Poet Alan Seeger writes from Paris, 1913

Alan Seeger letter from Paris, France (page 1 of 2)



Dear friend: Have you been entirely without news of me all these months, or have any feathers from the wings of Rumor reached you as to my present condition and whereabouts. Nothing seems more remote than my last evening with you and all the circumstances of our farewell, - the man from Pittsburg [sic] interested in heraldry, and the pretty boy, whose company over here would be most incriminating. Do not suppose that I do not think often of you, the charming room and the happiness it imposed upon all who frequented it. Who has succeeded to my chair?
Arrived over here in September I soon found a place that appealed to me, and there I have been ever since (lest I forget I will give you the address now 17 rue du Sommerard - near the Musee de Cluny, you know) Characteristically, I chose it for the view, not for the interior. And the outlook is indeed charming. Over picturesque roof-tops I see the wonderful, old towers

Alan Seeger letter from Paris, France (page 2 of 2)


of Notre Dame, and not only from my fifth-story window and balcony, but even from my pillow, gray and spectral against the lustre of the city lights as I go to bed at night, clear and sharply silhouetted against the cloudless dawns of these fair spring days as I wake in the morning. I am so attached to Notre Dame that I can never live willingly any place in Paris without seeing it from my windows. And it is not only the exterior that is familiar to me. The services there are wonderful, too especially on the feast-days when the cardinal archbishop officiates. Here is his picture. A few months ago I attended a splendid ceremony when Cardinal Vannutelli came from Rome to preside over the festival in commemoration of the centenary of Ozanam. There were three cardinals, many bishops, and the cathedral so full that one could hardly circulate in it. Vannutelli was splendid, big and dominating, and when the ceremony was over he crossed the square in front of Notre Dame on the way to his automobile, walking slowly in his red robes, amid the acclamation of the crowd.
You are happier in America, for everything here would discourage you over the decay of the old ideals that we love. They drove Christ out of France, but aveugles [Fr.: blind] they did not see what a double-edged sword they were wielding and how closely related were the love of church and of country. Now a tide of anti patriotism is sweeping over France, impelled by the socialists and the devotees of the new ideal, Humanity. The comble [Fr.: last straw] was last week when there were mutinous manifestations in garrisons in all parts of France against the reestablishment of the three years service, proposed in answer to Germany’s recent disproportional augmentation of her effects [?]. The government stands against, but the Catholics smile bitterly and say ‘I told you so’ and see in the spread of revolutionary and syndicalist sentiments the direct consequence of the separation of Church and State.The danger to France has ceased to be from beyond the Rhine; the menace seems to be from within.
I need not say that I am well and as you once put it, ‘reasonably happy.’I have been gather [sic] together my verse lately, and hope to bring out a volume soon, not with any expectation of having it read, but to circulate among friends like the ‘sugared sonnets.’I have been looking over your elegiaes [sic] today which made me think much of you - perhaps the motive of my writing.Write me soon in answer, and give my address to any who you think I would enjoy seeing- your emissaries as it were, since I have little hope of seeing you here yourself, and giving you the accolade of perpetual friendship.
As ever,
Alan Seeger
[Transcription by Becky Heiser ‘11]

Alan Seeger wrote this letter in 1913 while living in Paris, shortly before joining the war effort as a member of the French Foreign Legion.The letter is written to Guy Emerson, a classmate from Harvard, who wrote The New Frontier. The letter reveals Seeger’s opinions of pre-war France. He comments on the political and spiritual cultures of France, stating that “the danger to France has ceased to be from beyond the Rhine; the menace seems to be from within.” Despite his disillusionment with French ideals, his letter celebrates the beauty of the city itself. His love for Paris can also be seen in his poem “Paris.”

The political situation in France in the years leading up to World War I was characterized by constant conflict for power across the political spectrum. The Right had a small victory in 1913 when Raymond Poincare, a moderate, was elected president due to growing nationalist sentiment and a popular desire to prevent further threats from Germany. The largest point of contention between leftist factions and Poincare’s government was the three-year law, referenced in Seeger’s letter, which increased the required military service from two years to three. The purpose of the law was to compensate for France’s smaller population in the face of the Germany’s increased military strength. The law actually united the Socialists and the Radical left in opposition and their combined efforts resulted in a successful victory for the Leftist parties in the French Parliament in the election of 1914.1 In his letter here, Seeger views the sentiments of the French soldiers who were rioting against the law as being anti-patriotic and sympathetic toward the Socialists. His statements in his letter must have been indicative of the opinions of his friends and acquaintances because Seeger himself was never deeply interested in political matters.2

For a man with such an interesting - albeit short - life, it was surprising to find that the only biography written about Alan Seeger was published in 1967. Seeger was born on June 22, 1888, in New York City to Elsie and Charles Louis Seeger. He lived in New York until 1900 when the entire Seeger family moved to Mexico City after the family business failed. In 1902, Alan and his brother Charles returned to New York to attend Hackley School, a boarding school in Tarrytown, NY. He excelled in his English classes and entered Harvard in September 1906. There Seeger found himself involved with a rebellious group of long-haired, sloppily-dressed nonconformists. The group was made up of some of the best students at Harvard; yet, they were often disliked by faculty and peers because of their unorthodox opinions of life and politics. Seeger became friends with John Reed, the journalist, war correspondent, and author. Reed’s book, Ten Days that Shook the World, is an eyewitness account of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

After he graduated in 1910, Seeger moved to Greenwich Village where he lived the life of a “bohemian” - he never had a steady job, but he wrote poetry and articles and occasionally worked as a tutor. Seeger was unhappy for most of his time in New York. In search of an elusive truth, Seeger was a drifter who was often perceived as arrogant and too sensitive. He dreamed of moving to Paris, and in 1912, at age 26, he continued his bohemian lifestyle at 17 rue du Sommerard in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

In Paris, Seeger continued to view the world with intensity, but he was no longer scornful because he felt as if he had found the truth and beauty he’d been searching for his entire life. He walked the streets of Paris wearing a long black cape and a guitar over his shoulder, always going to a party or to meet a friend. His friends often described him as “lost” and “unreachable” because he did not participate in political debates. He did not want to waste his youth analyzing the city’s flaws because, to him, the city was splendid. He clashed with socialists and pacifists and other anti-war adherents; he thought they were dull and lacked elegance. To Seeger, war was a test of valor and an opportunity to shed blood for justice. By July 1914, he felt as though he had accumulated enough poetry to write a book which he entitled Juvenilia. Unfortunately, with the start of World War I, he was unable to find a publisher. Instead, Seeger joined the war effort.

After the assassination of Duke Ferdinand in June 1914, Seeger became convinced that the war was going to spread across Europe. He did not regard war as an abomination but instead seemed to have a romantic view of the adventure, honor, and glory war provided. Many of the Americans living in France at this time joined the French Foreign Legion, and Seeger was no exception and headed to training camp in Rouen on August 25, 1914. After the First Battle of the Marne, the War Ministry in France ordered any foreigners with previous military experience to front-line service. Seeger, along with many of his friends, said he had been an officer in the Mexican Army and was sent to the front lines. In a letter to his mother, Seeger wrote “I hope you see this thing as I do and think that I have done well...by my decision in taking upon my shoulders, too, the burden that so much of humanity is suffering under...rather than stand ingloriously aside.”3 Seeger and the rest of 1st Company Battalion C of the French Foreign Legion went to Camp de Mailly for advanced training on September 19, 1914. He promptly got lice and proceeded to infect everyone else in his unit. Seeger was passed up for a promotion and was sent to Verzenay (near Reims) along the Western Front. In 1915, his Legion was relieved and sent to a rest area where all Foreign regiments were combined into one unit and designated as shock troops for the Moroccan Division.

During his time on the Western Front, Seeger became a correspondent for the New York Sun and the New Republic. He also founded the “Foreign Legion Chapter of the Harvard Club” which was short-lived due to the death or transfer of the members. In January 1916, Seeger became sick with bronchitis and was moved to a military hospital where he wrote the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” which was later published in the New Republic. Seeger’s war poetry can be compared to the poetry of Rupert Brooke, who wrote “The Soldier.” Their poetry is more idealistic and sentimental than other World War I poetry written by soldiers such as Wildfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. As the war went on, many soldiers lost their enthusiasm for the war and became pessimistic. Despite the romantic sentiments in his poetry, Seeger reveals a more pessimistic attitude in an article for the New Republic. He writes of the trenches: “we are not...leading the life of men at all, but that of animals, living in holes in the ground and only showing our heads outside to fight and to feed.”4

Seeger returned to his unit on May 1, 1916 and was then allowed a month’s furlough which he used to travel to Paris. His book Juvenilia had been published and was waiting for him at the US Embassy. Shortly after returning to the front lines, a burst of machine gun bullets killed Seeger at the Battle of the Somme. He died on July 4, 1916, during the attack on Belloy-en-Santerre, a battle where only five of the forty-five men in his unit survived. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire. His poetry was published after his death in 1917; however, Poems was never well-received owing to his high ideals and lofty language which were no longer popular in post-war Europe. T.S. Eliot, a former classmate of Seeger, critiqued Poems saying, “Seeger was serious about his work and spent pains over it. The work is well done, and so much out of date as to be almost a positive quality. It is high-flown, heavily decorated and solemn, but its solemnity is thorough going, not a mere literary formality. Alan Seeger, as one who knew him can attest, lived his whole life on this plane, with impeccable poetic dignity; everything about him was in keeping."5

- Hannah Jarrett ‘12 and Becky Heiser ‘11

1Anderson, R.D., France 1870-1914: Politics and Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1977), 28-29; Zeldin, Theodore, France 1848-1945, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 722-724.
2Werstein, Irving, Sound No Trumpet: The Life and Death of Alan Seeger (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967), 44. Other biographical details in this essay were distilled from this source.
3 qtd. in Werstein, 78.
4qtd. in Werstein, 100.
5qtd. in “‘--the rest is silence’ Lost Poets of the Great War,” Harry Rusche, June 21, 2011, http://english.emory.edu/LostPoets/ThePoets.html.


  1. Footnote 4 quote is from an article dated 12/8/14 in the NY Sun. A thorough book biography of Seeger is coming 2016-17.