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Alan Seeger (1888-1916)

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
              1Ay, it is fitting on this holiday,
              2Commemorative of our soldier dead,
              3When--with sweet flowers of our New England May
              4Hiding the lichened stones by fifty years made gray--
              5Their graves in every town are garlanded,
              6That pious tribute should be given too
              7To our intrepid few
              8Obscurely fallen here beyond their seas.
              9Those to preserve their country's greatness died;
            10But by the death of these
            11Something that we can look upon with pride
            12Has been achieved, nor wholly unreplied
            13Can sneerers triumph in the charge they make
            14That from a war where Freedom was at stake
            15America withheld and, daunted, stood aside.

II
            16Be they remembered here with each reviving spring,
            17Not only that in May, when life is loveliest,
            18Around Neuville-Saint-Vaast and the disputed crest
            19Of Vimy, they, superb, unfaltering,
            20In that fine onslaught that no fire could halt,
            21Parted impetuous to their first assault;
            22But that they brought fresh hearts and springlike too
            23To that high mission, and 'tis meet to strew
            24With twigs of lilac and spring's earliest rose
            25The cenotaph of those
            26Who in the cause that history most endears
            27Fell in the sunny morn and flower of their young years.

III
            28Yet sought they neither recompense nor praise,
            29Nor to be mentioned in another breath
            30Than their blue-coated comrades whose great days
            31It was their pride to share--ay, share even to the death!
            32Nay, rather, France, to you they rendered thanks
            33(Seeing they came for honour, not for gain),
            34Who, opening to them your glorious ranks,
            35Gave them that grand occasion to excel,
            36That chance to live the life most free from stain
            37And that rare privilege of dying well.

IV
            38O friends! I know not since that war began
            39From which no people nobly stands aloof
            40If in all moments we have given proof
            41Of virtues that were thought American.
            42I know not if in all things done and said
            43All has been well and good,
            44Or of each one of us can hold his head
            45As proudly as he should,
            46Or, from the pattern of those mighty dead
            47Whose shades our country venerates to-day,
            48If we 've not somewhat fallen and somewhat gone astray,
            49But you to whom our land's good name is dear,
            50If there be any here
            51Who wonder if her manhood be decreased,
            52Relaxed its sinews and its blood less red
            53Than that at Shiloh and Antietam shed,
            54Be proud of these, have joy in this at least,
            55And cry: `Now heaven be praised
            56That in that hour that most imperilled her,
            57Menaced her liberty who foremost raised
            58Europe's bright flag of freedom, some there were
            59Who, not unmindful of the antique debt,
            60Came back the generous path of Lafayette;
            61And when of a most formidable foe
            62She checked each onset, arduous to stem--
            63Foiled and frustrated them--
            64On those red fields where blow with furious blow
            65Was countered, whether the gigantic fray
            66Rolled by the Meuse or at the Bois Sabot,
            67Accents of ours were in the fierce mêlée;
            68And on those furthest rims of hallowed ground
            69Where the forlorn, the gallant charge expires,
            70When the slain bugler has long ceased to sound,
            71And on the tangled wires
            72The last wild rally staggers, crumbles, stops,
            73Withered beneath the shrapnel's iron showers:--
            74Now heaven be thanked, we gave a few brave drops;
            75Now heaven be thanked, a few brave drops were ours.'

V
            76There, holding still, in frozen steadfastness,
            77Their bayonets toward the beckoning frontiers,
            78They lie--our comrades--lie among their peers,
            79Clad in the glory of fallen warriors,
            80Grim clustered under thorny trellises,
            81Dry, furthest foam upon disastrous shores,
            82Leaves that made last year beautiful, still strewn
            83Even as they fell, unchanged, beneath the changing moon;
            84And earth in her divine indifference
            85Rolls on, and many paltry things and mean
            86Prate to be heard and caper to be seen.
            87But they are silent, clam; their eloquence
            88Is that incomparable attitude;
            89No human presences their witness are,
            90But summer clouds and sunset crimson-hued,
            91And showers and night winds and the northern star
            92Nay, even our salutations seem profane,
            93Opposed to their Elysian quietude;
            94Our salutations calling from afar,
            95From our ignobler plane
            96And undistinction of our lesser parts:
            97Hail, brothers, and farewell; you are twice blest, brave hearts.
            98Double your glory is who perished thus,
            99For you have died for France and vindicated us.

Notes

1] The statue dedicated to the memory of the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), French general, and George Washington (1732-99), first American president, stands in the Place des Etats-Unis in Paris. The American colony in France invited Seeger to read this poem on May 30, 1916, but official permission for him to go on leave did not arrive in time (Irving Werstein, Sound no Trumpet: The Life and Death of Alan Seeger [New York: Crowell, 1967], p. 126; PS 3537 E26Z9 Robarts Library), and the poem was only made public posthumously.

18] Neuville-Saint-Vaast: area four miles north of Arras in the Pas de Calais, northern France, the site of much fighting in World War I.

19] Vimy: In 1915 the Allies stormed Vimy Ridge (near Artois) but failed to take it: 225,000 lives were lost.

53] Shiloh: battle fought April 6-7, 1862, near Shiloh Church, two miles from Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, in the American civil war.
Antietam: Maryland creek where a battle in the American civil war was fought September 16-17, 1862, near the town of Sharpsburg (for which the battle is also named).

66] the Meuse: river flowing from northern France through Belgium into the North Sea, near which (e.g., at Verdun in spring 1916) fighting went on for years in World War I.
Bois Sabot: not located.

93] Elysian: the Elysian Fields, dwelling place of the happy dead in the underworld of classical myth.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Alan Seeger, Poems, introduction by William Archer (London: Constable, 1919), pp. 170-74. PS 3537 E26 1917 ROBA.
First publication date: 1916
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1998.
Recent editing: 2:2002/3/21

Form note: couplets, triplets, and quatrains


Other poems by Alan Seeger