EAGLESWEB.COM AUDIO ANTHOLOGY of LYRICAL POETRY in MODERN ENGLISH recorded by WALTER RUFUS EAGLES

 

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Eight War Poems by American Poet Alan Seeger
 [1888-1916] [Notes] Killed in Action on July 4, 1916, whilst serving as a Foreign Legionnaire. 

Hear also British War Poets and Morning Poem in Time of War

 

"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 The work is well done, and so much out of date as to be almost a positive quality.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 thoroughgoing, 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." The man who wrote this review of Poems was T. S. Eliot, Seeger's classmate at Harvard.

Coming soon: a large selection of Seeger's sonnets and his long poem, A Message to America.

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Mortally wounded in action at Belloy-en-Santerre, France on the morning of July 4, 1916 whilst serving in the French Foreign Legion (a necessity if he was to serve at all, since America had not yet entered the war), Alan Seeger was reluctantly abandoned in the heat of battle by his own men (he waved away the assistance they offered him, encouraging them instead to continue fighting) until the following morning, when he was removed from the battlefield, having bled to death during the night.  He was 28 years old.

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FROM SEEGER'S BATTLE DIARY, FOLLOWED by a POST-MORTEM NOTE by a FELLOW PARTICIPANT in the BATTLE for BELLOY-EN-SANTERRE.

1.  [from a letter by Seeger to a friend]  Here are two sonnets I composed to while away the long hours of guard. . . . I will send you back again the Tennyson after having refreshed myself with it, for one must lighten the sack as much as possible. Found all the old beauties and discovered new ones. Read the last paragraphs of Maud and see if you do not think they have a striking bearing on the present situation.

BELLINGLISE

I

Deep in the sloping forest that surrounds
The head of a green valley that I know,
Spread the fair gardens and ancestral grounds
Of Bellinglise, the beautiful chateau.
Through shady groves and fields of unknown grass,
It was my joy to come at dusk and see,
Filling a little pond's untroubled glass,
Its antique towers and mouldering masonry.
Oh, should I fall, tomorrow, lay me here,
That o'er my tomb, with each reviving year,
Wood-flowers may blossom and the wood-doves croon;
And lovers by that unrecorded place,
Passing, may pause, and cling a little space,
Close-bosomed, at the rising of the moon.

II

Here where in happier times the huntsman's horn
Echoing from far made sweet midsummer eves,
Now serried cannon thunder night and morn,
Tearing with iron the greenwood's tender leaves.
Yet has sweet Spring no particle withdrawn
Of her old bounty; still the song-birds hail,
Even through our fusillade, delightful Dawn;
Even in our wire bloom lilies of the vale.
You who love flowers take these; their fragile bells
Have trembled with the shock of volleyed shells,
And in black nights when stealthy foes advance
They have been lit by the pale rockets' glow
That o'er scarred fields and ancient towns laid low
Trace in white fire the brave frontiers of France.

May 22, 1916.

[post mortem]: Another participant in the attack upon Belloy-en-Santerre wrote for La Liberté of Paris the stirring account, of which this is a translation:

Six o'clock at night.

The Legion attacks Belloy-en-Santerre. The 3rd battalion is to carry the southern part of the village. With a rush, it starts, its two leading companies pressing straight forward, beneath the crash of bursting shells, across a chaos of detonations. . . . En avant!

The men hurry on, clutching tightly their arms; some set their teeth, others shout.

Three hundred metres yet to cross and they will reach the enemy. . . . En avant!

But suddenly, hands relax their grasp, arms open, bodies stagger and fall, as the clatter of the German mitrailleuses spreads death over the plain where, but a moment before, men were passing.

Hidden in the road from Estrées to Belloy, they have taken our men in flank, cutting to pieces the 11th company.

Cries of anguish come from the tall grass, then the calls of the unhurt for their chiefs. But all, officers and subalterns, have, fallen.

" My captain.... My lieutenant.... Sergeant. . . . "

No answer.

Suddenly a voice is heard: "No more chiefs left. Come on, all the same, nom de Dieu! Come on! Lie flat, boys, he that lifts his head is done for. En avant!"

And the legionaries, crawling onward, continue the attack.

The wounded see the second wave pass, then the third. . . . They cheer on their comrades:

"Courage, fellows, death to the Boches! On with you!"

One of them sobs with rage: "To think I can't go too!"

And the high grasses shudder, their roots trodden by the men, their tops fanned by the hail of projectiles.

From the sunken road the German mitrailleuses work unceasingly. . . .

Now, in all the plain, not a movement; the living have passed out of sight. The dead, outstretched, are as if asleep, the wounded are silent; they listen, they listen to the battle with all their ears, this battle so near to them, but in which they have no part. They wait to hear the shout of their comrades in the supreme hour of the great assault. . . . " Where are they now?" they murmur. . . .

Of a sudden, from the distance over there towards Belloy, a great clamor is heard:

" En avant! Vive la Légion. Ah. . . . Ah.... Ah ......

And the notes of a bugle pierce the air; it is the brave Renard who sounds the charge.

The Legion, in a final bound, reaches the village. . . . The grenades burst, the mitrailleuses rattle. . . .

A time which seems to the wounded, lying in the field, to be beyond measure, interminable, a time of anguish, during which one pictures man killing man, face to face, in hand to hand conflict.

The dying look up, the wounded raise themselves, as if all must see how the battle goes.

Then from across the field of combat a cry arises, swells, grows louder, louder: "They are there, it is over, Belloy is taken!"

And the wounded cry: "They have won. Belloy is taken!"

They are magnificent, those men, haggard, bleeding. It is the Legion fallen that salutes the glory of the Legion living:

" Belloy is ours! Vive la France! Vive la Légion! Vive la France!"

Among those who, in that fine onslaught that no fire could halt
Parted impetuous to their first assault,

one of the first to fall was Alan Seeger. Mortally wounded, it was his fate to see his comrades pass him in their splendid charge and to forego the supreme moment of victory to which he had looked forward through so many months of bitterest hardship and trial. Together with those other generous wounded of the Legion fallen, he cheered on the fresh files as they came up to the attack and listened anxiously for the cries of triumph which should tell of their success.

It was no moment for rescue. In that zone of deadly cross-fire there could be but one thought,---to get beyond it alive, if possible. So it was not until the next day that his body was found and buried, with scores of his comrades, on the battle-field of Belloy-en-Santerre.

There, on the outskirts of the little village,
The soldier rests. Now round him undismayed
The cannon thunders, and at night he lies
At peace beneath the eternal fusillade. . .
That other generations might possess
From shame and menace free in years to come
A richer heritage of happiness,
He marched to that heroic martyrdom.

THE END

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