Alan Seeger: Instrument of Destiny

based on the diary, letters, and Last Poems by Alan Seeger

Assembled by Mirabelle Ordinaire


One hundred years ago, Europe fractured into war
It was a war that would definitively shape the course of all human life for the century to come
It was a great war

It was a war that required great sacrifice
The sacrifice of millions

One man took on that sacrifice
He gave voice to that sacrifice
He died for that sacrifice
Alan Seeger: poet— idealist— INSTRUMENT OF DESTINY


1 Off to War

From “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France


Now heaven be praised,
Now heaven be thanked,
we gave a few brave drops;
Now heaven be thanked,
a few brave drops were ours.

Fifth Sunday since enlistment. Beautiful sunny afternoon. Peace. The stir of the leaves; noise of poultry in the yards near by; distant church bells, warm southern sunlight flooding the wide corn-fields and vineyards.


Now heaven be praised,
Now heaven be thanked,
we gave a few brave drops;
Now heaven be thanked,
a few brave drops were ours.

Dear Mother,
We have been putting in our time here at very hard drilling and are supposed to have learned in six weeks what the ordinary recruit takes all his two years at. We rise at 5 and work stops in the afternoon at 5. I hope you see the thing as I do and think that I have done well, in taking upon my shoulders, too, the burden that so much humanity is suffering under and, rather than stand ingloriously aside when the opportunity was given to me, doing my share for the side that I think right...

Song from the Légion Étrangère (tbd)

After less than two months from enlistment we are actually going to the firing line.
I go into action with the lightest of light hearts. The hard work and moments of frightful fatigue have not broken but hardened me. Do not worry, for the chances are small of not returning and I think you can count on seeing me next summer. Be sure that I shall play the part well for I was never in better health nor felt my manhood more keenly.


Now heaven be praised,
Now heaven be thanked,
we gave a few brave drops;
Now heaven be thanked,
a few brave drops were ours.


2 In the Trenches



Exiled afar from youth and happy love,
If Death should ravish my fond spirit hence
I have no doubt but, like a homing dove,
It would return to its dear residence,
And through a thousand stars find out the road Back into earthly flesh that was its loved abode.

The typical trench dugout resembles catacombs more than anything else. A long gallery is cut in the ground with pick and shovel. Its dimensions are about those of the cages which Louis XI devised for those of his prisoners whom he wished especially to torture, that is, the height is not great enough to permit a man to stand up and the breadth does not allow him to stretch out.

Christmas songs: Gloria, Silent Night

The smell of the branches in the dirt on top of the trench reminds me of Christmas odors in American houses decorated with green things for the holidays. Then the smell of powder from the shrapnel kills the holiday reminder. I dare say Christmas will pass here without any change in our style of life. We shall go on waiting as patiently as we can for the day when we shall be ordered to advance against the shell and steel of the invisible enemy. It will be a happy day for all of us, for uncomfortable inaction has more terrors than shell and steel.


3 Champagne

From “Champagne, 1914-1915”


In the glad revels, in the happy fetes,
When cheeks are flushed, and glasses gilt and pearled
With the sweet wine of France that concentrates
The sunshine and the beauty of the world,

Drink sometimes, you whose footsteps yet may tread
The undisturbed, delightful paths of Earth,
To those whose blood, in pious duty shed,
Hallows the soil where that same wine had birth.

Nothing but good can befall the soldier, so he plays his part well. Come out of the ordeal safe and sound, he has had an experience in the light of which life thereafter will be three times richer and more beautiful; wounded, he will have the esteem and admiration of all men and the approbation of his own conscience; killed, more than any other man, he can face the unknown without misgivings.


Under the little crosses where they rise
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.

Obscurely sacrificed, his nameless tomb,
Bare of the sculptor's art, the poet's lines,
Summer shall flush with poppy-fields in bloom,
And Autumn yellow with maturing vines.

Dear Mother,
Received your letters and clippings yesterday. I am not thinking of anything else but the business in hand, and if I write, it is only to get a little intellectual exercise of which one stands so much in need now. You must not be anxious about my not coming back. The chances are about ten to one that I will. But if I should not, you must be proud, like a Spartan mother, and feel that it is your contribution to the triumph of the cause. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier.


I love to think that if my blood should be
So privileged to sink where his has sunk,
I shall not pass from Earth entirely,
But when the banquet rings, when healths are drunk,

And faces that the joys of living fill
Glow radiant with laughter and good cheer,  

In beaming cups some spark of me shall still  
Brim toward the lips that once I held so dear.

I am not influenced by the foolish American ideas of “success,” which regard only the superficial and accidental meanings of the word – advancement, recognition, power, etc. The essence of success is in rigorously obeying one's best impulses and following those paths which conscience absolutely approves. Given my nature, I could not have done otherwise than I have done. I have always had the passion to play the biggest part within my reach and it is really in a sense a supreme success to be allowed to play this.


Honor them not so much with tears and flowers,
But you with whom the sweet fulfillment lies,
Where in the anguish of atrocious hours
Turned their last thoughts and closed their dying eyes,

Rather when music on bright gatherings lays
Its tender spell, and joy is uppermost,
Be mindful of the men they were, and raise
Your glasses to them in one silent toast.

Come to love France and understand the almost unexampled nobility of the effort this admirable people is making, for that will be the surest way of your finding comfort for anything that I am ready to suffer in their cause.


Drink to them -- amorous of dear Earth as well,
They asked no tribute lovelier than this --
And in the wine that ripened where they fell,
Oh, frame your lips as though it were a kiss.


4 Friends and Foes

The night was warm and windless. There were fruit trees clouded with bloom, reminding one of Japanese prints. But another odor as we advanced mingled with that of the blossoms. Among the breaths of April, fragrant of love and the rebirth of life, it intrudes, the sickening antithesis – pungent, penetrating, exciting to madness and ferocity, as the other to tenderness and desire – the odor of carrion and of death.

The dead lie as they fell in the fighting seven months ago. Shapeless, dark masses in the dim moonlight, they come out suddenly in their disfigured humanity, and peering down one can distinguish arms and legs and, last and most unspeakable, the features.

Single or in heaps or files they lie – in attitudes of heroism or fear, of anguish or of pity – some shielding their heads with their sacks from the hail of shrapnel, many with the little “first aid” package of bandages in their hands. Frenchmen and Germans alike, rigid bundles of soaked cloth, filling the thickets, sodden into the muddy beet fields, bare and exposed amid sacks, broken guns and all the litter of the battlefield.

“The Hosts”


Comrades in arms there -- friend or foe --
That trod the perilous, toilsome trail
Through a world of ruin and blood and woe
In the years of the great decision -- hail!
Friend or foe, it shall matter nought;

This only matters, in fine: we fought.

For we were young and in love or strife
Sought exultation and craved excess:
To sound the wildest debauch in life
We staked our youth and its loveliness
Let idlers argue the right and wrong
And weigh what merit our causes had.
Putting our faith in being strong --
Above the level of good and bad --
For us, we battled and burned and killed
Because evolving Nature willed,
And it was our pride and boast to be
The instruments of Destiny.

There was a stately drama writ
By the hand that peopled the earth and air
And set the stars in the infinite
And made night gorgeous and morning fair,
And all that had sense to reason knew
That bloody drama must be gone through.


To me the matter of supreme importance is not to be on the winning side, but on the side where my sympathies lie. Feeling no greater dignity possible for a man than that of one who makes himself the instrument of destiny in these tremendous moments, I naturally ranged myself on the side to which I owed the greatest obligation. But let it always be understood that I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France.

The German contribution to civilization is too large, and German ideals too generally in accord with my own, to allow me to join in the chorus of hate against a people whom I frankly admire. It was only that the France, and the especially the Paris, that I love should not cease to be the glory and the beauty that they are that I engaged. For that cause I am willing to stick to the end.


Anthems: God Save the Queen/Heil dir im Siegerkranz/My Country 'Tis of Thee/La Marseillaise.

Beautiful starry night; bright moonlight. A violent artillery duel. Our advanced batteries of heavy guns fired continually. The Germans replied less frequently, but when their heavy shells fell by twos and fours the explosions were terrific beyond anything I have heard before on the front.

The music builds to a climax, and is followed by a sudden silence.


5 Reprieve

Dear Mother,
I am in hospital for the first time, not for a wound unfortunately, but for sickness. Funny I should be ill this winter when we are in the rear, whereas I passed the last from October to July in the trenches without missing a day. The fever ran so high that I had to be evacuated. I am getting well now but am weak.

You are right in making the most of past moments of happiness. There is a common bourgeois notion which, associated with the common bourgeois ideal of a man finally making enough money to be able to retire and live on his income, pictures the happy life as a kind of steady progression through a series of ups and downs toward a kind of plateau, the summit of which once attained, he can thereafter march along tranquilly on a level of unbroken and indestructible well-being. It is perfectly clear that such a notion is entirely illusory. As for myself, I look upon life as a series of ups and downs, right up (or down) to the very end. The idea of being any higher at the end than at the beginning was never part of my reveries. For me the measure of a happy life was simply the proportion in which the sum-total of these moments of happiness, scattered indiscriminately through it, outbalanced the sum-total of the unhappy ones.

I shall soon get out and then will have two months' rest and freedom and comfort behind the lines out of a winter of the worst kind of weather. Then rejoining the regiment I shall be just in time for the big offensive, which is the only thing that really matters.

“Sonnet III”


Why should you be astonished that my heart,
Plunged for so long in darkness and in dearth,
Should be revived by you, and stir and start
As by warm April now, reviving Earth?

I am the field of undulating grass
And you the gentle perfumed breath of Spring,
And all my lyric being, when you pass,
Is bowed and filled with sudden murmuring.

I asked you nothing and expected less,

But, with that deep, impassioned tenderness
Of one approaching what he most adores,
I only wished to lose a little space
All thought of my own life, and in its place
To live and dream and have my joy in yours.


6 Rendezvous with Death

Dear Friend,
We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching the first wave.
I will write soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems.
I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.

“I have a rendezvous with Death”


I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,


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.


I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade.


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.


I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade.


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. -


I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade. 

I have a rendezvous with Death
A rendezvous with Death.



from “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France”


"Now heaven be praised
Now heaven be thanked,
we gave a few brave drops;
Now heaven be thanked,
a few brave drops were ours."