This biography tells the life story of American poet Alan Seeger, best known for a poem published after his death in World War I.
Seeger, the uncle of folk singer Pete Seeger, died at 28 in the Battle of the Somme on July 4, 1916. Although few of his works are remembered now, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” gained fame; it was one of President John F. Kennedy’s favorite poems. In this biography of Seeger, Hill (Elihu Washburne, 2013) offers a well-researched account that draws in part on material in Harvard University’s Alan Seeger Collection. Hill draws a vivid portrait of Seeger’s idyllic, dreamy boyhood. From an early age, Seeger was determined to reject conformity and live life to the fullest. At Harvard and then in Greenwich Village, he pursued a bohemian life of art, poverty, and freedom; he then moved to Paris in 1912, where he became frustrated by publishers’ rejections of his poetry. In 1914, he joined the French Foreign Legion, and Hill says that he took well to military life, “beaming with joy” at the prospect of battle. After his death, Seeger’s poems—almost miraculously preserved—were published and “greeted with almost universal acclaim,” writes Hill, although according to the Poetry Foundation, the reviews were mixed, citing Seeger’s immaturity as an artist. This is a very readable, well-sourced biography, overall. However, Hill doesn’t question Seeger’s obsession with death in battle, calling his “a glorious legacy as one of history’s most inspiring ‘war poets.’ ” It might have been fruitful to compare him with other poets, such as Wilfrid Owen, who so bitterly and powerfully lacerated the idealism that inspired men to undergo trench warfare. Also, Seeger’s old-fashioned language seems thin compared to the richness and complexity of his Harvard apartment-mate T.S. Eliot’s later work. Could Seeger have achieved more? Maybe—but his sought-for rendezvous with death put an end to that possibility.
An engagingly written contribution to poetry scholarship, although it could have examined Seeger’s contradictions more closely.