Thursday, September 12, 2013

Alan Seeger War Poet



Having recently come across the inscription in my friend's copy of Iolaus by Edward Carpenter which seems so unequivocally part of a homoerotic or at least homoerotic story, this evening, we are back to the more normal approach to gay history, that is, reading between the lines. The handsome twenty-two year old above is Alan Seeger as a student at Harvard. Tragically, he would only live another six years after this photo was taken, mown down by machine gun fire at Belloy-en-Santerre, in an attack which saw the death of forty of the forty-five men in his unit.

He had a fascinating life and lived, at Harvard, then in Greenwich Village and then in Paris as a true bohemian in the best turn of the century style. There is a biography of him, which I have not read, that is very well distilled here, in a blog post by the Sandor Teszler Library of Wofford College. He joined the war in Europe early by signing up with the French foreign legion and, as far as he is remembered at all, he is remembered in the context of "War Poetry". His style was old-fashioned for the time, full of high ideals and noble aspirations. His poetry wasn't collected into a book until after his death and it came out at a time when modernism was in full flood. He was reviewed in The Egoist and, by a quirk of fate, his poetry got a respectful nod from the reviewer, T. S. Eliot, who had been in Seeger's class at Harvard, who might otherwise have been expected to dislike the work: "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 The work is well done, and so much out of date as to be almost a positive quality.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."

It should be clear that throughout his Poems, there are plenty of full-blooded heterosexual love poems, indeed, sometimes they become somewhat steamy for the time. But there are also a couple of items in the collection which might have a tinge of the homoerotic about them. 

ANTINOUS

Stretched on a sunny bank he lay at rest,
Ferns at his elbow, lilies round his knees,
With sweet flesh patterned where the cool turf pressed,
Flower like crept o'er with emerald aphides.
Single he couched there, to his circling flocks
Piping at times some happy shepherd's tune,
Nude, with the warm wind in his golden locks,
And arched with the blue Asian afternoon.
Past him, gorse-purpled, to the distant coast
Rolled the clear foothills. There his white-walled town,
There, a blue band, the placid Euxine lay.
Beyond, on fields of Azure light embossed
He watched from noon till dewy eve came down
The summer clouds pile up and fade away.

It is usually my policy in posts such as this where I want to tease just a whiff of Dorothy's eau de parfum from the life of a historical writer, to let the work speak for itself and not offer too much by way of analysis. It should probably be noted, in this instance, however that Seeger was far too well educated to not be aware of Antinous's position as the lover of the Emperor Hadrian and the detail in this sonnet seem, at least to me, to be a description of a real person written into Aninous's shape: the way the grass leaves patterns on the skin when you lay on it is a brilliant piece of observation. And do we know if Seeger is capable of appreciating male beauty beyond this single sonnet? Well, tantalisingly, the blog post linked above from the Sandor Teszlar library was occasioned by a letter they have of Seeger's in which, in passing to the main substance of the letter, he recalls when he last saw his correspondent: "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." It is merely a hint and should really be left just at that.

But there may be a bigger hint that perhaps that we should approach Seeger as (to use a word a correspondent of mine recently used of themselves) at least 'heteroflexible'.

WITH A COPY OF SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS ON LEAVING COLLEGE

As one of some fat tillage dispossessed,
Weighing the yield of these four faded years,
If any ask what fruit seems loveliest,
What lasting gold among the garnered ears, -
Ah, then I'll say what house I had of thine,
Therein I reaped Time's richest revenue,
Read in thy text the sense of David's line,
Through thee achieved the love that Shakespeare knew.
Take then his book, laden with mine own love
As flowers made sweeter by deep-drunken rain,
That when years sunder and between us move
Wide water, and less kindly bonds constrain,
Thou may'st turn here, dear boy, and reading see
Some part of what thy friend once felt for thee.

As it turns out this post has been precious little about Seeger as a War Poet. In fact, I found a lot of his wartime poetry to be somewhat inferior to the rest. It may be that his somewhat romantic ideal of war as a theatre for heroism and honour was jarring slightly with the experience of the reality and certainly there is a slightly disjointed feel to some of the war poetry that isn't present in the rest of his work. His most famous poem of the war is "I Have a Rendezvous With Death", written whilst in a military hospital with bronchitis: it is easily found with the aid of Google.

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