Dead on the 4th of July: Poet Alan Seeger
Siegfried Sassoon. Wilfred Owen. Isaac Rosenberg. Over the years, the well-crafted words of these poets have shaped our vision of WWI's most terrible casualties: suffocation by mustard gas, death and disease in the trenches, disfiguration, shell shock. This "poet's war" was undoubtedly one of the worst the world had ever seen and, more than any other conflict in history, we have relied on poets to help us understand its horrors.
According to Adin Dobkin, little-known American WWI writer, Alan Seeger, offers another layer of understanding. In his article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine last week, "The Soldier Poet Who Went to His Grave With a Romantic Vision of WWI," Dobkin not only acquaints us with this poet, who also happens to be folksinger Pete Seeger's uncle; he also introduces a notion we don't normally associate with the more famous WWI poetry: war as sentimental.
However, as Dobkin explains, this doesn't mean that Seeger was not immune to WWI's tragedies. Seeger was an American member of the French Foreign Legion and fought well before America's entry in 1917. He "experienced World War I and its destruction, calculated and comprehensive, a few years before anyone back home in America did," Dobkin writes. "From 1914 to 1916, the poet passed along stories and verse from the front to readers of The New Republic, The New York Sun, and other newspapers."
Poets like Owen became poetic references post -WWI perhaps because they best matched the deception and horror most felt as the world came to grips with the reality that about 40 million people – civilians and military– died in the short space of four years. In France, It is estimated that one out of five men of military age were killed. Millions died of the Spanish Flu.
So, why should we remember Seeger today?
According to Dobkin, "The fact that Seeger had this romantic vision of war in 1914, and still held it in 1916, is what gives his work value." Owen's “Knock-kneed” soldiers “coughing like hags” in his poem, "Dulce e Decorum Est," doesn't reflect one of the most essential characteristics of WWI; Dobkin calls it "a story of descent." He explains:
"It began with cavalry charges on horseback, with uniforms topped by plumed helmets, and parades through streets with flags waving and children tripping over themselves alongside soldiers — and it ended with parades of the blind and disfigured, with swaths of land so pocked with unexploded ordnance and so toxic with chemicals that they’re still uninhabited 100 years later. It’s difficult to reckon the distance of a drop just from where the falling object lands. Afterward, you might have a clearer eye when entering a new war, you might avoid phrases as giddily optimistic as “we’ll be home for Christmas,” but that hindsight view lacks something: the sense of gravity you catch from seeing a ball tip over the edge, pick up speed with a weightlessness that feels not so different from launching into the air, only to land in the mud without a bounce. Seeing that first moment at the rim of the fall is just as important for preventing the next war as seeing the mud that’s left at the end."
The sentimental, romantic quality to Seeger's poems reminds us that we cannot fight wars successfully unless we believe war's reasons are good and right. Most soldiers in a volunteer army, which was Seeger's case, don't take up arms for no cause at all. Patriotism, pride, valor, courage–these are reasons why soldiers are persuaded to fight. Disillusionment happens later, but it shouldn't cloud the complete picture as we struggle to understand war. "It’s a bitter fact of war that this innocence is often expressed by soldiers like Seeger who are then themselves lost," Dobkin writes. "Seeger had no chance to become disillusioned by World War I. Or rather, he chose not to be."
Seeger's most widely-acclaimed poem, "I Have a Rendezvous With Death," which was one of President John F. Kennedy's favorites, represents his romantic vision:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear ...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
Alan Seeger, "Rendezvous With Death" (read by Pete Seeger)
Date: Apr 28, 2013
As Dobkin astutely observes, "most of Seeger’s war poems describe a momentary state of peace — quicker than a gunshot, both part of the war and separate from it — before the battle once again rumbles forward. He didn’t often dare to contemplate the way it would end." “I Have a Rendezvous With Death” is no exception. In the midst of what must have been a terrible battle, the poem's speaker talks of death almost as a peaceful interlude: "It may be he shall take my hand/And lead me into his dark land/And close my eyes and quench my breath —" In fact, it's so peaceful, the speaker seems able to politely reject death: "It may be I shall pass him still."
Seeger died from battle wounds on July 4, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Dobkin writes "By the account of his fellow soldiers, Seeger continued singing a marching song as he lay wounded on the battlefield, other troops passing by him. He held fast to his image of the war."
3 Questions for Adin Dobkin on Alan Seeger and WWI
WWrite got the chance to ask the writer, Adin Dobkin, a few questions about his interest in Alan Seeger and WWI. Here's what he had to say:
WWrite: Why are you interested in WWI? And war writing in general? Why Seeger? Why not Sassoon, Owen, or Joyce Kilmer?
Dobkin: World War I, from the strictly cold, technical conception of warfare, offers an inflection point in modern history whether diplomatically, technologically, or societally. More so than World War II, in my opinion. From the narrative perspective, it gives us fewer easier answers. You don't see as many lofty cultural visions for that reason, which I think is important simply from my inklings about war in general. When WWI is talked about, it is in the form of a tragedy, or perhaps more pointedly, deep, acute ambivalence. But that, paradoxically, exists alongside a wide-reaching, inspired literary landscape stemming from the war. It's only that, for most average readers, or sometimes even informed ones, they only see a partial picture.
With poetry, in particular, the output that existed during the war was staggering and naturally what's left a century later is a particularly minute portion, but in my opinion, it's not just an across-the-board winnowing to account for all the sub-par works that were written by amateurs and professionals alike. Instead, it reflects particular tastes that shifted after the war ended. So I went in hoping to hit on that fact. Alan Seeger happened to be one of the better characters through which to examine that gradually narrowing memory. But I'd also like to mention that there's a wide-ranging body of work further back from the lines, whether it's the work of nurses who tended to soldiers or families that dealt with the ever-so-slightly removed effects of the war. Those voices are equally worthy of examination as tonal differences between poets like Seeger and Owen, Graves, or Sassoon.
WWrite: What's the place of WWI today in America and why is it essential that we make it an important element in our overall discussion about war/modern warfare? How can we fit it in other than by building memorials and holding parades?
Dobkin: I do think those working on the question academically recognize the importance of the war. I think a good portion of that filters down to professionals working in policy and the military itself. The question is whether that can move into popular culture as World War II has managed to do so effectively. Obviously, the United States only came into the war toward the end, which likely accounts for some of the relative lack of popular knowledge. Essentially, I think it comes down to this: did the physical and psychological cost match up with a clean narrative that builds upon that cost rather than undermining it? I think the answer to that is no, at least unlike what European countries went through due to the lives lost and the toll on the landscape. Particularly with World War II coming in on World War I's tail, it's hardly surprising the American who's just looking for a story latches onto the Second World War's. Considering the diplomatic and political ramifications of WWI, I think that's disappointing.
There is one thing I would say about World War I. Both these wars, in the grand sweep of things, are recent. Once some future historian or student is looking at this time period 500 or 1000 years from now, thinking about what they'd like to write their thesis on or tell a narrative history about, World War I does have a saving grace in the body of culture that came from it. I don't know whether it'll be enough to justify its memory, or whether historiographical methods will no longer give those texts any sort of credence, but I do think it gives the opportunity for long-term cultural relevance in a way I think could be more fleeting with World War II.
WWrite: Have you written anything else on WWI and writing?
Dobkin: I host and produce a narrative history podcast called War Stories that frequently turns back to World War I with lots of primary source investigation. I've also written on war literature for the LA Review of Books, but that's from a broader historical perspective than WWI.
Adin Dobkin's recent nonfiction work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. These pieces have covered everything from the language and literature of war to how modern histories are written. His day-to-day reporting mostly involves the ways computers are used to fight wars. Dobkin serves as the president of the Military Writers Guild, an international network of servicemembers, veterans, civilian analysts, and writers dedicated to improving how we write and talk about war.
Previously, he worked at the intersection of politics, policy, and communications. He spent time working for private firms, government officials, and non-profit organizations to help see policies through from inception to implementation with a focus on telling the story behind those policies and communicating them to a variety of audiences.
Finally, you can hear his NPR voice on a couple shows. The first, War Stories, is a narrative podcast he hosts alongside Angry Staff Officer. In each season of the show, they take a topic of warfare and trace its development from inception to the modern day. They focus on the stories of those who were there at crucial points. The other, currently on hiatus, is The Pen and the Sword and centers around a series of discussions on how war is talked about and remembered, with a particular focus on the written word.