently Americanized, its beauty is that of sunbaked, somnolent decay. It is in many ways curiously like its mother---or rather its step-mother---country, Spain. But Spain can show nothing to equal the spacious magnificence of its scenery or the picturesqueness of its physiognomies and its costumes. And then it is the scene of the most fascinating adventure recorded in history---an exploit which puts to shame the imagination of the greatest masters of romance. It is true that the Mexico City of to-day shows scanty traces (except in its Museum) of the Tenochtitlan. of Montezuma; but the vast amphitheatre on which it stands is still wonderfully impressive, and still the great silver cones of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl look down upon it from their immaculate altitudes.
Though well within the tropics, the great elevation of the city (7400 feet) renders its climate very attractive to those for whom height has no terrors; and the Seegers soon became greatly attached to it. For two very happy years, it was the home of the whole family. The children had a tutor whom they respected and loved, and who helped to develop their taste for poetry and good literature. "One of our keenest pleasures," writes one of the family, "was to go in a body to the old book-shops, and on Sunday morning to the 'Thieves Market,' to rummage for treasures; and many were the Elzevirs and worm-eaten, vellum-bound volumes from the old convent libraries that fell into our hands. At that time we issued a home magazine called The Prophet, in honour of a large painting that we had acquired and chose to consider as the patron of our household. The magazine was supposed to appear monthly, but was always months behind its time. Alan was the sporting editor, but his literary ability had even then begun to appear, and he overstepped his department with contributions of poetry and lengthy essays. No copies of this famous periodical are extant---they all went down in the wreck of the Merida."
In the chilly days of winter, frequent visits were paid to the lower levels of the tierra templada, especially to Cuernavaca, one of the "show" places of the country. The children learned to ride and to cycle, and were thus able to extend their excursions on all sides. When, after two years, they went back to the United States to school, they were already familiar with Mexican nature and life; and they kept their impressions fresh by frequent vacation visits. It must have been a delightful experience to slip down every now and then to the tropics: first to pass under the pink walls of Morro Castle into the wide lagoon of Havana; then to cross the Spanish Main to Vera Cruz; then, after skirting the giant escarpment of Orizaba, to crawl zigzagging up the almost precipitous ascent that divides the tierra templada from the tierra fria; and finally to speed through the endless agave-fields of the upland haciendas, to Mexico City and home.
Mexico, and the experiences associated with it, have left deep marks on Alan Seeger's poetry. The vacation voyages thither speak in this apostrophe from the "Ode to Antares":
Star of the South that now through orient mist
At nightfall off Tampico or Belize
Greetest the sailor, rising from those seas
Where first in me, a fond romanticist,
The tropic sunset's bloom on cloudy piles
Cast out industrious cares with dreams of fabulous isles. . . .
The longest of his poems, "The Deserted Garden"---a veritable gallery of imaginative landscape---is entirely Mexican in colouring. Indeed we may conjecture without too much rashness that it is a mere expansion of the sonnet entitled "Tezcotzinco," the fruit of a solitary excursion to the ruins of Nezahualcoyotl's baths, in the hills beyond Tezcoco. But even where there is no painting of definite Mexican scenes, motives from the vast uplands with their cloud pageantry, and from the palm-fringed, incandescent coasts, frequently recur in his verse. For instance, he had not forgotten Mexico when he wrote in a volume of the Comtesse de Noailles:
Be my companion under cool arcades
That frame some drowsy street and dazzling square,
Beyond whose flowers and palm-tree promenades
White belfries burn in the blue tropic air.
And even when the tropics were finally left behind, he carried with him in his memory their profusion of colour, an ever-ready palette on which to draw. Assuredly it was a fortunate chance that took this lover of sunlight and space and splendor, in his most receptive years, to regions where they superabound. Perhaps, had he been confined to gloomier climates, he could not have written:
From a boy
I gloated on existence. Earth to me
Seemed all-sufficient, and my sojourn there
One trembling opportunity for joy.
But the same good fortune pursued him throughout. He seemed predestined to environments of beauty. When, at fourteen, he left his Mexican home, it was to go to the Hackley School at Tarrytown, N. Y., an institution placed on a high hill overlooking that noblest of rivers, the Hudson, and surrounded by a domain of its own, extending to many acres of meadow and woodland. An attack of scarlet fever in his childhood had left his health far from robust, and it was thought that the altitude of Mexico City was too great for him. He therefore spent one of his vacations among the hills of New Hampshire, and was afterwards given a year out of school, with the family of his former tutor, in Southern California---again a region famed for its beauty. He returned much improved in health, and after a concluding year at Hackley, he entered Harvard College in 1906.
He now plunged into wide and miscellaneous reading, both at Harvard, and at the magnificent Boston Library. During his first two years at college, his bent seemed to lie rather towards the studious and contemplative than towards the active life. His brother, at this time, appeared to him to be of a more pleasure-loving and adventurous disposition; and there exists a letter to his mother in which, after contrasting, with obvious allusion to Chaucer's "Prologue," the mediæval ideals of the Knight and the Clerk, he adds: "C. is the Knight and I the Clerk, deriving more keen pleasure from the perusal of a musty old volume than in pursuing adventure out in the world." But about the middle of his Harvard career, a marked change came over his habits of thought and of action. He emerged from his shell, made many friends, and threw himself with great zest into the social life of his comrades. It is evident, however, that this did not mean any slackening in his literary interests. His work gives ample proof of real, if not of systematic, culture. He genuinely loves and has made his own many of the great things of the past. His translations from Dante and Ariosto, for example, show no less sympathy than accomplishment. Very characteristic is his selection of the Twenty-sixth Canto of the Inferno, in which the narrative of Ulysses brings with it a breath from the great romance of the antique world. It is noteworthy that before he graduated he took up with zeal and with distinction the study of Keltic literature---a corrective, perhaps, in its cooler tones, to the tropical motives with which his mind was stored. He was one of the editors of the Harvard Monthly, to which he made frequent contributions of verse.
There followed two years (1910-12) in New York---probably the least satisfactory years of his life. The quest of beauty is scarcely a profession, and it caused his parents some concern to find him pausing irresolute on the threshold of manhood, instead of setting himself a goal and bracing his energies for its achievement. In 1911 his mother and sister left Mexico, a week or two before Porfirio Diaz made his exit, and the Maderists entered the capital. They returned to New York, to find Alan still unsettled, and possessed with the thought, or perhaps rather the instinct, that the life he craved for was not to be found in America, but awaited him in Europe. In the following year he carried his point, and set off for Paris---a departure which may fairly be called his Hegira, the turning-point of his history. That it shortened his span there can be little doubt. Had he settled down to literary work, in his native city, he might have lived to old age. But it secured him four years of the tense and poignant joy of living on which his heart was set; and during two of these years the joy was of a kind which absolved him for ever from the reproach of mere hedonism and self-indulgence. He would certainly have said---or rather he was continually saying, in words full of passionate conviction---
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.
It was in the spirit of a romanticist of the eighteen-forties that he plunged into the life of Paris. He had a room near the Musée de Cluny, and he found himself thoroughly at home among the artists and students of the Latin Quarter, though he occasionally varied the Vie de Bohème by excursions into "society" of a more orthodox type. Paris has had many lovers, but few more devoted than Alan Seeger. He accepted the life of "die singende, springende, schöne Paris" with a curious wholeheartedness. Here and there we find evidence---for instance, in the first two sonnets---that he was not blind to its seamy side. But on the whole he appears to have seen beauty even in aspects of it for which it is almost as difficult to find æsthetic as moral justification. The truth is, no doubt, that the whole spectacle was plunged for him in the glamour of romance. Paris did not belong to the working-day world, but was like Bagdad or Samarcand, a city of the Arabian Nights. How his imagination transfigured it we may see in such a passage as this:
By silvery waters in the plains afar
Glimmers the inland city like a star,
With gilded gates and sunny spires ablaze,
And burnished domes half seen through luminous haze.
Lo, with what opportunity earth teems!
How like a fair its ample beauty seems!
Fluttering with flags its proud pavilions rise:
What bright bazaars, what marvellous merchandise,
Down seething alleys what melodious din,
What clamor, importuning from every booth:
At Earth's great mart where Joy is trafficked in
Buy while thy purse yet swells with golden Youth!
Into this fair he sallied forth, not as one to the manner born, but with the eagerness of a traveller from a far country, who feels as though he were living in a dream. His attitude to the whole experience is curiously ingenuous, but perfectly sane and straightforward. It is the Paris of Murger in which he lives, not the Paris of Baudelaire and the Second Empire. He takes his experiences lightly. There is no sign either of any struggle of the soul or of any very rending tempest of the heart. There is no posing, self-conscious Byronism, nor any of that morbid dallying with the idea of "sin" which gives such an unpleasant flavor to a good deal of romantic poetry, both French and English. There are traces of disappointment and. disillusion, but they are accepted without a murmur as inevitable incidents of a great, absorbing experience. All this means, of course, that there is no tragic depth, and little analytic subtlety, in these poems. They are the work of a young man enamoured of his youth, enthusiastically grateful for the gift of life, and entirely at his ease within his own moral code. He had known none of what he himself calls "that kind of affliction which alone can unfold the profundities of the human spirit."
It was in Paris that he produced most of the "Juvenilia." He included only a few of the pieces which he had written at Harvard and in New York. Thus all, or nearly all, the poems ranged under that title, are, as he said
Relics of the time when I too fared
Across the sweet fifth lustrum of my days.
Paris, however, did not absorb him entirely during these years. He would occasionally set forth on long tramps through the French provinces; for he loved every aspect of that gracious country. He once spent some weeks with a friend in Switzerland; but this experience seems to have left no trace in his work.
Then came the fateful year 1914. His "Juvenilia" having grown to a passable bulk, he brought them in the early summer to London, with a view to finding a publisher for them; but it does not appear that he took any very active steps to that effect. His days were mainly spent in the British Museum, and his evenings with a coterie of friends at the Café Royal. In the middle of July, his father came to England and spent a week with him. Of this meeting Mr. Seeger writes:
We passed three days at Canterbury---three days of such intimacy as we had hardly had since he was a boy in Mexico. For four or five years I had only seen him a few days at a time, during my hurried visits to the United States. We explored the old town together, heard services in the Cathedral, and had long talks in the close. After service in the Cathedral on a Monday morning, the last of our stay at Canterbury, Alan was particularly enthusiastic over the reading of the Psalms, and said "Was there ever such English written as that of the Bible?" I said good-bye to Alan on July 25th.
Two days earlier, the Austrian Ultimatum had been presented to Serbia; on that very day the time limit expired, the Serbian reply was rejected, and the Austrian Minister left Belgrade. The wheels of fate were already whirling.
As soon as it became evident that a European war was inevitable Alan returned to Paris. He took Bruges on his way, and there left the manuscript of his poems in the keeping of a printer, not foreseeing the risks to which he was thus exposing them.
The war was not three weeks old when, along with forty or fifty of his fellow-countrymen, he enlisted in the Foreign Legion of France. Why did he take this step? Fundamentally, no doubt, because he felt war to be one of the supreme experiences of life, from which, when it offered itself, he could not shrink without disloyalty to his ideal.
Long before the war was anything more than a vague possibility, he had imagined the time
. . . when courted Death shall claim my limbs and find them
Laid in some desert place alone, or where the tides
Of war's tumultuous waves on the wet sands behind them
Leave rifts of gasping life when their red flood subsides.
So far back indeed as May, 1912, he had written to his mother from Paris: "Is it not fine the way the Balkan States are triumphing? I have been so excited over the war, it would have needed a very small opportunity to have taken me over there." It is evident, then, that the soldier's life had long been included among the possibilities which fascinated him. But apart from this general proclivity to adventure, this desire to "live dangerously," he was impelled by a simple sentiment of loyalty to the country and city of his heart, which he himself explained in a letter written from the Aisne trenches to The New Republic (New York, May 22, 1915):
I have talked with so many of the young volunteers here. Their case is little known, even by the French, yet altogether interesting and appealing. They are foreigners on whom the outbreak of war laid no formal compulsion. But they had stood on the butte in springtime perhaps, as Julian and Louise stood, and looked out over the myriad twinkling lights of the beautiful city. Paris---mystic, maternal, personified, to whom they owed the happiest moments of their lives---Paris was in peril. Were they not under a moral obligation, no less binding than [that by which] their comrades were bound legally, to put their breasts between her and destruction? Without renouncing their nationality, they had yet chosen to make their homes here beyond any other city in the world, Did not the benefits and blessings they had received point them a duty that heart and conscience could not deny?
"Why did you enlist?" In every case the answer was the same. That memorable day in August came. Suddenly the old haunts were desolate, the boon companions had gone. It was unthinkable to leave the danger to them and accept only the pleasures oneself, to go on enjoying the sweet things of life in defence of which they were perhaps even then shedding their blood in the north. Some day they would return, and with honor---not all, but some. The old order of things would have irrevocably vanished. There would be a new companionship whose bond would be the common danger run, the common sufferings borne, the common glory shared. "And where have you been all the time, and what have you been doing?" The very question would be a reproach, though none were intended, How could they endure it?
Face to face with a situation like that, a man becomes reconciled, justifies easily the part he is playing, and comes to understand, in a universe where logic counts for so little and sentiment and the impulse of the heart for so much, the inevitableness and naturalness of war. Suddenly the world is up in arms. All mankind takes sides. The same faith that made him surrender himself to the impulses of normal living and of love, forces him now to make himself the instrument through which a greater force works out its inscrutable ends through the impulses of terror and repulsion. And with no less a sense of moving in harmony with a universe where masses are in continual conflict and new combinations are engendered out of eternal collisions, he shoulders arms and marches forth with haste.
Already in this passage we can discern the fatalistic acceptance of war which runs through many of his utterances on the subject, and may be read especially in the noble conclusion of his poem, "The Hosts:"
There was a stately drama writ
By the hand that peopled the earth & air
And set the stars in the infinite
And made night gorgeous & morning fair;
And all that had sense to reason knew
That bloody drama must be gone through.
Some sat & watched how the action veered
Waited, profited, trembled, cheered
We saw not clearly nor understood,
But, yielding ourselves to the master hand,
Each in his part, as best he could,
We played it through as the author planned.
It was not, in his own conception, a "war against war" that he was waging; it was simply a fight for freedom and for France. Some of us may hope and believe that, in after years, when he was at leisure to view history in perspective and carry his psychology a little deeper, he would have allowed, if not more potency, at any rate more adaptability, to the human will. In order to do so, it would not have been necessary to abandon his fatalistic creed. He would have seen, perhaps, that even if we only will what we have to will, the factors which shape the will---of the individual, the nation, or the race---are always changing, and that it is not only possible but probable that the factors which make for peace may one day gain the upper hand of those which (for perfectly definite and tangible reasons) have hitherto made for war. The fact remains, however, that he shouldered his knapsack without any theoretic distaste for the soldier's calling. In so far he was more happily situated than thousands who have made all the better soldiers for their intense detestation of the stupidity of war. But this in no way detracts from his loyalty to his personal ideal, or from the high chivalry of his devotion to France.
The story of his life as a soldier shall be told, so far as possible, in his own words.
After some brief preliminary training at Rouen he was sent to Toulouse. Thence, on September 28, 1914, he wrote as follows:
2me Régiment Étranger,
Bataillon C., 1re. Cie, 3me Section.
TOULOUSE, Sept. 28, 1914.
. . . We have been putting in our time here at very hard drilling, and are supposed to have learned in six weeks what the ordinary recruit, in times of peace, takes all his two years at. We rise at 5, and work stops in the afternoon at 5. A twelve hours day at one sou a day. I hope to earn higher wages than this in time to come, but I never expect to work harder. The early rising hour is splendid for it gives one the chance to see the most beautiful part of these beautiful autumn days in the South. We march up to a lovely open field on the end of the ridge behind the barracks, walking right into the rising sun. From this the panorama, spread about on three sides is incomparably fine---yellow cornfields, vineyards, harvest-fields where the workers and their teams can be seen moving about in tiny figures---poplars, little hamlets and church-towers, and far away to the south the blue line of the Pyrenees, the high peaks capped with snow. It makes one in love with life, it is all so peaceful and beautiful. But Nature to me is not only hills and blue skies and flowers, but the Universe, the totality of things, reality as it most obviously presents itself to us; and in this universe strife and sternness play as big a part as love and tenderness, and cannot be shirked by one whose will it is to rule his life in accordance with the cosmic forces he sees in play about him. I hope you see the thing as I do, and think that I have done well, being without responsibilities and with no one to suffer materially by my decision, in taking upon my shoulders, too, the burden that so much of humanity is suffering under, and, rather than stand ingloriously aside when the opportunity was given me, doing my share for the side that I think right. . . .
The battalion must have left Toulouse almost immediately after this was written, for in a post-card of October 10, from the Camp de Mailly, Aube, he says that they have been there ten days. A week later he wrote:
. . . After two weeks here and less than two months from enlistment, we are actually going at last to the firing line. By the time you receive this we shall already perhaps have had our baptême de feu. We have been engaged in the hardest kind of hard work---two weeks of beautiful autumn weather on the whole, frosty nights and sunny days and beautiful coloring on the sparse foliage that breaks here and there the wide rolling expanses of open country. Every day, from the distance to the north, has come the booming of the cannon around Reims and the lines along the Meuse. . . . But imagine how thrilling it will be tomorrow and the following days, marching toward the front with the noise of battle growing continually louder before us. I could tell you where we are going, but I do not want to run any risk of having this letter stopped by the censor. The whole regiment is going, four battalions, about 4000 men. You have no idea how beautiful it is to see the troops undulating along the road in front of one, in colonnes par quatre as far as the eye can see, with the captains and lieutenants on horseback at the head of their companies. . . . Tomorrow the real hardship and privations begin. But I go into action with the lightest of light hearts. The hard work and moments of frightful fatigue have not broken but hardened me, and I am in excellent health and spirits. . . . I am happy and full of excitement over the wonderful days that are ahead. It was such a comfort to receive your letter, and know that you approved of my action.
In a post-card of October 20, postmarked "Vertus," he says:
This is the second night's halt of our march to the front. All our way has been one immense battlefield. It was a magnificent victory for the French that the world does not fully realize. I think we are marching to victory too, but whatever we are going to we are going triumphantly.
On October 23, he writes from "17 kil. south-east of Reims."
DEAR MOTHER.... I am sitting on the curbstone of a street at the edge of the town. The houses end abruptly and the yellow vineyards begin here. The view is broad and uninterrupted to the crest ten kilometers or so across the valley. Between this and ourselves are the lines of the two armies. A fierce cannonading is going on continually, and I lift my eyes from the sheet at each report, to see the puffs of smoke two or three miles off. The Germans have been firing salvoes of four shots over a little village where the French batteries are stationed, shrapnel that burst in little puffs of white smoke; the French reply with explosive shells that raise columns of dust over the German lines. Half of our regiment have left already for the trenches. We may go tonight. We have made a march of about 75 kilometers in four days, and are now on the front, ready to be called on at any moment. I am feeling fine, in my element, for I have always thirsted for this kind of thing, to be present always where the pulsations are liveliest. Every minute here is worth weeks of ordinary experience. How beautiful the view is here, over the sunny vineyards! And what a curious anomaly. On this slope the grape pickers are singing merrily at their work, on the other the batteries are roaring. Boom! Boom!
This will spoil one for any other kind of life. The yellow afternoon sunlight is sloping gloriously across this beautiful valley of Champagne. Aeroplanes pass continually overhead on reconnaissance. I must mail this now. There is too much to be said and too little time to say it. So glad to get your letter. Love and lots of it to all.
Alas! the hopes of swift, decisive action with which the Legion advanced were destined to disappointment. They soon settled down for the winter into the monotonous hardships of trench warfare. Alan described this experience in admirably vivid letters published in the New York Sun, from which a few extracts must suffice. He writes on December 8, during his fourth period of service in the trenches:
We left our camp in the woods before daybreak this morning, and marched up the hill in single file, under the winter stars. . . . Through openings in the woods we could see that we were marching along a high ridge, and on either hand vaporous depths and distances expanded, the darkness broken sometimes by a far light or the momentary glow of a magnesium rocket sent up from the German lines. There is something fascinating if one is stationed on sentry-duty immediately after arrival, in watching the dawn slowly illumine one of these new landscapes, from a position taken up under cover of darkness. The other section has been relieved and departs. We are given the consigne, by the preceding sentinel, and are left alone behind a mound of dirt, facing the north and the blank, perilous night. Slowly the mystery that it shrouds resolves as the grey light steals over the eastern hills. Like a photograph in the washing, its high lights and shadows come gradually forth. The fight splash in the foreground becomes a ruined chateau, the grey street a demolished village.
The details come out on the hillside opposite, where the silent trenches of the enemy are hidden a few hundred metres away, We find ourselves in a woody, mountainous country, with broad horizons and streaks of mist in the valleys. Our position is excellent this time, a high crest, with open land sloping down from the trenches and plenty of barbed wire strung along immediately in front. It would be a hard task to carry such a line, and there is not much danger that the enemy will try.
With increasing daylight the sentinel takes a sheltered position, and surveys his new environment through little gaps where the mounds have been crenellated and covered with branches. Suddenly he starts as a metallic bang rings out from the woods immediately behind him. It is of the unmistakable voice of a French 75 starting the day's artillery duel. By the time the sentinel is relieved, in broad daylight, the cannonade is general all along the line. He surrenders his post to a comrade, and crawls down into his bombproof dugout almost reluctantly, for the long day of inactive waiting has commenced.
Though he never expresses even a momentary regret for the choice he has made, he freely admits that trench warfare is "anything but romantic." For the artilleryman it is "doubtless very interesting" but "the poor common soldier" has a pretty mean time of it:
His rule is simply to dig himself a hole in the ground and to keep hidden in it as tightly as possible. Continually under the fire of the opposing batteries, he is yet never allowed to get a glimpse of the enemy. Exposed to all the dangers of war, but with none of its enthusiasm or splendid élan, he is condemned to sit like an animal in its burrow, and hear the shells whistle over his head, and take their little daily toll from his comrades.
The winter morning dawns with grey skies and the hoar frost on the fields. His feet are numb, his canteen frozen, but he is not allowed to make a fire. The winter night falls, with its prospect of sentry-duty, and the continual apprehension of the hurried call to arms; he is not even permitted to light a candle, but must fold himself in his blanket and lie down cramped in the dirty straw to sleep as best he may. How different from the popular notion of the evening campfire, the songs and good cheer.
Of the commissariat arrangements he gives, on the whole, a very good account; but he admits that "to supplement the regular rations with luxuries such as butter, cheese, preserves, & especially chocolate, is a matter that occupies more of the young soldier's thoughts than the invisible enemy. Our corporal told us the other day that there wasn't a man in the squad that wouldn't exchange his rifle for ajar of jam." But "though modern warfare allows us to think more about eating than fighting, still we do not actually forget that we are in a battle line."
Ever over our heads goes on the precise and scientific struggle of the artillery. Packed elbow to elbow in these obscure galleries, one might be content to squat all day long, auditor of the magnificent orchestra of battle, were it not that one becomes so soon habituated to it that it is no longer magnificent. We hear the voices of cannon of all calibres and at all distances. We learn to read the score & distinguish the instruments. Near us are field batteries; far away are siege guns. Over all there is the unmistakable, sharp, metallic twang of the French 75 the whistle of its shell and the lesser report of its explosion.
And every now and then comes the bursting of a shell immediately overhead, and the rattle of its fragments on the roof of the bomb-proof dug-out. Think what it must have meant to this eager, ardent, pleasure-loving spirit to sit out, day after day, in a chill, sodden, verminous trench, a grand orchestral concert of this music of human madness!
The solitude of sentry-duty evidently comes to him as something of a relief. "It may," he says, "be all that is melancholy if the night is bad and the winter wind moans through the pines"; but it also "brings moments of exaltation, if the cloud-banks roll back, if the moonlight breaks over the windless hills, or the heavens blaze with the beauty of the northern stars."
The sentinel has ample time for reflection. Alone under the stars, war in its cosmic rather than its moral aspect reveals itself to him. . . . He thrills with the sense of filling an appointed, necessary place in the conflict of hosts, and, facing the enemy's crest, above which the Great Bear wheels upward to the zenith, he feels, with a sublimity of enthusiasm that he has never before known, a kind of companionship with the stars.
Six days in the trenches alternated with a three days' interval of rest "either billeted in the stables and haylofts of the village or encamped in the woods and around the chateau." Thus the winter of 1914-15 wore away, with little to break its monotony. The heaviest fighting was all to the northward. One gathers from his poem "The Aisne" that at Craonne he took part in the repulse of a serious enemy attack; but there is no mention of this in the letters before me.
On March 12, 1915, he writes to his mother in fierce indignation over something that has appeared in an American paper as to life in the Foreign Legion. The writer of the "disgraceful article," he says, "like many others of his type, was long ago eliminated from our ranks, for a person buoyed up by no noble purpose is the first to succumb to the hardships of the winter that we have been through. . . . If his lies did nothing worse than belittle his comrades, who are here for motives that he is unable to conceive, it would be only dishonourable. But when it comes to throwing discredit on the French Government, that in all its treatment of us has been generous beyond anything that one would think possible, it is too shameful for any words to characterize."
With the coming of spring, there was of course some mitigation of the trials of the winter. Here is an almost idyllic passage from a letter to his sister, written on the fly-leaves of Les Confessions de J. J. Rousseau, Genève, MDCCLXXXII:
We put in a very pleasant week here---nine hours of guard at night in our outposts up on the hillside; in the daytime sleep, or foraging in the ruined villages, loafing in the pretty garden of the chateau, or reading up in the library. We have cleaned this up now, and it is an altogether curious sensation to recline here in an easy-chair, reading some fine old book, and just taking the precaution not to stay in front of the glassless windows through which the sharpshooters can snipe at you from their posts in the thickets on the slopes of the plateau, not six hundred metres away. Sometimes our artillery opens up and then you lay down your book for a while, and, looking through a peek-hole, watch the 75's and 120's throw up fountains of dirt and débris all along the line of the enemy's trenches.
"Spring has come here at last," so the letter closes, "and we are having beautiful weather. I am going in swimming in the Aisne this afternoon for the first time. In fine health and spirits."
During the summer, the Legion was moved about a good deal from sector to sector, and Alan often found himself in pleasant places, and got a good deal of positive enjoyment out of his life. On June 18, 1915, he wrote to his mother:
You must not be anxious about my not coming back. The chances are about ten to one that I will. But if I should not, you must be proud, like a Spartan mother, and feel that it is your contribution to the triumph of the cause whose righteousness you feel so keenly. Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect, not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity. There should be no neutrals, but everyone should bear some part of the burden. If so large a part should fall to your share, you would be in so far superior to other women and should be correspondingly proud. There would be nothing to regret, for I could not have done otherwise than what I did, and I think I could not have done better. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier.
The same note recurs in a letter of two weeks later (July 3):
Whether I am on the winning or losing side is not the point with me: it is being on the side where my sympathies lie that matters, and I am ready to see it through to the end. Success in life means doing that thing than which nothing else conceivable seems more noble or satisfying or remunerative, and this enviable state I can truly say that I enjoy, for had I the choice I would be nowhere else in the world than where I am.
In this letter he says that an article about Rupert Brooke in which his name was mentioned "gave him rather more pain than pleasure, for it rubbed in the matter which most rankled in his heart, that he never could get his book of poems published before the war." However he consoles himself with the reflection that the M.S. is probably as safe at Bruges as anywhere else. "We have finished our eighth month on the firing line," he says, "and rumors are going round of an imminent return to the rear for reorganization."
These rumors proved to be well founded, and on July 17, he wrote on a picture-postcard representing the Lion of Belfort:
We have finally come to the rear for a little rest and reorganization, and are cantoned in a valley not far from Belfort. in the extreme east of France, very near the Swiss frontier. Since I wrote you last, all the Americans in the regiment received 48 hours permission in Paris, and it was a great happiness to get back even for so short a while and to see again old scenes and faces after almost a year's absence. We shall be here several weeks perhaps.
Three weeks later (August 8) he wrote to his mother:
. . . I have always had the passion to play the biggest part within my reach, and it is really in a sense a supreme success to be allowed to play this. If I do not come out, I will share the good fortune of those who disappear at the pinnacle of their careers. Come to love France and understand the almost unexampled nobility of the effort this admirable people is making, for that will be the surest way of your finding comfort for anything that I am ready to suffer in their cause.
The spell of rest lasted some two months, and then the Legion returned to the front in time for the battle in Champagne "in which" he writes "we took part from the beginning, the morning of the memorable 25th. September." I cannot resist quoting at some length from the admirably vivid letter in which he gave an account of this experience:
The part we played in the battle is briefly as follows. We broke camp about 11 o'clock the night of the 24th, and marched up through ruined Souain to our place in one of the numerous boyaux where the troupes d'attaque were massed. The cannonade was pretty violent all that night, as it had been for several days previous, but toward dawn it reached an intensity unimaginable to anyone who has not seen a modern battle. A little before 9.15 the fire lessened suddenly, and the crackle of the fusillade between the reports of the cannon told us that the first wave of assault had left and the attack begun. At the same time we received the order to advance. The German artillery had now begun to open upon us in earnest. Amid the most infernal roar of every kind of fire-arms, and through an atmosphere heavy with dust and smoke, we marched up through the boyaux to the tranchées de départ. At shallow places and over breaches that shells had made in the bank, we caught momentary glimpses of the blue lines sweeping up the hillside or silhouetted on the crest where they poured into the German trenches. When the last wave of the Colonial brigade had left, we followed. Bayonette an canon, in lines of tirailleurs, we crossed the open space between the lines, over the barbed wire, where not so many of our men were lying as I had feared, (thanks to the efficacy of the bombardment) and over the German trench, knocked to pieces and filled with their dead. In some places they still resisted in isolated groups.
Opposite us, all was over, and the herds of prisoners were being already led down as we went up. We cheered, more in triumph than in hate; but the poor devils, terror-stricken, held up their hands, begged for their lives, cried "Kamerad," "Bon Français," even "Vive la France." We advanced and lay down in columns by twos behind the second crest. Meanwhile, bridges had been thrown across trenches and boyaux, and the artillery, leaving the emplacements where they had been anchored a whole year, came across and took position in the open, a magnificent spectacle. Squadrons of cavalry came up. Suddenly the long, unpicturesque guerre de tranchées was at an end, and the field really presented the aspect of the familiar battle pictures,---the battalions in manuvre, the officers, superbly indifferent to danger, galloping about on their chargers. But now the German guns, moved back, began to get our range, and the shells to burst over and around batteries and troops, many with admirable precision. Here my best comrade was struck down by shrapnel at my side,---painfully but not mortally wounded.
I often envied him after that. For now our advanced troops were in contact with the German second-line defenses, and these proved to be of a character so formidable that a further advance without a preliminary artillery preparation was out of the question. And our rôle, that of troops in reserve, was to lie passive in an open field under a shell fire that every hour became more terrific, while aeroplanes and captive balloons, to which we were entirely exposed, regulated the fire.
That night we spent in the rain. With portable picks and shovels each man dug himself in as well as possible. The next day our concentrated artillery again began the bombardment, and again the fusillade announced the entrance of the infantry into action. But this time only the wounded appeared coming back, no prisoners. I went out and gave water to one of these, eager to get news. It was a young soldier, wounded in the hand. His face and voice bespoke the emotion of the experience he had been through, in a way that I will never forget. "Ah, les salauds!" he cried, "They let us come right up to the barbed wire without firing. Then a hail of grenades and balls. My comrade fell, shot through the leg, got up, and the next moment had his head taken off by a grenade before my eyes." "And the barbed wire, wasn't it cut down by the bombardment?" "Not at all in front of us." I congratulated him on having a blessure heureuse and being well out of the affair. air. But he thought only of his comrade and went on down the road toward Souain nursing his mangled hand, with the stream of wounded seeking their postes de secours.
He then tells how, in spite of substantial gains, it gradually "became more and more evident that the German second line of defence presented obstacles too serious to attempt overcoming for the moment, and we began going up at night to work at consolidating our advanced trenches and turning them into a new permanent line." To this time, perhaps, belongs the incident related by Rif Baer, an Egyptian, who was his comrade and best friend in the regiment. A piece of difficult trench work was allotted to the men, to be finished in one night. "Each was given the limit, that he was supposed to be able to complete in the time. It happened that Rif Baer was ill, and, after working a while, his strength gave out. Alan completed his own job and R. B.'s also, and although he was quite exhausted by the extra labour, his eyes glowed with happiness, and he said he had never done anything in his life that gave him such entire satisfaction."
Summing up the results of the battle, Alan wrote (still in the same letter, October 25): "It was a satisfaction at least to get out of the trenches, to meet the enemy face to face and to see German arrogance turned into suppliance. We knew many splendid moments, worth having endured many trials for. But in our larger aim, of piercing their line, of breaking the long deadlock, of entering Vouziers in triumph, of course we failed." Then he proceeds:
This affair only deepened my admiration for, my loyalty to, the French. If we did not entirely succeed, it was not the fault of the French soldier. He is a better man, man for man, than the German. Anyone who had seen the charge of the Marsouins at Souain would acknowledge it. Never was anything more magnificent. I remember a captain, badly wounded in the leg, as be passed us, borne back on a litter by four German prisoners. He asked us what regiment we were, and when we told him, he cried "Vive la Légion," and kept repeating "Nous les avons eu. Nous les avons eu." He was suffering, but, oblivious of his wound, was still fired with the enthusiasm of the assault and all radiant with victory. What a contrast with the German wounded on whose faces was nothing but terror and despair. What is the stimulus in their slogans of "Gott mit uns" and "Für König und Vaterland" beside that of men really fighting in defense of their country? Whatever be the force in international conflicts of having justice and all the principles of personal morality on one's side, it at least gives the French soldier a strength that's like the strength of ten against an adversary whose weapon is only brute violence. It is inconceivable that a Frenchman, forced to yield, could behave as I saw German prisoners behave, trembling, on their knees, for all the world like criminals at length overpowered and brought to justice. Such men have to be driven to the assault, or intoxicated. But the Frenchman who goes up is possessed with a passion beside which any of the other forms of experience that are reckoned to make life worth while seem pale in comparison.
A report appeared in the American newspapers that he had been killed in the battle of Champagne. On learning of it, he wrote to his mother:
I am navré to think of your having suffered so. I should have arranged to cable after the attack, had I known that any such absurd rumours had been started. Here one has a wholesome notion of the unimportance of the individual. It needs an effort of imagination to conceive of its making any particular difference to anyone or anything if one goes under. So many better men have gone, and yet the world rolls on just the same.
After Champagne, his regiment passed to the rear and did not return to the front until May 1916. On February 1st he writes: "I am in hospital for the first time, not for a wound, unfortunately, but for sickness." Hitherto his health, since he joined the army, had been superb. As a youth he had never been robust; but the soldier's life suited him to perfection, and all remnants of any mischief left behind by the illness of his childhood seemed to have vanished. It was now a sharp attack of bronchitis that sent him to hospital. On his recovery he obtained two months congé de convalescence, part of which he spent at Biarritz and part in Paris. About this time, much to his satisfaction, he once more came into the possession of "Juvenilia." On April 13th he wrote to his mother:
Did I tell you that the Embassy have managed to get my M.S. for me? It was very interesting to re-read this work, which I had almost forgotten. I found much that was good in it, but much that was juvenile too, and am not so anxious to publish it as it stands. I shall probably make extracts from it and join it with what I have done since. I shall go back to the front on the first of May without regrets. These visits to the rear only confirm me in my conviction that the work up there on the front is so far the most interesting work a man can be doing at this moment, that nothing else counts in comparison.
On May 13th he wrote to his "marraine," Mrs. Weeks: "The chateau in the grounds of which we are barracked, has a most beautiful name Bellinglise. Isn't it pretty? I shall have to write a sonnet to enclose it, as a ring is made express for a jewel. It is a wonderful old seventeenth-century manor, surrounded by a lordly estate. What is that exquisite stanza in 'Maud' about 'in the evening through the lilacs (or laurels) of the old manorial home'?(1) Look it up and send it to me." Ten days later he wrote to the same lady:
The week in the trenches was a week of the most beautiful weather. . . . These days were saddened by the death of poor Colette in the bombardment, and by the suffering of his brother who has now returned after the burial. They were marked on the other hand by two afternoons of rather memorable emotion. Exasperated by the inactivity of the sector here, and tempted by danger, I stole off twice after guard, and made a patrol all by myself through the wood paths and trails between the lines. In the front of these, at a crossing of paths not far from one of our posts, I found a burnt rocket-stick planted in the ground, and a scrap of paper stuck in the top, placed there by the boches to guide their little mischief-making parties when they come to visit us in the night. The scrap of paper was nothing else than a bit of the Berliner Tageblatt. This seemed so interesting to me that I reported it to the captain, though my going out alone this way is a thing strictly forbidden. He was very decent about it though, and seemed really interested in the information. Yesterday afternoon I repeated this exploit, following another trail, and I went so far that I came clear up to the German barbed wire, where I left a card with my name. It was very thrilling work, "courting destruction with taunts, with invitations" as Whitman would say. I have never been in a sector like this, where patrols could be made in daylight. Here the deep forest permits it. It also greatly facilitates ambushes, for one must keep to the paths, owing to the underbrush. I and a few others are going to try to get permission to go out on patrouilles d'embuscade and bring in some live prisoners. It would be quite an extraordinary feat if we could pull it off. In our present existence it is the only way I can think of to get the Croix de Guerre. And to be worthy of my marraine I think that I ought to have the Croix de Guerre.
He had hoped to have been in Paris on Decoration Day, May 30th, to read, before the statue of Lafayette and Washington, the "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France," which he had written at the request of a Committee of American residents; but his "permission" unfortunately did not arrive in time. Completed in two days, during which he was engaged in the hardest sort of labour in the trenches, this Ode is certainly the crown of the poet's achievement. It is entirely admirable, entirely adequate to the historic occasion. If the war has produced a nobler utterance, it has not come my way. On June 24th, he again wrote, giving an account of a march, which was "without exception the hardest he had ever made"---"20 kilometers through the blazing sun and in a cloud of dust. Something around 30 kilograms on the back. About 50 per cent dropped by the way. By making a supreme effort, I managed to get in at the finish, with the fifteen men that were all that was left of the section." He now knew that the great offensive was imminent. "The situation," he wrote, "is most interesting and exciting, but I am not at liberty to say anything about it. My greatest preoccupation now is whether this affair is coming off before or after the 4th of July. The indications are that it is going to break very soon. In that case nothing doing in the way of permission. But I still have hopes of getting in."
His hopes of getting to Paris were frustrated, as were all his other hopes save one the hope of
That rare privilege of dying well.
On July 1st, the great advance began. At six in the evening of July 4th, the Legion was ordered to clear the enemy out of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. Alan Seeger advanced in the first rush, and his squad was enfiladed by the fire of six German machine guns, concealed in a hollow way. Most of them went down, and Alan among them---wounded in several places. But the following waves of attack were more fortunate. As his comrades came up to him, Alan cheered them on; and as they left him behind, they heard him singing a marching-song in English:
Accents of ours were in the fierce mêlée.
They took the village, they drove the invaders out; but for some reason unknown---perhaps a very good one the battlefield was left unvisited that night. Next morning, Alan Seeger lay dead.
There is little to add. He wrote his own best epitaph in the "Ode":
And on those furthest rims of hallowed ground
Where the forlorn, the gallant charge expires,
When the slain bugler has long ceased to sound,
And on the tangled wires
The last wild rally staggers, crumbles, stops,
Withered beneath the shrapnel's iron showers:
Now heaven be thanked, we gave a few brave drops,
Now heaven be thanked, a few brave drops were ours.
His death was briefly noticed in one or two French papers. The Matin published a translation of part of the poem, "Champagne, 1914-15," and remarked that "Cyrano de Bergerac would have signed it." But France had no time, even if she had had the knowledge, to realize the greatness of the sacrifice that had been made for her. That will come later. One day France will know that this unassuming soldier of the Legion,
Who, not unmindful of the antique debt,
Came back the generous path of Lafayette,
was one whom even she may be proud to have reckoned among her defenders.
The "Last Poems" speak for themselves. They contain lines which he would doubtless have remodelled had he lived to review them in tranquillity---perhaps one or two pieces, sprung from a momentary mood, which, on reflection he would have rejected.(2) But they not only show a great advance on his earlier work: they rank high, or I am much mistaken, among the hitherto not very numerous poems in the English language produced, not in mere memory or imagination of war, but in its actual stress and under its haunting menace.
Again and again in the "Last Poems"---notably in "Maktoob " with its tribute to
The resignation and the calm
And wisdom of the East,
he returns to the note of fatalism. Here he has not only the wisdom of the East but the logic of the West on his side. Necessity is as incontrovertible to thought as it is incredible to feeling. But in the potent illusion of freewill (if illusion it be) rests all morality and all the admiration that we feel for good and evil deeds. Not even at Alan Seeger's bidding can we quite persuade ourselves that, when he took up arms for France, he was exercising no brave, no generous choice, but was the conscript of Destiny.
1. He was doubtless thinking of this:
Alas for her that met me,
That heard me softly call,
Came glimmering thro' the laurels
In the quiet evenfall,
In the garden by the turrets
Of the old manorial hall.
2. Neither in the " Juvenilia " nor in the " Last Poems " has anything been suppressed that he himself ever thought of publishing. Indeed nothing at all has been omitted, except two early poems on which he had written "These are worthless."
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