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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 doffed his silk hat to the little colForeign Legion has been in action, umn, crying, “Gentlemen, France poignant memories of mobilisation
thanks you!" in Paris revive the wave of wrath All types were represented among against Germany that sent twenty the volunteers. There were artists thousand aliens in a single day to
who had lived in Paris half their the recruiting office in the Hôtel lives, business men and students, a des Invalides; the march of the number of adventurers. But the American contingent, cheered by dominating figure was that of a poet men, kissed by crying women, on —the young Alan Seeger, whose desits way to Rouen, to go into tiny it was to find nearly two years training
later at Belloy-en-Santerre the only They called themselves, these kind of fame he desired, in the only Americans, the Corps of the rue de way that could fully satisfy his exValois, because they had organised traordinary ego. in a room in the east arcade of the Seeger's service and death in the Palais Royal. They numbered two Legion remains one of the most rohundred and one, of whom less than mantic incidents of the war. It thirty were surviving last winter. looms larger in France's debt of On August 25, 1914, they lunched gratitude toward this country than at the Café de la Régence, then filed all the billion-dollar loans that have up the avenue de l'Opera, and by been, or may yet be, advanced. This way of the rue Auber to the Gare St. may astonish the average American, Lazare. As a guest and the friend who has possibly read the Rendezof many who were going, I had a vous with Death, or the Ode in place in the last rank. I can never Memory of the American Volunteers forget the flags, the flowers, the Fallen for France, and dismissed thousands of fluttering handker them with more or less appreciative chiefs. I still see the courtly old comment. But in France, poetry is Parisian, a veteran of the war of held in higher honour, and a foreign 1870, perhaps, who rose from the poet bleeding under the Tricolour is terrasse of the Café de la Paix and a heroic figure, whose sacrifice can Vol. XLVII, No. 6.
never be adequately repaid to the form. That was all. On reaching land that sent him.
Paris, he began to write more sophisRichepin has translated some of ticated verses, however, striking an Seeger's verses into French and authentic note of genius. Only the called others “too beautiful to ad veriest flatterer could have gone into mit of translation.” Laurels have raptures over his juvenile work. But been piled high about the American's little did Alan Seeger care. He grave. Paris has decided to erect rarely showed a manuscript to a a statue to him in the Latin Quarter, friend. When he did, nothing could where he had passed his happiest have been of less consequence to him days before the war.
than the comment it evoked. SelfLet us consider, then, for a page assured, he went his way, gathering or two, the life and temperament of impressions and experimenting with this poet who, in his own words: his art. ... not unmindful of the antique debt,
It was as if he had been aware of Came back the generous path of Lafayette.
an imperious Kismet which could not
be thwarted.His rôle in the world I knew Alan Seeger, if anyone drama, his rapid development under could be said really to have known the tutelage of war into a real poet, him. Although a friend of several have answered all criticisms. years' standing, I was not exempted I first met Seeger in 1911, in a litfrom the haughty reserve which it tle French table d'hôte in West appeared to be his rule of life to Twenty-ninth Street, New York, maintain toward all mankind. He kept by three Breton sisters named may, of course, outside of our circle, Petitpas. He was then twenty-three have had special intimates before years old and as handsome as a child whom he deigned completely to un of the sun. His features were clasbend. It is said that he formed at sic, his complexion of a singularly least one bosom friendship in the luminous brunette tinge, his lips full Legion.
and red, his black hair very thick. But the Alan Seeger I knew in I have retained no definite impresParis and New York was a poet of sion of his eyes. He was about six an ivory tower, prouder than Luci- feet tall, straight and well-proporfer, contemptuous of whether the tioned. average run of humanity approved Among his oddities was the areither of his verse or of his person- ranging of his hair in a "bang," ality, and loving France as the only which came almost to his eyebrows country worthy, in this materialistic and created the impression of a low, age, of anyone's affection.
faun-like forehead, though the latter To tell the truth, his assumption was actually broad and high. He of what can best be described as in also affected closely clipped sidetellectual aristocracy, was a little ir- whiskers, extending about threeritating. His work in the early days quarters of the way down in front did not justify it. Some odes and of his ears. Usually, he wore a soft descriptive poems about Mexico, shirt and a scarlet tie, which harovercharged with romanticism; a monised with his warm complexion. juvenile lyric or two; a few sonnets, He frequented the Petitpas reswhich exhibited a fine feeling for taurant for several months. There
he attracted the attention of John Take as respective types Napoleon, Butler Yeats, father of the Irish na Byron, Pico della Mirandola. All tional poet, and himself a writer and superior minds attach themselves painter of distinction.
more or less remotely to one of these marked more than once that Seeger three ideals. I make no distinction was a rare soul, who had it in him between them: those who attain emito do great things in literature. He nence through either one may, in was fond of sketching the young their way, be equally admirable. It poet. Some of his pencil croquis, is through knowledge that you seek which are still in existence, seem to revelation; I seek it through feelme to have captured Seeger's per- ing.” sonality more successfully than any I lived during the winter of 1911of the published pictures of him. 12 in a room on the top floor of 61 During
occasional chats Washington Square, South, an old across the dinner table, Seeger ex house, with nearly thirty years of pressed a passionate interest in literary traditions. Frank Norris France and, to a lesser degree, in had written most of The Octopus Italy. His sole desire was to go to there. Stephen Crane and O. Henry Paris. He was quite out of sym had been among its guests. pathy with America, did not believe One evening there was a knock at that we had accomplished anything the door and Seeger strolled in. He worth speaking about in art, and had taken a room on the same floor was savage in his denunciation of the in the rear, but although he had oclow standards fostered by American cupied it for almost two weeks, he magazines. His scorn of the poet had kept so quietly to himself that who would "write down” to editorial I had not known he was in the tastes, in order to sell his work, was house.
At Petitpas's he had not heroic in its proportions.
thought it worth while to mention it. The only literary admirations I His errand was to look over my ever heard him admit, outside of books. If I remember rightly, he French literature, were for Byron had written a poem in an odd metre and Wilde. It may be observed here and wished to compare it with some that his three heroes were Napoleon, mediæval French form. He prowled Byron and Pico della Mirandola, the up and down in front of the shelves, Italian nobleman and scholar of the failed to find exactly what he wanted fifteenth century. Less than five and threw himself into a chair. months before his death, he wrote as The conversation turned on Paris, follows from hospital to a friend in and he said, with considerable bitterAmerica:
ness, that he would never be happy “Of all the formulas that claimed until he could arrange to live there my early youth, the one to which I permanently. America disgusted can still adhere is that of the three him, and he would be glad to leave categories, the lust for power, the the country forever. I asked him lust for feeling and the lust for what detained him from going. knowledge, to one or the other of “I have no money, not even enough which I can assign all those who, in to pay my every-day expenses, much their passion to live fully, are the less to travel," he said haughtily. supermen, the élite of humanity. “And I see no prospect of getting
any, because I will not do commer furnished by a runaway horse. Shopcial writing. But sooner or later, keepers flocked to their windows and I shall find a way.”
girls stared in simpering amusement. He left the house not long after- But on went Seeger, his head in the ward, and I did not see him again clouds.” until we met in Paris. He spent a In the early spring of 1914, I met month during the intervening sum Alan Seeger unexpectedly at the mer, however, at the MacDowell Me Café Lavenue in Paris. He had morial Colony, Peterborough, New changed both in manner and appearHampshire. A mutual acquaintance,
His intellectual arrogance Edwin Carty Ranck, the dramatist was undiminished. But there were a and critic, tells the following charac score of new things that he had teristic anecdotes of his stay there: found to love the art treasures, the
“The colony was crowded and beds human types, the quaint streets, the were as scarce as they are in New very stones of Paris. He was hapYork hotels during a prosperous pier than I had before known him, theatrical season. Seeger came to and notably more mature. He now me rather peremptorily one night, affected a severe style of dress. and informed me that he had no bed Usually, he was in black, his coat and had been directed to sleep on a buttoned tightly across his chest unsofa in the living-room of the annex. der an unstarched stock collar.
. He said he detested sofas, and With his hair longer than ever, and wanted to know if I would not give his scarlet lips, he suggested the up my bed to him. I told him good- æsthete to whom any form of action naturedly, but firmly, that he could would be abhorrent. If I had been go to the devil. He took himself off told that here was a future soldier with imperturbable sang-froid and of the Foreign Legion, I should have slept on some clean straw in a nearby laughed incredulously. stable. He always had the courage Seeger lived at No. 17 rue du Somof his convictions, a quality that we merard, immediately behind the admired in him."
Musée de Cluny. This was in the Again: “I have a vivid recollection heart of the old Latin Quarter, but of seeing Seeger one day walking he spent much of his time in Montdown the village street, hatless, his parnasse, at Lavenue's, the Café de thick locks blowing in the wind, and la Rotonde and the Closerie des wearing around his waist a crimson Lilas. The more markedly Francosash. He also wore a soft collar and American Café du Dôme he diswhite shirt and the effect was strik- dained. He was fondest, I think, of ing. The village folk stared hard at Lavenue's, where the music was good. him in dumb wonder, but Seeger was I often saw him there, in the comas unconscious of their regard as if pany of a very beautiful woman, he walked in a desert. Head up, whose name he did not tell me. eyes gazing into space, he strolled He was avid of new sensations in along with the serenity of one to those days. Like many other poets whom mundane affairs are non-exis who go to Paris, he experimented tent. One can imagine the effect of with absinthe and found unearthly such a vision in a village streetdreams in the opal-tinted nectar. where the chief excitement is usually He went to the bacchic dances of the