Some soldier poets/Alan Seeger

Some soldier poets  (1920) 
Alan Seeger

Love, arms and song, and a noble frankness that asserts, "My kingdom is of this world," characterise America's leading soldier poet, who fell in action on 4th July 1916.

Alan Seeger was born in New York in 1888, of old New England parentage. For ten years Staten Island, in the mouth of the harbour, was his home. Later the family settled at Mexico City, in the tropics, but 7400 feet above the sea. He entered Harvard in 1906 and came to Paris in 1912, and, when the war broke out, was among the first half-hundred of his countrymen to enlist in the Foreign Legion of France, and soon writes from the Front:

"I have always thirsted for this kind of thing, to be present where the pulsations are liveliest. Every minute here is worth weeks of ordinary experience. . . . This will spoil one for any other kind of life. . . . Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to a good soldier. . . . 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 I enjoy, for had I the choice, I would be nowhere else in the world than where I am."[1]

From him as from Grenfell this sentiment comes inevitably; and he was no soldier by profession, but, in so far as he had chosen any, a poet. At first sight they seem twin natures in ardour, in frankness, in courage, in devotion; only gradually can the spirit become reconciled to admitting an immense difference.

The temptation is to apply here the common English prejudice as to where the American fails. But this would be uncritical, for exceptional natures least conform to national foibles. Seeger contrasts with Grenfell as Byron with Shelley rather than as Yankee with Britisher. Only by crushing the grapes of his thought against a fine palate shall we be able to distinguish their flavour from very highly prized fruit. After a few pages his clarity, like that of Swinburne, confuses the reader, for if his virtue is not to hesitate, his fault is to let the thread sag in the hurry and volume of eloquence; and this great fluency and facility accompany a lack of delicate choicefulness. In vain you search for such precision in joy as inspired Ledwidge's happiest images, or for details that amount to revelations as did Thomas's best. All kinds of beauty are welcomed, but too indiscriminately. "You will say they are Persian attire; but let them be changed," is the instinctive comment of many resolute minds on encountering to-day that flaunting habit which ranges women and wine in a single category. Rakish nakedness offends their studied composure, and others may be surprised to find neither fatigue, hopelessness nor cynicism in the voice that proclaims:

"And in old times I should have prayed to her
Whose haunt the groves of windy Cyprus were,
To prosper me and crown with good success
My will to make of you the rose-twined bowl
From whose inebriating brim my soul
Shall drink its last of earthly happiness."

This is from one of a series of sonnets written during leave from the Front. Another with the same object pursues:

"Enchanting girl, my faith is not a thing
By futile prayers and vapid psalm-singing
To vent in crowded nave and public pew.
My creed is simple: that the world is fair,
And beauty the best thing to worship there,
And I confess it by adoring you."

And this world is defied as gallantly as the other:

"Let not propriety nor prejudice
Nor the precepts of jealous age deny
What Sense so incontestably affirms;
Cling to the blessed moment and drink deep
Of the sweet cup it tends, as there alone
Were that which makes life worth the pain to live."

Nay, not even death, and what dreams may follow, can give him pause:

"Exiled afar from youth and happy love,
If Death should ravish my fond spirit hence
I have no doubt but, like a homing dove,
It would return to its dear residence,
And through a thousand stars find out the road
Back into earthly flesh that was its loved abode."

Neither heaven nor the possibilities of time and space can offer anything better, a return to known delights is all that can be desired. The old have not infrequently gazed back with something of this feeling, and the illusions of perspective may excuse them; but that a young man should be so certain that he has seen the bottom of the cup of happiness, and that it could never be refilled with rarer liquors, suggests a near-sighted imagination. So masterful a conviction that no finer means than those you were born with could achieve more exquisite ends sets the mind pondering; and a plausible philosophy might maintain that youth's vivid apprehension of the worth of actual objects, persons and events was the source of all significance, the criterion by which everything else is really judged. Wordsworth could almost have subscribed to this belief; he expressed a very similar intuition though with a less truculent directness. In fact I think this comparison brings home to us a failure in the mood of Alan Seeger's ecstasy. We have all met these gifted young men who seem to tread above the heads of the crowd; perhaps most of us can recall something of how it feels inside them. The most coy have known the itch to swagger, the most staid have longed to shout from the house-top, and modesty itself has desired to stand forth naked and unashamed; so that a deep and widespread welcome greets these manifestations even among those who dare not avow their approval and whose lives would contradict them if they did. Wordsworth himself confessed that he had not written love poems because if he had done so they would have been too warm for publication.

"All true speech and large avowal
Which the jealous soul concedes,
All man's heart that brooks bestowal,
All frank faith which passion breeds."

are of the very essence of poetry, and will be cherished by every loyal nature. Propriety is forbidden to intervene when soul communes with soul, her sphere is downstairs in the world of half relations and approximate intercourse. But in proportion as you claim to go naked, you must keep near to the heart of things, and make the very truth your inseparable companion. Anything off-hand, anything insensitive or not quite alive offends these communicants, like the touch of a corpse. Humbleness like that of a child is born from this intensity. Any thought of the myriad eyes that overpeer a stage should be impossible; the world is forgotten when the spirit dances naked in the light to which joy entrusts it—tender joy for whom the damage of the pale green, ruby-eyed, lace-winged fly is a calamity to avert with tears and supplications. "Everything that lives is holy." If Seeger lives in his poetry, everything else passes like a ghost, like a reference only: his one imperious desire is to cast a personal spell upon us all. Will not something unmistakably itself arrest this fervid eloquence that deals in clouds and stars and all the commonplaces of poetry with such profusion! Were but the young women addressed, ever qualified by an adjective proper to some one girl! No, Alan Seeger is alone felt, with this delightful freshness, a presence, an inspiration!

"Sidney, in whom the hey-day of romance
Came to its precious and most perfect flower,
Whether you turneyed with victorious lance
Or brought sweet roundelays to Stella's bower,
I give myself some credit for the way
I have kept clean of what enslaves and lowers,
Shunned the ideals of our present day
And studied those that were esteemed in yours—
For, turning from the mob that buys Success
By sacrificing all Life's better part,
Down the free roads of human happiness
I frolicked, poor of purse but light of heart,
And lived in strict devotion all along
To my three idols—Love and Arms and Song."

"I could accuse myself of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. . . . We are arrant knaves all"—in speaking thus was Hamlet so certainly mad as this sonnet implies? The worry and stress that "honesty of purpose and intellectual honesty" cost Grenfell are remembered with regret.

"I cannot rest
While aught of beauty in any path untrod
Swells into bloom and spreads sweet charms abroad
Unworshipped of my love. I cannot see
In Life's profusion and passionate brevity
How hearts enamoured of life can strain too much
In one long tension to hear, to see, to touch."

He is too eager, too arrogant, to await the visit of those wonders which steal unsought into consciousness. A "wise passiveness" was no mood of his. His ambition emulates Byron's, who hated to think himself a mere poet and itched for acted glory: thus Seeger, gazing beyond the war's end, cries:

"And the great cities of the world shall yet
Be golden frames for me in which to set
New masterpieces of more rare romance."

He fears no repetition of that defeat which yet enchanted the world with its misanthropy and cynicism, but strains after a vision fellow to that followed by the pilgrim lord from Harrow to Missolonghi. If in spite of failure this temperament achieved so much, what might it not succeed in? So active, so independent, so daring a nature has as many opportunities of acquiring wisdom as it has of refusing to bow its head under ruin. Though a soul consciously poses while loving, though when heroic it must be setting an example to half the world, this effrontery, largely inexperience, may betoken the very vigour that can grapple with the monster fact on the soul's behalf. Already he can philosophise his preoccupation with sexual passion.

"Oh Love whereof my boyhood was the dream
My youth the beautiful novitiate,
Life was so slight a thing and thou so great,
How could I make thee less than all supreme!
In thy sweet transports not alone I thought
Mingled the twain that panted breast to breast,
The sun and stars throbbed with them; they were caught
Into the pulse of Nature. . . .


Doubt not that of a perfect sacrifice
That soul partakes whose inspiration fills
The spring-time and the depth of summer skies
The rainbow and the clouds behind the hills,
That excellence in earth and air and sea
That makes things as they are the real divinity."

Yes, his brain keeps pace with his eloquence; but his soul? Hasty and crude and licensed to scorn the maimed and mauled by youth's ignorance of irreparable damage, he does not hesitate, on returning to the trenches, to offer his gallant comrades these ungenerous lines which were possibly not really aimed at the invalids he had met at Biarritz, but at those whom he could never forget, his equals in youth and strength, who then still lingered in the States.

"Apart sweet women (for whom heaven be blessed),
Comrades, you cannot think how thin and blue
Look the left-overs of mankind that rest,
Now that the cream has been skimmed off in you.
. . . we turn disdainful backs
On that poor world we scorn, yet die to shield,—
That world of cowards, hypocrites and fools."

He has given himself for the freedom of all future souls, what right have we to question whether he gave his own conscience due reverence? Could we have divined King Lear from reading Venus and Adonis? That ready aptness of phrase which in my citations has delighted the reader is constantly achieved in his later poems, if only by four or six lines at a time. And though the inspired peaks rise tier behind tier above this plateau, you find few flowers more brilliant without climbing higher. Yet that failure in delicate choicefulness insistently prophesies woe, and was not so striking in Swinburne or more so in Byron at his years. The Deserted Garden, his longest poem, yielded as abundant opportunities as Venus and Adonis could, but no line like

"A lily prisoned in a gale of snow"

takes the advantage. In spite of formlessness, how delightful the Keats of Endymion would have made this old Mexican garden, where the young Seeger dreams the meetings of bygone lovers. He, however, only maintains his obvious efficiency, and we are never "surprised with joy": in the end we are only surprised that he can keep it up, as we often have been when Swinburne was not first rate. Did the magnolia bud of this large soul lodge a canker? Yet, though we can only surmise what his full-blown splendour might have been, he was ever so slightly opening; his latest sonnets are not only the most manifold, but deeper and almost fragrant.

"Seeing you have not come with me, nor spent
This day's suggestive beauty as we ought,
I have gone forth alone and been content
To make you mistress only of my thought."


"I am the field of undulating grass
And you the gentle perfume of the Spring,
And all my lyric being, when you pass,
Is bowed and filled with sudden murmuring."


"For I have ever gone untied and free,
The stars and my high thoughts for company;
Wet with the salt spray and the mountain showers,
I have had the sense of space and amplitude,
And love in many places, silver-shoed,
Has come and scattered all my path with flowers."

Four lines from two sonnets, six from a third, and you build up a new one richer and stronger than any of the three. For all these flashes are like the flap of a flame in a swirl of smoke; some pleasure in his own attitude, some self-assertion causes the momentary brilliance among the ever-flowing grey ghosts of scheduled ornament which make the bulk of a rhetorical style. But he has gentle, more promising moods.

"There have been times when I could storm and plead,
But you shall never hear me supplicate.
These long months that have magnified my need
Have made my asking less importunate;
For now small favours seem to me so great
That not the courteous lovers of old time
Were more content to rule themselves and wait,
Easing desire with discourse and sweet rhyme."

He even stands staring at the different tempers created in him by self-seeking and self-devotion.

"Oh love of woman, you are known to be
A passion sent to plague the hearts of men;
For every one you bring felicity
Bringing rebuffs and wretchedness to ten.
I have been oft where human life sold cheap
And seen men's brains spilled out about their ears
And yet that never cost me any sleep;
I lived untroubled and I shed no tears.
Fools prate how war is an atrocious thing;
I always knew that nothing it implied
Equalled the agony and suffering
Of him who loves and loves unsatisfied.
War is a refuge to a heart like this;
Love only tells it what true torture is."

Playing his part with the best at the Front, he was by no means merely acting a Message to America in order to bring her into line. He really loved France and understood something of what she stands for in civilisation. He is compact with generosity which is none the less real for being self-appreciated.

"O friends, in your fortunate present ease
(Yet faced by the self-same facts as these),
If you would see how a race can soar
That has no love, but no fear of war,
How each can turn from his private rôle
That all may act as a perfect whole,
How men can live up to the place they claim,
And a nation jealous of its good name,
Be true to its proud inheritance,
Oh, look over here and learn from France!"

And he too seeks to think well of Death, and, having most fancied himself as a lover, thinks himself "half in love with" glorious Death.

"I know not if in risking my best days
I shall leave utterly behind me here
This dream that lightened me through lonesome ways
And that no disappointment made less dear;
Sometimes I think that, where the hill-tops rear
Their white entrenchments back of tangled wire,
Behind the mist Death only can make clear,
There, like Brunhilde ringed with flaming fire,
Lies what shall ease my heart's immense desire:
There, where beyond the horror and the pain
Only the brave shall pass, only the strong attain."

But from a greater depth comes the simple fatalism which informs his finest sayings about life and love.


MAKTOOB

A shell surprised our post one day
And killed a comrade at my side;
My heart was sick to see the way
He suffered as he died.


I dug about the place he fell,
And found, no bigger than my thumb,
A fragment of the splintered shell
In warm aluminum.


I melted it and made a mould
And poured it in the opening
And worked it, when the cast was cold,
Into a shapely ring.


And when my ring was smooth and bright,
Holding it on a rounded stick,
For seal, I bade a Turco write
Maktoob in Arabic.


Maktoob! "'Tis written!" So they think,
These children of the desert, who
From its immense expanses drink
Some of its grandeur too.

And after some less convincing circumstance of entry to a Valhalla he ends by telling how these graven characters calm him.

"When not to hear some try to talk,
And some to clean their guns and sing,
And some dig deeper in the chalk—
I look upon my ring:


And nerves relax that were most tense,
And Death comes whistling down unheard,
As I consider all the sense
Held in that mystic word.


And it brings, quieting like balm
My heart whose flutterings have ceased,
The resignation and the calm
And wisdom of the East."

Ample quotation seemed needed to illumine this soldier's fine attitude. His style takes no end of room; more time was demanded than love and arms could spare for it to grow as rare as it was large. Still, granted a more prolonged lease of pleasure-hunting, we might have had to deplore luxuriance tangled to perversity, no longer merely grown too fast for strength. To what extent war was a tonic to his extravagance remains uncertain, even after repeated readings of his later poems. Every young man has perforce many possible careers—unwritten books whose titles and contents we may dream of, though hands will never part their leaves, nor eyes peruse. Still there is some faint compensation for this in esteeming them at their highest possible value, though it but increase our sense of loss; for worth conceived is prophetic of that yet to be revealed by the ever-teeming future.

Look at him crowning himself, prematurely, as Shakespeare's hero prince did, yet, like him, conscious of deserving the "rigol" by innate capacity and determination. Both hands raise the empty hoop, then pause, for through it stars watch him, brilliant and remote. In black bronze he stands for ever returning their gaze—no work of Phidias, rather by some Scopas or Praxiteles, whose more indulgent rhythm induces a musical ripple throughout the war-hardened muscles of his twenty-eight years.

  1. Poems by Alan Seeger. Introduction by W. Archer. Constable & Co. Quotations by permission of C. L. Seeger, Esq., and Messrs Constable.