In 2019 Maison Taittinger acquired the poem “Champagne”, written during the First World War by Alan Seeger, an American poet who died serving a country that wasn’t his own.

Alan Seeger was born and grew up on Staten Island, opposite the Statue of Liberty’s beacon of light beaming out over the world. Yet he died a very long way from his homeland, in the ravaged plains of the Somme, where it should have been harvesting season. It was 4 July 1916, Independence Day in his native country. Alan Seeger was born an American citizen in the United States, but he died for France. He was one of the very first Americans to sacrifice his life, a year even before his country committed to fighting with France and its allies on the battlefield. This young man from a privileged background could have benefited from the family fortune, acquired through a sugar refinery business. But after studying at Harvard, he set off instead on a path of adventure and discovery in Paris, the City of Lights: the city of poets, of Gertrude Stein, Natalie Clifford Barney and Apollinaire, whom for a short time he counted among his friends. He moved there in 1912 and became correspondent for several American and European newspapers. It wasn’t long before he considered this country and city his home.

An enlisted volunteer
When what would become World War I first broke out, he marched with his friends, the Americans in Paris, to show his support for France. He carried the star-spangled banner and became a leading figure in the cause. As he would later write in a letter to his parents, he felt indebted to La Fayette, a symbol of the struggle for American independence who had also crossed the ocean to defend a cause which wasn’t his own. On 3 August Germany declared war against France. Three weeks later Alan Seeger enlisted in the Foreign Legion. At the time he wrote, “I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France.” 39 other Americans from France also signed up. A soldier in the Second Regiment of the Foreign Legion, he fought in many battles: from the First Battle of the Marne and the marshes of Saint-Gond, to nine months of hell in the Second Battle of the Aisne and the trenches of the Somme, which would ultimately prove fatal for him. The German soldiers had fallen back onto their fortified line in Belloy-en-Santerre. The members of the Foreign Legion infantry were exposed as they launched an attack with their bayonet rifles. They were wiped out by a hail of bullets from German machine guns, 300 metres from the lines. “We will go directly into action, magnificently, unexpectedly, and probably victoriously, in some dashing charge, even if it be only of local importance,” he had written in June, just a few weeks prior. A tragic end for this 28-year-old idealist, writer of a poem that would give him posthumous fame overseas after his death: “I Have a Rendezvous with Death”. It is said to have been John Kennedy’s favourite poem and that he kept it in his jacket pocket right up until the day he was assassinated in Dallas.

“I have 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.”

Extract from “I Have a Rendezvous with Death”, 1915.

Elegance and righteousness
An avid reader of poetry, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger has long taken an interest in Seeger’s life and works. It was when he opened an old collection of poems written during the First World War that he first discovered Alan Seeger’s poem “Champagne” (1915). That was the moment he decided to bring the writer into his life. Throughout the duration of the conflict, the legionnaire sent letters, kept a diary and wrote poems. Among the latter included the famous poem “Champagne”, most probably written during the Battle of the Marne. He would have certainly come across champagne in the artistic circles that he mixed with in Paris. We can see from his diary that he also drank champagne “in tin army cups” when toasting a night of good fortune with other soldiers. The resulting text, both solemn and joyful, was the subject of an acquisition by Maison Taittinger, who bought it from American collector and leading expert on Seeger, Richard McErlean, in 2019. “For me, Seeger represents what is most beautiful about the Franco-American friendship,” explains Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger. “I admire his poetry but I also admire the man himself, he was a true soldier. There is as much elegance and nobility in Seeger as there is proud righteousness.” In the family history, the figure of the American poet is reminiscent of Michel Taittinger, an engineer who died in 1940 aged 20, “as a hero, leaving behind the image of Rimbaud’s Sleeping in the Valley,” outlines his nephew, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger.

“Champagne” comprises 68 lines written in the most simple format: in pencil, on both sides of a white sheet of paper; a poem which in its address serves as a surprise to those who live there, or who will live there in the future, once peace is restored and the earth is soaked with the blood of those who have defended it.

“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.”
Extract from « Champagne », 1915

Here Alan Seeger extols the virtue of life starting over again, of the taste of feasting, and of the joy of sharing both the land of the Champagne region and the tipple he liked to indulge in. As in his other texts, he leaves no doubts about his own destiny. His death is inevitable. Another American legionnaire, by his side during that final battle, later recounted that having been hit in the stomach by several bullets, he stripped down to his bare chest to stem the bleeding with his clothes, then curled up like a child. His remains were not subsequently identified and he was most likely buried in a mass grave. The story then takes an extraordinary turn. At the same time as he died, his mother claims that she was woken up in her sleep by her son. He appeared in front of her at the foot of her bed and apparently said, “I am dead and I am happy.”

Seeger’s work was celebrated after being published in the early 1920s – only to disappear into oblivion. “Being deeply pacifist, his family was somewhat embarrassed that Seeger had deliberately chosen to take up arms, all the more so because it was for a country that he wasn’t from,” explains Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger. This is even the case for folk singer Pete Seeger, who is incredibly famous in the United States and has never openly advocated this uncle who was both a poet and soldier at the same time. “Except, perhaps, when he writes and sings ‘I have a rendezvous with life’,” adds Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger. Today Maison Taittinger plans to name one of its historic pens after Alan Seeger. While he regrets that there was nothing to mark the centenary of the poet’s death in 2016, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger was pleased to hear President Emmanuel Macron open his speech to the United States Congress with a tribute to Seeger. Passionate about the “incredible story” of Seeger, he is currently considering how best to preserve this piece of paper, but also how best to share it with as many people as possible; such a fragile piece of paper on which the poet has written, in pencil, some of the most beautiful verses of American literature. Like a fine piece of thread connecting two countries, two continents, with a shared history.

« CHAMPAGNE 1914-15 »

In the glad revels, in the happy fêtes,
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.

Here, by devoted comrades laid away,
Along our lines they slumber where they fell,
Beside the crater at the Ferme d’Alger
And up the bloody slopes of La Pompelle,

And round the city whose cathedral towers
The enemies of Beauty dared profane,
And in the mat of multicolored flowers
That clothe the sunny chalk-fields of Champagne.

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.

Esteeming less the forfeit that he paid
Than undishonored that his flag might float
Over the towers of liberty, he made
His breast the bulwark and his blood the moat.

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.

There the grape-pickers at their harvesting
Shall lightly tread and load their wicker trays,
Blessing his memory as they toil and sing
In the slant sunshine of October days…

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.

So shall one coveting no higher plane
Than nature clothes in color and flesh and tone,
Even from the grave put upward to attain
The dreams youth cherished and missed and might have known;

And that strong need that strove unsatisfied
Toward earthly beauty in all forms it wore,
Not death itself shall utterly divide
From the belovèd shapes it thirsted for.

Alas, how many an adept for whose arms
Life held delicious offerings perished here,
How many in the prime of all that charms,
Crowned with all gifts that conquer and endear!

Honor them not so much with tears and flowers,
But you with whom the sweet fulfilment 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.

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.

Alan Seeger, 1915.

Text : Cyrille Jouanno
Manuscript photos : Benoît Pelletier