WWI Soldier-Poet Alan Seeger’s ‘Rendezvous With Death’

August 11, 2023Jenna Biter
Alan Seeger, I Have a Rendezvous With Death

In this undated photo, Allied soldiers eat and drink in a shell hole in France during World War I. AP file photo.

Even before the United States entered World War I in April 1917, hundreds of starry-eyed young Americans had already made their way to the frontlines in Europe. In fact, within just weeks of Germany declaring war on France, nearly 70 Americans joined the ranks of the French Foreign Legion, starting a trend of Yanks serving with foreign armies that would continue until the US military finally mobilized for the war.

Among the first Americans to volunteer with the Foreign Legion was 26-year-old Alan Seeger, a New York–born poet who had been enjoying a bohemian life on the banks of the Seine when the Germans marched toward France. A romantic at heart, Seeger saw an opportunity for a great adventure — a chance to live out his ideals of honor, valor, and sacrifice for a greater good. So he put down his pen and picked up a rifle, prepared to give his life in defense of his beloved second home.

Seeger, like the rest of the world on the eve of the Great War, could not have anticipated the maelstrom that was about to engulf Europe. World War I was a conflict without precedent. The extreme scale and brutality of the fighting, a result of the mismatch between 19th-century military tactics and 20th-century weapons technologies, bore no resemblance to the chivalrous sword battles and swashbuckling adventures that boys of Seeger’s generation had grown up reading and hearing about.

Alan Seeger, I Have a Rendezvous With Death

A portrait of Alan Seeger at Harvard University printed in his book Letters and Diary, which was published posthumously in 1917. Photo from Letters and Diary via The Internet Archive.

Even as he was preparing to march off to the frontlines, Seeger didn’t seem to grasp the gravity of the situation he had gotten himself into. His whimsical notions  of war permeated the many letters and poems he authored in the years prior to his demise. Writing to his worried mother on June 18, 1915, he seemed to welcome the possibility of dying in battle. “Death is nothing terrible after all,” he wrote. “It may mean something even more wonderful than life.” 

That same sentiment would also be the premise of what is now considered Seeger’s most important work: a poem he titled “I Have a Rendezvous With Death.” And indeed, he did. On July 3, 1916, while fighting in the brutal opening phase of the Somme offensive, Seeger was cut down by German machine gunfire. Though his poetry would later be dismissed by critics as naive and overly whimsical, the young soldier-poet remained true to his romantic nature until the very end. In fact, he sang, rather than spoke his final words, and they were the lyrics of a marching song.

Seeger died on the Fourth of July. He was 28 years old. As for “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” it would survive to become what is now considered a classic piece of American literature, as well as a favorite poem of President John F. Kennedy, who himself was no stranger to the brutal realities of war.

Alan Seeger, I Have a Rendezvous With Death

A June 8, 2016, photo shows a World War I memorial in the town square of Belloy-en-Santerre, France, that includes the name of Alan Seeger. Seeger died in the town while fighting in the Battle of the Somme on July 4, 1916. AP photo by Virginia Mayo.

“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.

Read Next: ‘I Want YOU’: 5 of America’s Best WWI Recruitment Posters

Jenna Biter
Jenna Biter

Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.

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