It was like a prophecy when a Legionnaire in the French Foreign Legion named Alan Seeger wrote his poem about meeting Death before he marched with his bayonet in the first wave of Belloy-en-Santerre during the Battle of Somme in 1916. In his poem titled “I Have a Rendezvous With Death,” he said:

When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true.
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

And he didn’t.

A Promising Poet

Alan Seeger grew up in a family of artists in varied forms. His father was an influential actor in the late 19th century. His elder brother Charles became a noted musicologist (and would later become the father of American folk singers Pete, Mike, and Peggy Seeger). His younger sister Elizabeth became an author in New York City. As for Alan, he had a way with words and studied at Harvard with poetry legends like T.S Eliot. There, he joined the Harvard Daily as an editor, where he also published many of his poems. He graduated with a BA as part of class 1910. Fresh from school, wide-eyed and idealistic, he moved to New York in Greenwich Village to live out his dream of bohemian life, living as a wanderer instead of pursuing a professional career. His father was understandably against his decision, but Alan pushed through with it and continued writing poetry, couch-surfing from one generous friend’s house to another, including John Reed, a known journalist and Marxist revolutionary. Two years passed before Alan realized that his life in New York wasn’t what he thought it would be, so again, with the help of his friends, he left to explore and live in Paris, France.

Paris lived up to his expectations, and he fell in love with the place. He enjoyed his new friendship among the artists in the Latin Quarter. A poet can make the best pieces whenever they feel the strongest emotions, be it sorrow, grief, and in Alan’s case, a great sense of belongingness in his new home. His two poems “Do You Remember Once” and “The Rendezvous” also indicated that he fell in love, saying,

You were my queen and I the charming prince
Elected from a world of mortal men.
You loved me once. . . . What pity was it, then,
You loved not Love. . . . Deep in the emerald west,
Like a returning caravel caressed
By breezes that load all the ambient airs
With clinging fragrance of the bales it bears

Romanticizing War

War broke out between France and Germany in 1914. Alan, seeking excitement in life and wanting to defend his beloved France at the same time, enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. If anything, he was enthusiastic about the war. As Victor Chapman wrote in his “Victor Chapman’s letters from France“:

“…remember Alan Seeger was an appalling wreck before the war.”

In his Memoir 29, he also wrote:

“that Harvard graduate, the poet of the Legion, Alan Seeger, who felt that his hour could not be far remote, and who, in the expectation of it, had written from the blood-soaked battlefield where he had fought for liberty:

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. … It is a privilege to
march at his side so much so that nothing that the
world could give could make me wish myself any-
where else than where I am.”

Alan Seeger, the poet. (Halsey, Francis Whiting, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alan couldn’t care less about the political reasons behind the war, as he was after the adventure and camaraderie that makes military service so attractive to certain types of people.

Keeping His Appointment With Death

In June 1916, he was sent to the front along with others, right after their training. The French were assigned to assist the British in their attack just a few days after the Battle of Somme started. Alan wrote his experiences in the French Foreign Legion in his diary. In an entry dated June 28, 1916, he wrote a letter addressed to a friend, which was also his last entry.

“We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave.

I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.”

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The rest of what happened was told from his friend’s perspective:

“The companies forming the first wave were deployed on the plain. Bayonets glittered in the air above the corn, already quite tall.

The first section (Alan’s section) formed the right and vanguard of the company and mine formed the left wing. After the first bound forward, we lay flat on the ground, and I saw the first section advancing beyond us and making toward the extreme right of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand.

He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend. . . .”

Still image from The Battle of the Somme showing a wounded soldier being carried through a trench. (Geoffrey Malins, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alan died that afternoon during the costliest and bloodiest engagement in British military history in World War I, where about 420,000 British, 200,000 French, and 500,000 Germans lost their lives. The poet in him did not die when he did, and his poem was published soon after his death. Most Epitaphs are written by others after you die, but in Seeger’s case, he not only wrote his own but gained some measure of immortality for himself in the effort.

I Have a Rendezvous With Death

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.