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A REVIEW OF BOOKS AND LIFE
THE ALAN SEEGER I KNEW BY WALTER ADOLPHE ROBERTS
WHENEveR I chance to read that the Foreign Legion has been in action, poignant memories of mobilisation in Paris revive—the wave of wrath against Germany that sent twenty thousand aliens in a single day to the recruiting office in the Hôtel des Invalides; the march of the American contingent, cheered by men, kissed by crying women, on its way to Rouen, to go into training. They called themselves, these Americans, the Corps of the rue de Valois, because they had organised in a room in the east arcade of the Palais Royal. They numbered two hundred and one, of whom less than thirty were surviving last winter. On August 25, 1914, they lunched at the Café de la Régence, then filed up the avenue de l’Opera, and by way of the rue Auber to the Gare St. Lazare. As a guest and the friend of many who were going, I had a place in the last rank. I can never forget the flags, the flowers, the thousands of fluttering handkerchiefs. I still see the courtly old Parisian, a veteran of the war of 1870, perhaps, who rose from the terrasse of the Café de la Paix and
doffed his silk hat to the little column, crying, “Gentlemen, France thanks you!” All types were represented among the volunteers. There were artists who had lived in Paris half their lives, business men and students, a number of adventurers. But the dominating figure was that of a poet —the young Alan Seeger, whose destiny it was to find nearly two years later at Belloy-en-Santerre the only kind of fame he desired, in the only way that could fully satisfy his extraordinary ego. Seeger's service and death in the Legion remains one of the most romantic incidents of the war. It looms larger in France's debt of gratitude toward this country than all the billion-dollar loans that have been, or may yet be, advanced. This may astonish the average American, who has possibly read the Rendezvous with Death, or the Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France, and dismissed them with more or less appreciative comment. But in France, poetry is held in higher honour, and a foreign poet bleeding under the Tricolour is a heroic figure, whose sacrifice can never be adequately repaid to the land that sent him. Richepin has translated some of Seeger's verses into French and called others “too beautiful to admit of translation.” Laurels have been piled high about the American’s grave. Paris has decided to erect a statue to him in the Latin Quarter, where he had passed his happiest days before the war. Let us consider, then, for a page or two, the life and temperament of this poet who, in his own words:
. . . not unmindful of the antique debt, Came back the generous path of Lafayette.
I knew Alan Seeger, if anyone could be said really to have known him. Although a friend of several years’ standing, I was not exempted from the haughty reserve which it appeared to be his rule of life to maintain toward all mankind. He may, of course, outside of our circle, have had special intimates before whom he deigned completely to unbend. It is said that he formed at least one bosom friendship in the Legion.
But the Alan Seeger I knew in Paris and New York was a poet of an ivory tower, prouder than Lucifer, contemptuous of whether the average run of humanity approved either of his verse or of his personality, and loving France as the only country worthy, in this materialistic age, of anyone’s affection.
To tell the truth, his assumption of what can best be described as intellectual aristocracy, was a little irritating. His work in the early days did not justify it. Some odes and descriptive poems about Mexico, overcharged with romanticism; a juvenile lyric or two; a few sonnets, which exhibited a fine feeling for
form. That was all. On reaching Paris, he began to write more sophisticated verses, however, striking an authentic note of genius. Only the veriest flatterer could have gone into raptures over his juvenile work. But little did Alan Seeger care. He rarely showed a manuscript to a friend. When he did, nothing could have been of less consequence to him than the comment it evoked. Selfassured, he went his way, gathering impressions and experimenting with his art. It was as if he had been aware of an imperious Kismet which could not be thwarted. His rôle in the world drama, his rapid development under the tutelage of war into a real poet, have answered all criticisms. I first met Seeger in 1911, in a little French table d'hôte in West Twenty-ninth Street, New York, kept by three Breton sisters named Petitpas. He was then twenty-three years old and as handsome as a child of the sun. His features were classic, his complexion of a singularly luminous brunette tinge, his lips full and red, his black hair very thick. I have retained no definite impression of his eyes. He was about six feet tall, straight and well-proportioned. Among his oddities was the arranging of his hair in a “bang,” which came almost to his eyebrows and created the impression of a low, faun-like forehead, though the latter was actually broad and high. He also affected closely clipped sidewhiskers, extending about threequarters of the way down in front of his ears. Usually, he wore a soft shirt and a scarlet tie, which harmonised with his warm complexion. He frequented the Petitpas restaurant for several months. There he attracted the attention of John Butler Yeats, father of the Irish national poet, and himself a writer and painter of distinction. Yeats remarked more than once that Seeger was a rare soul, who had it in him to do great things in literature. He was fond of sketching the young poet. Some of his pencil croquis, which are still in existence, seem to me to have captured Seeger's personality more successfully than any of the published pictures of him. During our occasional chats across the dinner table, Seeger expressed a passionate interest in France and, to a lesser degree, in Italy. His sole desire was to go to Paris. He was quite out of sympathy with America, did not believe that we had accomplished anything worth speaking about in art, and was savage in his denunciation of the low standards fostered by American magazines. His scorn of the poet who would “write down” to editorial tastes, in order to sell his work, was heroic in its proportions. The only literary admirations I ever heard him admit, outside of French literature, were for Byron and Wilde. It may be observed here that his three heroes were Napoleon, Byron and Pico della Mirandola, the Italian nobleman and scholar of the fifteenth century. Less than five months before his death, he wrote as follows from hospital to a friend in America: “Of all the formulas that claimed my early youth, the one to which I can still adhere is that of the three categories, the lust for power, the lust for feeling and the lust for knowledge, to one or the other of which I can assign all those who, in their passion to live fully, are the supermen, the élite of humanity.
Take as respective types Napoleon, Byron, Pico della Mirandola. All superior minds attach themselves more or less remotely to one of these three ideals. I make no distinction between them: those who attain eminence through either one may, in their way, be equally admirable. It is through knowledge that you seek revelation; I seek it through feeling.” I lived during the winter of 1911– 12 in a room on the top floor of 61 Washington Square, South, an old house, with nearly thirty years of literary traditions. Frank Norris had written most of The Octopus there. Stephen Crane and O. Henry had been among its guests. One evening there was a knock at the door and Seeger strolled in. He had taken a room on the same floor in the rear, but although he had occupied it for almost two weeks, he had kept so quietly to himself that I had not known he was in the house. At Petitpas’s he had not thought it worth while to mention it. His errand was to look over my books. If I remember rightly, he had written a poem in an odd metre and wished to compare it with some mediaeval French form. He prowled up and down in front of the shelves, failed to find exactly what he wanted and threw himself into a chair. The conversation turned on Paris, and he said, with considerable bitterness, that he would never be happy until he could arrange to live there permanently. America disgusted him, and he would be glad to leave the country forever. I asked him what detained him from going. “I have no money, not even enough to pay my every-day expenses, much less to travel,” he said haughtily. “And I see no prospect of getting any, because I will not do commercial writing. But sooner or later, I shall find a way.” He left the house not long afterward, and I did not see him again until we met in Paris. He spent a month during the intervening summer, however, at the MacDowell Memorial Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire. A mutual acquaintance, Edwin Carty Ranck, the dramatist and critic, tells the following characteristic anecdotes of his stay there: “The colony was crowded and beds were as scarce as they are in New York hotels during a prosperous theatrical season. Seeger came to me rather peremptorily one night, and informed me that he had no bed and had been directed to sleep on a sofa in the living-room of the annex. He said he detested sofas, and wanted to know if I would not give up my bed to him. I told him goodnaturedly, but firmly, that he could go to the devil. He took himself off with imperturbable sang-froid and slept on some clean straw in a nearby stable. He always had the courage of his convictions, a quality that we admired in him.” Again: “I have a vivid recollection of seeing Seeger one day walking down the village street, hatless, his thick locks blowing in the wind, and wearing around his waist a crimson sash. He also wore a soft collar and white shirt and the effect was striking. The village folk stared hard at him in dumb wonder, but Seeger was as unconscious of their regard as if he walked in a desert. Head up, eyes gazing into space, he strolled along with the serenity of one to whom mundane affairs are non-existent. One can imagine the effect of such a vision in a village street, where the chief excitement is usually
furnished by a runaway horse. Shopkeepers flocked to their windows and girls stared in simpering amusement. But on went Seeger, his head in the clouds.” In the early spring of 1914, I met Alan Seeger unexpectedly at the Café Lavenue in Paris. He had changed both in manner and appearance. His intellectual arrogance was undiminished. But there were a score of new things that he had found to love—the art treasures, the human types, the quaint streets, the very stones of Paris. He was happier than I had before known him, and notably more mature. He now affected a severe style of dress. Usually, he was in black, his coat buttoned tightly across his chest under an unstarched stock collar. With his hair longer than ever, and his scarlet lips, he suggested the aesthete to whom any form of action would be abhorrent. If I had been told that here was a future soldier of the Foreign Legion, I should have laughed incredulously. Seeger lived at No. 17 rue du Sommerard, immediately behind the Musée de Cluny. This was in the heart of the old Latin Quarter, but he spent much of his time in Montparnasse, at Lavenue's, the Café de la Rotonde and the Closerie des Lilas. The more markedly FrancoAmerican Café du Dôme he disdained. He was fondest, I think, of Lavenue's, where the music was good. I often saw him there, in the company of a very beautiful woman, whose name he did not tell me. He was avid of new sensations in those days. Like many other poets who go to Paris, he experimented with absinthe and found unearthly dreams in the opal-tinted nectar. He went to the bacchic dances of the