Sonnet XI

Alan Seeger - 1888-1916

On returning to the front after leave

Apart sweet women (for whom Heaven be blessed),
Comrades, you cannot think how thin and blue
Look the leftovers of mankind that rest,
Now that the cream has been skimmed off in you.
War has its horrors, but has this of good—
That its sure processes sort out and bind
Brave hearts in one intrepid brotherhood
And leave the shams and imbeciles behind.
Now turn we joyful to the great attacks,
Not only that we face in a fair field
Our valiant foe and all his deadly tools,
But also that we turn disdainful backs
On that poor world we scorn yet die to shield—
That world of cowards, hypocrites, and fools.

 

 

More by Alan Seeger

Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France

(To have been read before the statue of Lafayette and Washington in Paris, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1916)

I

Ay, it is fitting on this holiday,
Commemorative of our soldier dead,
When—with sweet flowers of our New England May
Hiding the lichened stones by fifty years made gray—
Their graves in every town are garlanded,
That pious tribute should be given too
To our intrepid few
Obscurely fallen here beyond the seas.
Those to preserve their country’s greatness died;
But by the death of these
Something that we can look upon with pride
Has been achieved, nor wholly unreplied
Can sneerers triumph in the charge they make
That from a war where Freedom was at stake
America withheld and, daunted, stood aside.

II

Be they remembered here with each reviving spring,
Not only that in May, when life is loveliest,
Around Neuville-Saint-Vaast and the disputed crest
Of Vimy, they, superb, unfaltering,
In that fine onslaught that no fire could halt,
Parted impetuous to their first assault;
But that they brought fresh hearts and springlike too
To that high mission, and ’tis meet to strew
With twigs of lilac and spring’s earliest rose
The cenotaph of those
Who in the cause that history most endears
Fell in the sunny morn and flower of their young years.

III

Yet sought they neither recompense nor praise,
Nor to be mentioned in another breath
Than their blue coated comrades whose great days
It was their pride to share—ay, share even to the death!
Nay, rather, France, to you they rendered thanks
(Seeing they came for honor, not for gain),
Who, opening to them your glorious ranks,
Gave them that grand occasion to excel,
That chance to live the life most free from stain
And that rare privilege of dying well.

IV

O friends! I know not since that war began
From which no people nobly stands aloof
If in all moments we have given proof
Of virtues that were thought American.
I know not if in all things done and said
All has been well and good,
Or if each one of us can hold his head
As proudly as he should,
Or, from the pattern of those mighty dead
Whose shades our country venerates to-day,
If we’ve not somewhat fallen and somewhat gone astray.
But you to whom our land’s good name is dear,
If there be any here
Who wonder if her manhood be decreased,
Relaxed its sinews and its blood less red
Than that at Shiloh and Antietam shed,
Be proud of these, have joy in this at least,
And cry: “Now heaven be praised
That in that hour that most imperilled her,
Menaced her liberty who foremost raised
Europe’s bright flag of freedom, some there were
Who, not unmindful of the antique debt,
Came back the generous path of Lafayette;
And when of a most formidable foe
She checked each onset, arduous to stem—
Foiled and frustrated them—
On those red fields where blow with furious blow
Was countered, whether the gigantic fray
Rolled by the Meuse or at the Bois Sabot,
Accents of ours were in the fierce mêlée;
And on those furthest rims of hallowed ground
Where the forlorn, the gallant charge expires,
When the slain bugler has long ceased to sound,
And on the tangled wires
The last wild rally staggers, crumbles, stops,
Withered beneath the shrapnel’s iron showers:—
Now heaven be thanked, we gave a few brave drops;
Now heaven be thanked, a few brave drops were ours.”

V.

There, holding still, in frozen steadfastness,
Their bayonets toward the beckoning frontiers,
They lie—our comrades—lie among their peers,
Clad in the glory of fallen warriors,
Grim clusters under thorny trellises,
Dry, furthest foam upon disastrous shores,
Leaves that made last year beautiful, still strewn
Even as they fell, unchanged, beneath the changing moon;
And earth in her divine indifference
Rolls on, and many paltry things and mean
Prate to be heard and caper to be seen.
But they are silent, calm; their eloquence
Is that incomparable attitude;
No human presences their witness are,
But summer clouds and sunset crimson-hued,
And showers and night winds and the northern star.
Nay, even our salutations seem profane,
Opposed to their Elysian quietude;
Our salutations calling from afar,
From our ignobler plane
And undistinction of our lesser parts:
Hail, brothers, and farewell; you are twice blest, brave hearts.
Double your glory is who perished thus,
For you have died for France and vindicated us.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death

I have a rendezvous with Death   
At some disputed barricade,   
When Spring comes back with rustling shade   
And apple-blossoms fill the air—   
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.   
   
It may be he shall take my hand   
And lead me into his dark land   
And close my eyes and quench my breath—   
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death   
On some scarred slope of battered hill,   
When Spring comes round again this year   
And the first meadow-flowers appear.   
   
God knows ’twere better to be deep 
Pillowed in silk and scented down,   
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,   
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,   
Where hushed awakenings are dear...   
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,   
When Spring trips north again this year,   
And I to my pledged word am true,   
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

The Aisne (1914 – 15)

We first saw fire on the tragic slopes 
     Where the flood-tide of France's early gain, 
Big with wrecked promise and abandoned hopes, 
     Broke in a surf of blood along the Aisne. 

The charge her heroes left us, we assumed, 
     What, dying, they reconquered, we preserved, 
In the chill trenches, harried, shelled, entombed, 
     Winter came down on us, but no man swerved. 

Winter came down on us. The low clouds, torn 
     In the stark branches of the riven pines, 
Blurred the white rockets that from dusk till morn 
    Traced the wide curve of the close-grappling lines. 

In rain, and fog that on the withered hill 
    Froze before dawn, the lurking foe drew down; 
Or light snows fell that made forlorner still 
    The ravaged country and the ruined town; 

Or the long clouds would end. Intensely fair, 
    The winter constellations blazing forth—
Perseus, the Twins, Orion, the Great Bear—
    Gleamed on our bayonets pointing to the north. 

And the lone sentinel would start and soar 
    On wings of strong emotion as he knew 
That kinship with the stars that only War 
    Is great enough to lift man's spirit to. 

And ever down the curving front, aglow 
    With the pale rockets' intermittent light, 
He heard, like distant thunder, growl and grow 
    The rumble of far battles in the night,—

Rumors, reverberant, indistinct, remote, 
    Borne from red fields whose martial names have won 
The power to thrill like a far trumpet-note,—
     Vic, Vailly, Soupir, Hurtebise, Craonne . . . 

Craonne, before thy cannon-swept plateau, 
     Where like sere leaves lay strewn September's dead, 
      I found for all dear things I forfeited 
A recompense I would not now forego. 

For that high fellowship was ours then 
    With those who, championing another's good, 
    More than dull Peace or its poor votaries could, 
Taught us the dignity of being men. 

There we drained deeper the deep cup of life, 
      And on sublimer summits came to learn, 
     After soft things, the terrible and stern, 
After sweet Love, the majesty of Strife; 

There where we faced under those frowning heights 
     The blast that maims, the hurricane that kills; 
     There where the watchlights on the winter hills 
Flickered like balefire through inclement nights; 

There where, firm links in the unyielding chain, 
Where fell the long-planned blow and fell in vain—
    Hearts worthy of the honor and the trial, 
We helped to hold the lines along the Aisne.