Perse, Saint-John (Alexis Leger) (31 May 1887 - 20 September 1975)
Saint-John Perse (Alexis Leger) (31 May 1887 - 20 September 1975)
Catharine Savage Brosman
Frank A. Anselmo
Louisiana State University
See also the Perse entry in DLB 258: Modern French Poets.
BOOKS: Eloges, as Saintleger Leger (Paris: Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Française, 1911); revised and enlarged edition, as St J. Perse (Paris: Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Française/Gallimard, 1925; revised and enlarged edition, Paris: Gallimard, 1948); 1925 edition translated by Louise Varèse as Eloges and Other Poems (New York: Norton, 1944; revised edition [based on 1953 French edition in Œuvre poétique: Saint-John Perse], New York: Pantheon, 1956);
Amitié du prince (Paris: Ronald Davis, 1924);
Anabase (Paris: Gallimard, 1924; revised and enlarged, 1948) ; translated by T. S. Eliot as Anabasis, bilingual edition (London: Faber & Faber, 1930; revised edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1938; revised and enlarged edition, based on 1948 French edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949; London: Faber & Faber, 1959);
Poème pour Valery Larbaud (Liège, Belgium: A la Lampe d’Aladdin, 1936);
Exil: Poème (Marseilles: Editions Cahiers du Sud, 1942; revised edition, Buenos Aires: Les Editions Lettres Françaises, 1942);
Pluies (Buenos Aires: Les Editions Lettres Françaises, 1944);
Quatre poèmes, 1941–1944 (Buenos Aires: Les Editions Lettres Françaises,1944); republished as Exil, suivi de Poème à l étrangère, Pluies, Neiges (Paris: Gallimard, 1945); revised as Exil, suivi de Poèmes à l étrangère, Pluies, Neiges (Paris: Gallimard, 1946) ; translated by Denis Devlin as Exile and Other Poems, bilingual edition (New York: Pantheon, 1949);
Vents (Paris: Gallimard, 1946); translated by Hugh Chisholm as Winds, bilingual edition (New York: Pantheon, 1953);
Œuvre poétique: Saint-John Perse (2 volumes, Paris: Gallimard, 1953, 1960; revised and enlarged, 3 volumes, 1967–1970)–comprises volume 1, Eloges, La Gloire des Rois, Anabase, Exil, Vents (1953)–includes revised edition of Eloges; volume 1 revised as Eloges, La Gloire des Rois, Anabase, Exil (1960; revised 1967); volume 2, Vents, Amers, Chronique (1960; revised, 1967) ; revised as Vents, suivi de Chronique (1968); and volume 3, Amers, suivi d’Oiseaux et l’Allocution au banquet. Nobel (1970) ;
Amers (Paris: Gallimard, 1957); translated by Wallace Fowlie as Seamarks, bilingual edition (New York: Pantheon, 1958);
Chronique (limited edition, Marseilles: Cahiers du Sud, 1959; trade edition, Paris: Gallimard, 1960); translated by Robert Fitzgerald, bilingual edition (New York: Pantheon, 1961);
Poésie: Allocution au Banquet Nobel du 10 décembre 19 60 (Paris: Gallimard, 1961) ; translated by W. H. Auden as On Poetry by St. John Perse, Speech of Acceptance upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature Delivered in Stockholm December 10, 1960 (N.p., Bollingen Foundation, 1961);
Hommage à Rabindranath Tagore (Liège, Belgium: Editions Dynamo, 1962);
L’Ordre des oiseaux, illustrated by Georges Braque (Paris: Société d’Editions d’art, 1962); republished, without illustrations, as Oiseaux (limited edition, Paris: Société d’Editions d’art, 1962; trade edition, Paris: Gallimard, 1963); translated by Fitzgerald
as Birds, bilingual edition (New York: Pantheon, 1966);
Valery Larbaud; ou, L’Honneur littéraire (Liége, Belgium: Editions Dynamo, 1962);
Silence pour Claudel (Liége, Belgium: Editions Dynamo, 1963);
Au souvenir de Valery Larbaud (Liége, Belgium: Editions Dynamo, 1963);
Pour Dante (Paris: Gallimard, 1965);
Chanté par celle qui fut là.. (Paris: Privately printed by Robert Blanchet, 1969); translated by Richard Howard as Chanté par celle qui fut là.. (“Sung by One Who Was Bhere”) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970);
Œuures complètes, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1972; enlarged edition, 1982);
Chant pour un équinoxe (Paris: Gallimard, 1975); translated by Howard as Song for an Equinox, bilingual edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).
Editions and Collections: Amitié du prince de Saint-Fohn Perse, edited by Albert Henry (Paris: Gallimard, 1979);
Anabase de Saint-John Perse, edited by Henry (Paris: Gallimard, 1983);
Nocturne..., edited by Henry (Paris: Gallimard, 1985).
Editions in English: Two Addresses, bilingual edition (New York: Pantheon, 1966)–comprises “On Poetry,” translated by W. H. Auden, and “Dante,” translated by Robert Fitzgerald;
Birds by Saint-John Perse, translated by J. Roger Little (Durham, U.K.: North Gate Press, 1967);
St. John Perse: Collected Poems, bilingual edition, translated by Auden and others (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).
When the Swedish Academy announced that the laureate of the 1960 Nobel Prize in Literature was Saint-John Perse, connoisseurs of poetry in America and several European countries were not astonished; it was, rather, certain French who expressed surprise. Perse’s work was much better known abroad than in France. Perse’s poem Anabase (1924) had been translated into many languages, including versions by eminent literary figures: an English version by T. S. Eliot (Anabasis, 1930); a German one by Walter Benjamin and Bernard Groethuysen, with a preface by Hugo von Hofmannsthal; and an Italian version by Giuseppe Ungaretti. Earlier verse had been translated into German by Rainer Maria Rilke; many other poems or selections by Perse had been published abroad. Anabase had been set to music by American composer Alan Hovhaness, and a Swedish composer, Karl-Birger Blomdahl, had created from it an oratorio. The Bollingen Foundation in the United States had underwritten publication of the poet’s verse in bilingual editions. He was appreciated by fellow writers and wealthy patrons of the arts in America, and Anglo-Saxon critics were among the first to publish significant studies of his poetry and have remained among his best commentators. Eliot called him one of the most important poets of his generation and ranked Anabase as high as James Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle (1928, a separately published section of Finnegans Wake ); American poet Conrad Aiken wrote in 1957 that Perse was “le plus grand poète du monde aujourd’hui” (the greatest poet in the world today) (both statements appear in Honneur à Saint-John Perse).
In France, however, his writings had been republished infrequently; during a period of seventeen years, no new work had appeared there. Moreover, as a high-ranking diplomat under his real name, Alexis Leger, he had spent lengthy periods abroad, residing for five years in China and seventeen, without interruption, in the United States, where he continued living much of the time thereafter. In addition, he had published under a pseudonym from 1924 on. Furthermore, his verse seemed to certain readers somewhat arcane and not particularly French, unlike that of Paul Valéry, a rival for the rank of greatest French poet of the century. Denis de Rougement (in Honneur à Saint-John Perse) found in Perse’s work “un grand lyrisme américain” (great American lyricism).
Leger was not even born in Europe; he was from Guadeloupe, an island of the French Antilles. (Critics and publishers often spell the name Leger, but the author and his family did not.) He was born Marie-René Auguste Alexis Saint-Leger Leger on 31 May 1887 on a private islet, his family’s property, just off the roadstead of La Pointe-à-Pitre, originally called Ilet àFeuilles, later Saint-Leger les Feuilles. He thus belonged to the New World, not the Old, though that did not make him quite American; it was, he wrote, common for French islanders to reply when they were asked, in Europe, where they were from: “D’Atlantique” (from Atlantic–as if it were a continent). On both sides Alexis descended from French colonials. His mother, Françoise-Renee Dormoy, came from a family of planters and naval officers established in the Antilles since the eighteenth century; his father, Amédée Saint-Leger, a lawyer, descended from a younger son of a Burgun-dian family that had settled in Guadeloupe in the late seventeenth century. Two plantations, on which sugar and coffee were cultivated, remained in the maternal family. Alexis had three elder sisters and a younger one, who died when he was a boy.
Leger’s childhood was happy, if it is correct to read his earliest poems as autobiographical. An attack of typhoid was one of the few events that marred his early boyhood. He was particularly enamored of the sea and remained so all his life. To Joseph Conrad he wrote in 1921 (in a letter reprinted in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of his Œuures complètes [1972, Complete Works]): “Du fait de ma naissance, de mon enfance et de mon très long atavisme insulaire dans une petite î1e des Caraibes, la mer est pour moi chose élémentaire, comme mêlée à mon sang même, et qui a fini, à mon insu, par me tout envahir” (Because of my birth, my childhood, and my very long insular atavism on a little Caribbean island, the sea is for me an elementary thing, as though mingled with my very blood, and has, without my knowing it, finally invaded me throughout).
This paradisal vision of life in Leger’s early poems–which is his equivalent of what Charles Baudelaire in the nineteenth century had called “le vert paradis des amours enfantines” (the green paradise of childhood loves)–is substantiated by the detailed outline of his life in the Pléiade edition of Perse’s complete works. Readers should note, however, that he himself drew up this account, essentially an autobiography though called a biography, just as he selected and edited the entire contents–a case of self immortalizing, since collected works in the Pléiade series are ordinarily prepared by others, the author being deceased. While there is no evidence the account is fallacious, it appears slightly self-indulgent, tinged with nostalgia, and, as Guy Féquant remarked, not exempt from obscurities. There are, in addition, omissions, notably concerning his close relationships with various women. The account mentions his first horse, boat, and telescope, all at age eight; the horse and boat are evoked in the early poems. Equitation and navigation–along with swimming and hiking–remained among his favorite pursuits. He speaks of his tutors–an old retired naval officer, a priest who taught him Latin, and a learned botanist, the author of respected manuals of West Indian flora, whose lessons in natural history nurtured what became a lifelong interest. These lessons were followed by studies at the lycée of La Pointe-à-Pitre starting in 1896. Leger also mentions his large rescue dog, rare animals imported from Guyana, and servants and workers of varied races and origins (Oriental, African, Caribbean) at his family’s town house and on the islet. A Hindu woman in the household gave him glimpses of Hindu rites.
There were also, however, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, reflected in the early poems. The quake of 1897 caused the ruin of many families and a general economic crisis. Leger was disturbed by its consequences; nevertheless, he wrote in a 1918 letter to his mother: ’Je n’ai jamais pu m’empêcher d’aimer, en toute époque et en tout lieu, ces jeux de grandes forces naturelles: inondations, typhons, séismes, éruptions volcaniques, grandes épidémies et soulèvements divers” (I have never been able to keep myself from liking, at all times and in all places, the play of great natural forces: floods, typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, great epidemics and various upheavals). In 1899 Amédée Saint-Leger, leaving the islands forever, took his family to France in order to procure a better education for his son and a stable economic situation. Young Leger’s travels and years spent on foreign soil fed his understanding of the human condition as exile (an outlook shared with Albert Camus) and human beings as strangers to themselves and the universe: “Que savonsnous de l’homme, notre spectre, sous sa cape de laine et son grand feutre d’étranger?” (What do we know of man, our specter, under his stranger’s woolen cloak and broad felt hat?), he asked in Chronique (1959; translated, 1961).
The family settled in Pau, not far from the Pyrenees in southwest France, where Alexis enrolled in the lycée, remaining until 1904. He hated his new milieu; according to a 1911 letter from Valery Larbaud to Léon-Paul Fargue, included in the Pléiade edition, Leger expressed disgust for France, “un pays détestable” (a detestable country). He won prizes for French composition as well as Latin and Greek and graduated with honors. In 1904 he began studying law in Bordeaux and was drawn in particular by the philosophy of law and Roman law. The only redeeming feature of Bordeaux, Leger said, was its port–but he added that docks were always beautiful. Concurrently he took courses in other subjects, including Greek and natural sciences. Throughout his life, he remained interested in geology, botany, ornithology, and other branches of science; to him, science and the humanities were not opposed but complementary.
In 1905 Leger met Paul Claudel, who gave the young poet a copy of his ode “Les Muses” (The Muses), published that year. Claudel became an admirer of Leger’s verse; their religious views were not identical, however. Leger never ascribed to any religion; his thought, while including elements of Hinduism, may best be described as pagan or pantheistic. Leger also became acquainted with a young Bordelais, Jacques Rivière–a friend of both Claudel and André Gide–who eventually became editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF). Leger’s lengthy correspondence (more than 40 percent of the original material in the 1972 Pléiade edition) includes letters (some considerably edited) to these literary figures and many more persons of note, as well as to family members; the annotated correspondence is a major source of biographical information and others’ statements on his work.
Leger’s studies were interrupted, first by his one-year military service, then by the death in 1907 of his father, which necessitated his return to Pau, as the only son, to see to practical matters his mother and sisters were incapable of managing. He resumed his studies in 1908, adding sociology and ethnology to his law curriculum.
In 1908 the poem “Des villes sur trois modes” (Cities in Three Modes), dated 1906, appeared in a magazine in Montpellier. Perse did not authorize its reproduction as part of his juvenilia, though after it appeared anyway in a 1952 volume concerning him, he allowed its reprinting within an early letter in the Pléiade collection. Another early text, “Pour fêter des oiseaux” (To Celebrate Birds), dated 1907, originally called “Cohorte”(Cohort), was sent by Rivière to Gide for the NRF, but when Leger learned it was in press he demanded its removal; it too appears in the early correspondence. The only other authorized juvenilia are Images à Crusoé (Pictures for Crusoe), composed in 1904 and published in the NRF in 1909.
According to a statement in the Pléiade biography, Leger underwent a philosophic crisis in 1909 and destroyed various manuscripts. The philosophy of Henri Bergson was popular at the time, and Leger’s allusions to him in connection with his early studies suggest acquaintance with Bergson’s thought. Among philosophers whose works interested him more, however, according to his correspondence, were Baruch Spinoza, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Greatly attracted by Nietzsche, Leger criticized him (in a 1909 letter to Gabriel Frizeau) only for not having gone far enough into the implications of his own thought (“de ne pas aller lui-même assez loin dans Nietzsche”).
Images á Crusoé, which appeared under the semi-pseudonym Saintleger Leger, displays an astonishing maturity of talent for an author only seventeen years old. The poetic form is one to which, with rare exceptions, the poet remained faithful–something between free verse and poem in prose, sometimes printed in italics, elsewhere in roman type. Free verse had been introduced in France in the late nineteenth century by the minor symbolists; Gustave Kahn is often given credit for inaugurating it, though others also practiced it. The French prose poem dates from Louis (called Aloysius) Bertrand, author of Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), but it was used more famously in the nineteenth century by Baudelaire, especially in Petits poèmes en prose (1869; translated as Poems in Prose from Charles Baudelaire, 1905), later titled Le spleen de Paris, and Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud, in Les Illuminations (1886; translated, 1953). Perse mentioned all three authors in his preface (reprinted in the Pléiade volume) for a new edition of Fargue’s poetry (1963).
Images à Crusoé consists of nine titled sections, or poems, of uneven length. While each can stand on its own, they constitute a coherent whole. Each is composed of units (what in traditional verse would be termed lines or possibly stanzas) consisting of a grammatical fragment, sentence, or group of sentences that begins with an indentation (as for a paragraph) and continues through one or more printed lines. If units run past the first line, they return to the left-hand margin, as in prose. The result is a type of free verse, yet with extensive prose-like building blocks, though the diction, marked by strong rhythms, is never that of ordinary prose. Owing to different typefaces and sizes of paper, run-over patterns are different in different editions; Perse, who usually supervised the preparation of his volumes, apparently did not view the appearance of the unit on the page as crucial. When the works are recited or sung, the length of run-on lines is of course immaterial.
There are similarities between this form and Rimbaud’s in Les Illuminations, which Perse called in the 1963 article “impérieuses” (urgent). Additional Rimbaldian touches mark Images à Crusoé, including its title (illuminations as used by Rimbaud means “painted plates”). The musicality of Images à Crusoé is suggested by the fact that composer Louis Durey, a member of the Group of Six, set the work to music in 1918. Although Leger once expressed to Rivière his opposition to the fusion of poetry and music, elsewhere he spoke of the musical effect created by certain of his pages. In addition, Leger’s form resembles Claudel’s in his poetic dramas and lyrical verse, influenced by Scripture. The resemblances justify applying to Leger’s lines the term verset (meaning Bible verse), which Claudel used for his own; alternatively, the term stances, a little-used word formerly meaning stanzas, now indicating any ample lyric form, may be applied. Because there is no indication, however, that the young Leger had encountered any of Claudel’s works by 1904, no influence can be ascertained.
Consisting chiefly in evocation (partly in the present tense) rather than narration, Images à Crusoé depicts the hero of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, “vieil homme aux mains nues” (old man with empty hands), back in London but out of place in the dark and unsalubrious city, where he feels exiled much more than on his island: “La ville par à le fleuve coule la mer comme un abcès” (The city flows through the river to the sea like an abscess). The tone is nostalgic. Images of light contrast with the grim city views: “Tun’avais pu ressusciter l’éblouissement perdu” (You were unable to resuscitate the dazzling vision, lost). Crusoe’s only hope is metaphysical: opening the Bible, he waits for the great wind that will “desceller” (unseal) him. The poet proceeds by brief allusions and a few clear symbols. One section, “La Graine” (The Seed), consists of only two short sentences. The impersonal expression of homesickness set a model for Perse’s later work, which is not confessional. In a letter dated 1948 to Adrienne Monnier, he wrote: “La personnalité même du poète n’appartient en rien au lecteur qui n’a droit qu’à l’oeuvre révolue, détachée comme un fruit de son arbre” (The very personality of the poet belongs in no way to the reader, who has a right only to the finished work, detached like fruit from its tree).
Images à Crusoé, which may be termed a crossroads of nature and culture, is marked by what became a fixed trait of Perse’s writing, the copresence of primitivism and advanced civilization. Preference is given not to the culture of industrial England but to simpler things, natural or artisan-made: honey in a tree, a green fruit, palm leaves, a parrot, a bow. When, in Perse’s work, modern manufactured objects, such as boats, telescopes, and airplanes, appear valuable, it is not for their economic function but because they allow human beings to subject nature in new ways and to create further relationships with it.
Eloges (1911; translated as Eloges and Other Poems, 1944), brought out through Gide’s sponsorship by the new NRF publishing enterprise and signed Saintleger Leger, was praised by Larbaud in the first review of Leger’s work–published in La Phalange (December 1911) and reprinted in Honneur à Saint-John Perse. Calling Leger “un vrai poète” (a true poet), Larbaud added: “Le monde de M. Leger est tout neuf et c’est son monde, à lui tout seul” (Monsieur Leger’s world is quite new and it is his world, his alone). One section was later set to music by Darius Milhaud. The work comprises an opening poem, “Ecrit sur la porte” (Written on the Door), and three series: “Images à Crusoé,” “Pour fêter une enfance” (To Celebrate a Childhood), and “Eloges” (Praises); all three series had appeared in the NRF. Perse was fond of his own title, which announces the laudatory mode, frequent in his work, marked by praise of experience, nature, love, life, with repetitions like those of religious litanies. “Ô j’ai lieu de louer! Ô fable généreuse, ô table d’abondance!” (Oh I have cause for praise! Oh generous fable, oh table of abundance).
The form of Eloges is that of Images à Crusoé. Within each series, subsections are designated by titles or roman numerals, or, in the opening poem, separated by three asterisks. Some parts have few long units and display symmetry or structural parallelism, as in these opening lines of “Ecrit sur la porte”:
J’ai une peau couleur de tabac rouge ou de mulet,
j’ai un chapeau en moelle de sureau couvert de toile blanche.
(My skin is the color of red tobacco or of a mule; I have a hat made of elder-tree pith covered with white cloth.)
Such parallelism, a recurring feature, depends on grammar (both syntax and morphology) and lexical choices, repeated at regular or irregular intervals. While there are vague elements of plot, iteration works against progression; Eloges, while dynamic generally, is nonprogressive. One of the poet’s achievements here and elsewhere is to make the familiar appear strange and the strange familiar, thereby sharpening vision and focusing attention anew on the ordinary. Despite an abundance of simple declarations, the language is highly figurative, marked by unusual analogies, with comme or ainsi que (like), and many metaphors, including examples of synesthesia–a blend of two sensations, as in “un bruit lumineux” (a luminous sound) from section 6 of “Pour fêter une enfance.” Additional features of Eloges that became constants in Perse’s work and contribute to its coherence are frequent alliteration, assonance, consonance, and other sound echoes; blending of concrete with abstract; inversions (an initial predicate adjective, for instance); and an extremely ornate vocabulary, featuring foreign and archaic words. Leger was fond of botanical names, curious place-names, technical terms from arts, sciences, and trades, and other unusual nomenclature. Notable also are the abundant exclamation marks and uses of ah!
Although Leger’s heteroclitic combinations and transforming metaphors later attracted the attention of two young surrealists, René Crevel and Charles Vitrac, and although the surrealists’ leader, André Breton, praised his example, his poetry in Eloges is not visionary in the sense of “fantastic,” “unreal,” or “hallucinatory”; but its visual force creates, by selection, treatment, and lighting of material, a personal vision of the world, as Larbaud had seen in connection with Images à Crusoé. In his way, Leger carried out what Rimbaud had recommended: for the poet to become voyant (seer).
The poems present glimpses of colonial society, seen favorably, as suggested by the English epigraph “King Light’s Settlements,” or what Larbaud called, in reporting a meeting with Leger, the “Colonies du Roi-Lumière.” (Léger in French means light[weight]; through English, it introduces the sense of [Sun]light) While there is no critical dimension, no sense of class conflict or colonial guilt, the work displays no arrogance either; house employees are spoken of with respect and affection. Eloges illustrates thus a permanent feature of the poet’s work–moral and aesthetic elevation. The quasiaristocracy with which he was familiar in colonial Guadeloupe became in his writing an aristocracy of the spirit, marked by superior pursuits and visions: “le parle d’une haute condition, jadis, entre des hommes et leurs filles” (I speak of a lofty condition, formerly, among men and their daughters). Gide’s later remark (in Honneur à Saint-John Perse) is pertinent: “Il y a dans l’oeuvre de Leger... je ne sais quoi de princier qui m’intimide” (There is something undefinably princely in Leger’s work... that intimidates me).
In Eloges, the exotic seems normal rather than artificial. Archaic touches add distance in time to distance in space. There is a slight dream-like quality also: “J’ai fait ce songe, it nous a consumés sans reliques” (I had this dream; it has consumed us without relics). Though the tone is nostalgic, Eloges celebrates the real. One means of celebration is metaphorical linking of things, which establishes, or divines, their hidden connections. Another is by assigning names, as a token of knowledge or of possession. Leger did not, however, understand the poet as a participant with God in creation; there is no place for the Divinity in his poetic world. In his review of Vents (1946; translated as Winds, 1953), reprinted in the Pléiade edition and in Honneur à Saint-John Perse, Claudel observed: “Dieu est un mot que Saint-John Perse évite, dirais-je religieusement?” (God is a word that Saint-John Perse avoids, should I say religiously?). For Perse the poet is the one who finds, or creates, meaning in the world. Poetry, he said, was a way to live better.
The features of these early poems present resemblances with historic Romanticism and its heir, Symbolism. Leger’s use of repetition, enumeration, and names recalls Victor Hugo; his love of nature and nostalgia for the past remind readers of all the French Romantics; his synesthetic images recall both Baudelaire and Rimbaud; and his emphasis on vision can be traced throughout the nineteenth century, from Hugo through Baudelaire to Rimbaud. While younger than Claudel, Gide, Proust, and Valéry, Leger thus belongs in their company as a twentieth-century descendant of the Romantics and the Symbolists alike, although he generally discarded the overblown rhetoric of the Romantic poets, and the latter’s separation of poetry and life was foreign to him.
Moreover, the contrary impulse, that of classicism, similarly marks his work, as Larbaud noted in his review: “C’est l’alexandrin de Malherbe et de Racine, restauré par Baudelaire” (It is the alexandrine of Malherbe and Racine, restored by Baudelaire). Actual alexandrines (twelve syllables separated by a caesura after the sixth) as well as octosyllabic lines can be found in Leger’s verses, and many lines testify to his concern for balance and symmetry, a taste he shares with other modern writers of classical tendencies, such as Gide and Valéry.
In addition, as early as Eloges Leger showed himself to be a modernist. His work is characterized by ruptures, leaps, and discontinuities more than by constant flow. Ellipsis points, dashes, abrupt line-breaks, surprising run-on lines, blank spaces between versets, asterisks setting off subsections, many quotation marks without identification of speaker–all these features, producing fragmentation, create the sort of structural discontinuity that characterizes certain modernist masterpieces. Leger’s ambiguity, allusiveness, and hermeticism are other modernist features, although his obscurity has antecedents in the nineteenth century (writings of Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé in particular). Similarly, his interest in what is new, open, and dynamic is a modernist trait. He illustrates the flexibility of twentieth-century French literature, which, in its drive for innovation, allowed syntheses of traditional styles with newer modes.
After finishing his law studies, Leger went to Paris in 1911 to investigate career choices, including the foreign service, which appealed to him. He briefly considered immigrating to Brazil or Borneo but was discouraged by Claudel, who, in a letter from Frankfurt, described the life of a modern colonial as dreadful. Upon the advice of Philippe Berthelot, a diplomat, and Claudel’s friend Arthur Fontaine, Leger decided upon the foreign service, which required further study before examinations. As part of his preparations, he visited England twice, studying economic and labor topics but also meeting literary figures such as Arnold Bennett, G. K. Chesterton, and Conrad. He also spent time in Spain (he spoke Spanish) and Germany; in both countries he took notes on ports and other commercial and industrial facilities. In Paris he enlarged his circle of French literary acquaintances, which included Valéry.
After passing his examinations in 1914, Leger was assigned to the press service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Quai d’Orsay. When World War I broke out in August that year, he was sent to Bordeaux, but after some months he was recalled to Paris, where he was able to lead an active social life.
In 1916 Leger was sent as third secretary to the French legation to China. His mission was connected to a Sino-French crisis then at its height, which he helped resolve. He was also responsible for protecting the diplomatic quarter of Peking against an outbreak of plague in 1918. Intended as temporary, his stay in China was in fact prolonged for five years, and he was promoted to first secretary. In 1921 he was invited by the president of the Chinese republic to remain as his political adviser; but new political conditions created by the Versailles Peace Conference made acceptance of the offer unrealistic.
Leger stated later that he had not been tempted by the luxuries of the Orient. For a modest price, he rented a small disaffected Taoist temple at a day’s distance on horseback from the city; there, in solitude, looking west toward legendary caravan routes, he composed Anabase. He witnessed an ephemeral restoration of the Manchu dynasty by a military coup d’état, followed by a march on Peking by a war lord and the city’s liberation by republican armies. He also traveled in Korea and Indochina.
Returning home in spring 1921, he first visited Japan, then Hawaii, from which he took a tramp steamer to Polynesia, stopping at Samoa and Fiji, where he then embarked on a schooner to cruise among the islands. Subsequently, having reached San Francisco, he left for Chicago and Washington. After his stay in America, he went on to Paris; then, in November, he was sent to Washington, D.C., to participate in an international conference on arms limitation and Far Eastern questions. The close cooperation between Leger and Aristide Briand, both prime minister and foreign minister, began then. Briand, favorably impressed by his fellow diplomat, begged him to accept a post in the government–which would require Leger to be in Paris, whereas he wanted to travel. The poet declined the offer, until at the last minute, when he was at the dock to see Briand off to France, he changed his mind. Briand immediately insisted that Leger take passage on that ship and would not let him disembark, although he had no luggage–not even a toothbrush or pajamas. While Leger gained the confidence of other major governmental figures, his friendship and collaboration with Briand were the closest.
In Paris again, starting in 1922, Leger discovered to his surprise that his poetic reputation, based solely on Eloges, had grown immensely. He renewed ties with writers such as Gide and Rivière and made new literary acquaintances. The poet had several unpublished manuscripts in his portfolio. In 1922 he allowed the opening “Chanson” (Song) of Anabase to appear unsigned in the NRF and the final “Chanson” in Intentions; he also participated anonymously in founding and directing a magazine, Commerce.
In 1924 Leger authorized the publication of Anabase in its entirety in the NRF and then as a book. His new pen name, under which it appeared, was first written St-J. Perse, later spelled out. Because of his prominent position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he did not wish for his work to appear under his real name. In 1948, however, Leger admitted to poet Max-Pol Fouchet (in a letter reprinted in the Pléiade edition) that he had always “pratiqué... le dédoublement de la personnalité” (practiced... the doubling of personality). Critics who assume the choice of name was not entirely arbitrary, including Jean-Pierre Richard, have speculated on its origins. Leger denied that it was connected to Persia or the Latin poet Aulus Persius Flaccus; he claimed that it had come to mind, for unknown reasons, and that he accepted it for its resonance and complete disconnection with his true identity, in order to erect a definitive barrier between diplomat and poet. He wished, it is said, for the “Saint-John” to be pronounced as in English (though whether he meant the American pronunciation “Saint-John” or the British “Sinjin” at that time is unclear). Translations of Anabase appeared shortly; in addition to those by Eliot, Benjamin, and Ungaretti, there were versions in Russian, Spanish, and Rumanian. In a 1927 letter to Perse, quoted in the Pléiade edition, Eliot praised the poem as “one of the greatest and most unusual of modern times.” In turn, Perse published in Commerce his partial translation of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (1925).
The title word, Anabase, was used by Xenophon in his Anabasis. Coming from the Greek anabainmein (to go up), it means an ascension, in particular an expedition from the sea toward the interior of a country; yet, because Xenophon’s account is famous for “The March of the Ten Thousand”—the adventurous retreat of Greek mercenaries from the Euphrates to the Black Sea (401–399 b.c.)—the term is likewise used for a descent to the sea. Leger had employed it (in texts quoted in the Pléiade edition) before 1924. To Rivière in 1910 he had spoken metaphorically (alluding to poets and critics) of “un compagnonnage; une ‘anabase,’ si vous voulez, ou retour â la Mer” (a companionship, an “anabasis” if you wish, or return to the Sea); to Claudel he had written in 1911:
J’aimerais qu’il me fût donné un jour de mener une “oeuvre” comme une Anabase sous la conduite de ses chefs. (Et ce mot même me semble si beau que j’aimerais bien rencontrer l’oeuvre qui pût assumer un tel titre. Il me hante.)
(I should like for it to be given to me someday to carry out a “work” like an Anabasis under the leadership of its chiefs. [And that word itself seems to me so fine that I should like to meet the work that might assume such a title. It haunts me.])
Anabase, on which Perse’s international reputation was initially based, consists of ten numbered sections enclosed by the chansons. Some sections are subdivided by asterisks. The basic unit is the verset, sometimes only a line, but often several lines long, giving the effect of prose poetry. While a first-person voice is heard, the poem is not explicitly personal; it looks outward, not inward. Its lexical and metaphoric richness-including many synthetic metaphors (without explicit comparison)-is striking, its difficulties no less so. While commentators have clarified the poem by explaining rare words and identifying obscure references, readers without such explanations can still savor its beauty of language, including Latinate words enriched by centuries of poetic connotations. In addition to difficulty, there is simplicity: “Et la terre en ses graines ailées, comme un poète en ses propos, voyage” (And the earth in its winged seeds, like a poet in his words, travels).
Despite the dominant narrative mode (except for the two chansons), there is no unambiguous plotline; but the poem is generally taken to be a highly poeticized and discontinuous account of an expedition, directed toward the west, not clearly situated either chronologically or geographically, but premodern: “Nous établîmes en haut lieu nos pièges au bonheur” (We established in a high place our traps for happiness). Many sections read like a synopsis of events in various parts of the globe over millennia. The use of synecdoche-parts standing for wholes-supports the idea of representative episodes. There are loose parallels with epic. Greek civilization is recalled obliquely by the title and the adjective séleucides (section 8), referring to the Seleucidae, a dynasty (312–64 b.c.) founded by a general of Alexander the Great, which at its height reigned over Persia, Babylonia, Syria, and part of Asia Minor. The name Jabal, from the Book of Genesis, suggests a much older time, as does the mention of bronze, a repeated motif, along with iron. The chief topographical references are to the desert and the sea, both of which are characterized by salt, one of Perse’s key images. Other motifs include fruit, horses, ships, the wind, birds, berries, stars, and especially the sun.
Perse called his work the “poème de la solitude dans l’action” (poem of solitude in action). There appears to be a leader, whose will is the driving force of the adventure: “Qui n’a, louant la soif, bu l’eau des sables dans un casque, / Je lui fais peu crédit au comerce de l’âme” (To him who has not, praising thirst, drunk the water of the sands in a helmet, / I give little credit in the transactions of the soul). Perse emphasizes fervor and desire; but desire must lead to action, lest it become pestilential. The leader enrolls those whom he calls “chercheurs.. trouveurs de raisons pour s’en aller ailleurs” (seekers.. finders of reasons to go elsewhere). Loneliness, displacement, conquest, illness, death, desire, and sexuality are among the themes woven in. In section 4 a city is founded; the language becomes richer and denser, with mentions of bronze and stone, architectural constructions, hydraulic installations, ships, trade goods, and various pursuits such as banking. There are intimations of further development and conquest of other peoples. Lengthy versets containing homologues and other passages with enumerations and details point to the expansion of civilization. Arthur J. Knodel speaks in this connection of Perse’s “telescoping into one riotous tangle all the possible happenings of a great military expedition.”
It appears, however, that the new city, whether or not it represents the ideal community of the premodern
world, cannot be the leader’s final destination. There seems to be more than one departure, more than one settlement. In a Modern Language Review article, Roger Little pointed out the importance of the threshold in the poem: each step seems to be a point of departure toward another in the search for either the future (to which there are references) or some sort of primordial, collective dream which is the past: “Terre arable du songe! Qui parle de bâtir? –J’ai vula terre distribuée en de vastes espaces et ma pensée n’est pas distraite du navigateur” (Arable land of dream! Who speaks of building? –I have seen the earth distributed in vast spaces and my thought is not heedless of the navigator). Alain Bosquet speaks of the “déserts de l’âme et des sens: ces énormes espaces où l’être tout entier peut s’abstraire, oublier son siècle, retrouver d’autres siécles, en inventer plusieurs” (deserts of the soul and the senses: these enormous spaces where a being can abstract itself wholly, forget its century, find other centuries, invent several)(from Honneur à Saint-John Perse). Verb tenses convey both time and timelessness, varying from the historic past (or passé simple) to the future; multiple voices create a polyphonic composition.
Anabase carries out poetically the élan vital (vital impulse or thrust) that Bergson made central to his philosophy. Leger even mentioned Bergson’s term in a letter to his mother that speaks of cours par le monde” (the vital thrust of the great movement in process through the world). It is not a matter of influence but of commonality of view expressed by two thinkers in different modes. The poem is dynamic, virile, full of energy, movement, and bold aspirations, and the language fits its various motifs of vitality–conquest, desire, travel. While it is not feminine in tone, its drives and activities being those associated with men, its logic is not analytical but is directed by poetic imagination, which finds a parallel in Bergsonian intuition, a creative mode of knowledge.
Perse’s next publication, Amitié du prince (Friendship of the Prince), written around 1911, appeared in Commerce (1924), then in a separate edition, followed by republication in a 1925 edition of Eloges. It is composed of four sections in long versets, each section being followed by a refrain: “C’est du Roi que je parle, ornement de nos veilles, honneur du sage sans honneur” (I speak of the King, ornament of our vigils, honor of the wise man without honor). The series is built around the theme of royalty; but the prince or king, apparently the ideal leader, is identified with his thought, not his body. As in Anabase, there is a vague narrative line. The speaker seems to be a traveler (he is addressed as Voyageur) who is summoned by the “Prince taciturne” (quiet prince). The prince is famous: “Ton nom fait l’ombre d’un grand arbre” (Your name creates the shadow of a great tree). The voyager arrives in his land with a train of men and animals. The reception is courteous, and the senses are satisfied: “Et d’heure plus vaste que cette heure, nous n’en connûmes point” (And we knew no hour more immense than that hour); “Et le pays est gouverné.... La lampe brille sous Son toit” (And the country is governed.... The lamp shines under His roof).
In 1925, as foreign minister, Briand named Berthelot general secretary of the ministry and appointed Leger as director of his cabinet. From that date until World War II, Leger declined to play any literary role, published nothing new (until 1942), and forbade the republication of any earlier text (until 1947). He held democratic views, illustrated in positions for which he argued at the ministry, but his poems are never explicitly political.
The most important achievement of Leger in the 1920s was the preparation of what became the Locarno treaties (1925) and Kellogg-Briand agreements (Pact of Paris, 1928). The former guaranteed German borders with France and Belgium and pledged demilitarization of the Rhineland; the latter, designed and drawn up by Leger, ultimately signed by sixty-two nations, disavowed war as an instrument of settling international disputes. He worked also on matters connected to the Far East and participated in major conferences in Geneva, London, and elsewhere. He drafted a memorandum, presented in 1930 to the League of Nations, for the organization of a federated Europe–a novel idea at the time. He was promoted repeatedly until, in 1933, he received the rank of ambassador and, following Briand’s death in 1932, was named general secretary of the foreign ministry in the cabinet of Edouard Daladier. That position was viewed by some as the most important in France, not excluding ministers. “Le vrai ministre s’appelle Leger” (The real minister is named Leger), noted Paul Allard.
He did not make a display of his private life, but his Pléiade biography mentions his seafaring vacations from 1925 through 1932; he sailed alone or with a small crew to the Aran Islands or along the route to Newfoundland. Among his acquaintances in the 1930s was Comtesse Marthe de Fels, who, according to biographer Erika Ostrovsky, “shared his existence.” By 1932 he was in love with Rosalia Sánchez Abreu, known as Lilita, admired for her beauty and intelligence and pursued ardently also by Jean Giraudoux. Born in Paris in 1886 of Cuban parents, she had been taken to Havana by her mother but had returned to Paris in 1908 and married Adal Henraux in 1921. The passionate relationship between her and Leger lasted for years. Their letters have been published.
In the 1930s Leger traveled to several European nations and met Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. He negotiated a Franco-Soviet agreement in 1935. The rise of fascism and the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 made moot the treaties of Locarno and Paris. He opposed firmly all appeasement of Italian and German aggrandizement and argued vainly for punitive measures against Germany. As a high-ranking ministerial figure, however, he was, according to protocol, obliged to yield to official policies, once announced, whether he approved of them personally or not; when he offered to resign in disagreement with Minister Pierre Laval in 1935, his resignation was not accepted. He thus found himself, in 1938, the chief representative of France at the Munich conference, when the main European powers acceded to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia, in hope of forestalling war; Perse disagreed with the position.
When, after war had been declared in September 1939, German troops invaded Belgium and France (May 1940), Leger, suspect as bellicose to the appeasement faction and a useful scapegoat for a government anxious to show it was acting, was dismissed as general foreign secretary. He was not even properly informed of his removal. Offered (as a consolation gift and in order to remove him from Paris) the post of ambassador to the United States, he refused it. Instead, he left on 16 June by ship for England, where he met with Winston Churchill and other important British figures, then departed for Canada and the United States. This trip was the beginning of a seventeen-year exile.
Thus began Leger’s long American period. He first went to New York, where he learned that the collaborationist Vichy government, established under the headship of Philippe Pétain after the German invasion and French surrender, had confiscated his property and deprived him of French citizenship. He was vilified in the collaborationist press, and his Paris apartment was plundered; all his manuscripts were taken by the Nazis to Germany. Later, Russians removed them; they have never been recovered.
After six months in New York, Leger accepted an offer to go to Washington, D.C., as a consultant, under the name Saint-John Perse, at the Library of Congress. This appointment was arranged by poet Archibald MacLeish, an admirer of Anabase and at the time the Librarian of Congress. Leger, mindful of his rank of French ambassador–which in his eyes he retained, since to him the Vichy government’s actions were illegitimate–accepted the post only with the assurance that his salary came from a private donor, not the American government. His functions included compiling bibliographies, and he held this post until 1946, when he received a contract with the Bollingen Foundation that provided for an annual stipend. In 1941 Rosalia Henraux arrived in Washington in straitened circumstances, and he assisted her. According to Ostrovsky, during the war he proposed to another woman, Carley Dawson, who declined to marry him.
Like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, likewise in America during part of the war, Leger did not rally to the party of General Charles de Gaulle. He explained that his reservations bore not on de Gaulle himself nor on his organization in London and its moral authority, but on its claim to be the official government of France; in Leger’s view, the claim was unfounded, since de Gaulle had not been elected to any position. In fact, Leger never warmed to de Gaulle, finding him unduly ambitious. He did, however, express his solidarity with the idea of resistance against German hegemony, meet various Free French representatives in America, and urge President Franklin D. Roosevelt to intervene in the war. After the liberation of Paris in 1944, his nationality and honors were restored, and he was reintegrated into the French diplomatic service with the rank of ambassador (unassigned).
Perse’s first great American work was “Exil” (translated in the volume Exile, 1949). It appeared in the American magazine Poetry in 1942, then in France (two editions, one clandestine), Switzerland, and Brazil. Perse wrote to MacLeish: “Ce poème, malgré mon horreur de toute poésie directe ou “personnelle, est malgré moi, dans sa transposition, tout imprégné de Georgetown oú je vis non loin de vous” (This poem, despite my dislike of any direct or “personal” poetry, is, in spite of myself, quite filled with Georgetown, where I live not far from you). Among those who praised the work were Aiken and Gide. To this poem were subsequently added others to constitute a four-poem volume, likewise called Exil.
The publication history of the four works individually and the volume attests to Perse’s American and international connections in wartime. The volume appeared in Buenos Aires in 1944. “Exil” had already appeared in the United States and three other countries. “Pluies,” written near Savannah, Georgia (1943), was, after the Buenos Aires appearance, published in translation as “Rains” by Allen Tate, editor of the Sewanee Review, in 1944; “Neiges,” written in New York (1944), was, following the Buenos Aires publication, republished in French in the Sewanee Review (1945) with a translation under the title “Snows”; and “Poème à l’étrangère” (dated Washington 1942) was published in magazines in New York (1943), Algiers (1944), and Montreal (1945), then reprinted with a translation (”Poem for a Foreign Lady”) in Vie Briard Quarterly in New York (1946).
The poem “Exil” consists of seven parts composing what the author called “un poème de l’éternité de l’exil dans la condition humaine” (a poem on the timelessness of exile in the human condition). The human destiny is dynamic, not static. “... Toujours il y eut cette clameur, toujours il y eut cette splendeur, / Cette chose errante par le monde... / Une seule et longue phrase sans césure à jamais inintelligible...”(Always there was this clamor, always there was this splendor, / This errant thing through the world... / A single long line without a caesura, forever unintelligible). Motifs favored by Perse elsewhere reappear: desert and sand, sea, threshold, breath, the Prince, and many others. The figure of the Stranger who sings that everything is new can be assimilated to the poet, who appears explicitly at the end, his presence having been prepared by mention of grammatical and literary terms–syntax, poem, caesura, iamb, book. In section 6, the long paragraphs of accumulation built on “Celui qui..”(He who..) recall those in Anabase. None of these features presents the novelty of Anabase, however, and the figures of the stranger and wanderer are less forcefully designed. Repetition, a constant in Perse’s work, is carried almost to the point of parody, and certain features of the diction have the effect of poetic tics. Words appear chosen for their sound echoes, interesting but arbitrarily inserted. For instance, aigles, angles, and aigres (eagles, ensigns, or insignia; angles; sour) appear in just two short lines, without other connection.
“Pluies,” a nine-part series, celebrates rain, in its connection with sky (including lightning), sea, and earth. The plural of the title suggests abundance of precipitation after a dry period, and, like certain other titles, reinforces the impression of multiplicity, even ubiquity, given by several celebratory poems Perse wrote. There are many references to human figures, functions, and tools, for rain takes its meaning through human attributions. In the first verset it appears as a tree of multiplicity and abundance: “Le banyan de la pluie prend ses assises sur la Ville” (The banyan tree of rain takes hold of [or: establishes its seat in] the City). Apostrophes to the rains ask that they wash the hearts of men and their most beautiful accomplishments by language (poems, dreams, knowledge). In the penultimate section the rain “perd ses assises” (loses its hold) and marches on, somewhat like the peoples and conquerors of other poems. The concluding lines are ambiguous: perhaps a triumph, at least for poetry, since the voice refers to the “seuil aride du poème” (dry threshold of the poem).
“Neiges,” dedicated to the author’s mother, whom he did not see again after 1940, consists of four numbered sections, each composed of a few short paragraphs. As if continuing “Pluies,” the poem begins “Et puis vinrent les neiges” (And then the snows came). The snow is evoked as “ce haut fait de plume” (this high feat of feathers), “le premier affleurement de cette heure soyeuse” (the first touch of that silken hour), “un frôlement de cils” (a brushing of eyelashes), “de grandes nacres sans défaut” (great flawless mother-of-pearl). Yet, realistic urban notes are heard, the clearest being that of shovels and snowplows. The theme of exile is introduced when the poem speaks of “ceux qui campent chaque jour plus loin du lieu de leur naissance” (those who camp each day farther from their birthplace); and an errant figure reappears, perhaps a poet, since he wanders through “les plus vieilles couches du langage” (the oldest layers of language).
The final poem of Exil, “Poème à l’étrangère,” a short work of three sections, evokes the unhappiness of an anonymous female figure who cannot reconcile herself to exile in America. Unlike the women of Anabase, she is somewhat individualized, despite anonymity. Publication of the correspondence between Leger and Rosalia Henraux in 1987 allowed scholars to identify her as the woman. The poem illustrates a permanent feature of Perse’s imagination, the poetic metamorphosis of objects and scenes and, often, the union of disparate elements. In this instance, the city of Washington (features of which are recognizable) is transformed into a marine vision in which land and sea are one.
Vents, a long, exhortative poem in four parts, was composed at Seven Hundred Acre Island, a private island near Dark Harbor, Maine. Subdivided into numbered sections, the poem emphasizes the power of wind, more dynamic than rain and snow: “C’étaient de très grandes forces en croissance sur toutes pistes de ce monde” (It was very great forces, increasing over all the paths of this world). Winds are shown to play a cultural role, since, as Anabase illustrated earlier, human achievement is closely bound to natural forces and elements, both facilitators and threats. In Vents, with its theme of renewal and figure of the Innovator, whose human breath resembles the world’s moving air, the forces of wind act to cleanse, dispersing not only natural phenomena such as locusts but the debris of human activity and whole civilizations, restoring “la face brève de la terre” (the brief face of earth): “Voici qu’elles nous rafraîchissaient d’un songe de promesses” (Here they refresh us by a dream of promises). Among objects to be carried off by wind are altars and “les livres tristes” (sad books)–which must be taken as religious texts. Although modern inventions–trains, airplanes, telegraph, and radio–appear, and there are vague suggestions of Washington, D.C., cities are not favorably viewed; the poet speaks of “un golgotha d’ordure et de ferraille” (a Golgotha of filth and scrap metal).
A vague narrative line intimates movement toward the Occident and new lands, evoked by mention of canyons, mesas, and gorges, features of the American southwest, then by allusions to the Pacific, the Sea of Balboa. What is sought is not utilitarian but spiritual: “Car notre quête n’est plus de cuivres ni d’or vierge, mais... nous cherchons, dans l’amande et l’ovule et le noyau d’espèces nouvelles, au foyer de la force l’étincelle même de son cri” (For our quest is no longer for copper or virgin gold, but.. we seek, in the almond and the egg and the kernel of new species, in the hearth of strength the very spark of its cry). The poem alludes clearly to its own ambiguity: “O Poète... homme parlant dans l’équivoque” (O Poet.. man speaking equivocally). Yet, in a departure from Perse’s usual obliquity of reference, this quest is explicitly connected to human values, threatened by twentieth-century events: “Mais c’est de l’homme qu’il s’agit!... Témoignage pour l’homme!” (But it’s a question of man!... Testimony for man!) In his praise of Vents, Claudel pointed out in particular its connection with the Atlantic, America, and especially the setting sun, which he called “la patrie de tous les hommes de désir” (the homeland of all men of desire).
In 1948 Perse published La Gloire des rois (The Glory of Kings), a five-part series. One part (the last), “Berceuse” (Lullaby), is, exceptionally, in regular five-line stanzas of octosyllabic lines, unrhymed. The others are composed in the usual versets, mostly short. The first part, “Récitation à l’éloge d’une reine” (Recitation in Praise of a Queen), was written around 1911. It consists of five short sections of seven versets, each in a man’s voice, apparently (quotation marks are used), each followed by the same refrain. Motifs and currents from earlier poems reappear: royalty, wealth, discrimination of taste–that is, civilization–but also sensuality (an erotic note is heard). Woman, as Ostrovsky has written, appears “as an object of violent physical desire” and at the same time “a hieratic figure of enormous proportions resembling the fertility goddesses of the most ancient kind.” Unlike Amitié du prince and Anabase, the poem has distinctly feminine imagery, with descriptions and intimations of the female body, its connection to the moon, its blood motif.
The final sections of La Gloire des rois, “Histoire du régent” (The Regent’s Story), “Chanson du présomptif”(Song of the Heir Presumptive), and “Berceuse,” pursue the theme of government and royalty. A voice, apparently that of the Heir Presumptive, speaks of someone, perhaps himself, who “marche dans les songes et s’achemine vers la mer” (walks in dreams and heads toward the sea), while “tous les chemins du monde nous mangent dans la main” (all the paths of the world eat from our hand). In the lullaby, there is lamentation rather than rejoicing, for only daughters have been born, until, finally, “l’ordre reprend” (order is restored) as a son is expected. The sensuality of the queen praised in the first series and the theme of inheritance are here explicitly connected to social stability.
In 1957 Leger returned to France for the first time in seventeen years, bypassing Paris and going directly to an estate named “Les Vigneaux,” on the peninsula of Giens (almost an island), near Hyères, on the Riviera. A house there had been purchased for him by some American friends, including Mina Curtiss, a wealthy and generous supporter of arts and artists, especially those connected to France. For a while he resided there for half of each year; in his last years he no longer returned to America.
Amers (translated as Seamarks, 1958), of which portions were published previously in magazine form in Paris (1950), appeared in 1957. It is a lengthy work, both lyrical and epic in tone, organized around the theme of the sea. The whole poem has been translated into many languages, portions thereof into other languages. The title word, derived from Scandinavian, refers to elevated coastal objects serving as beacons to mariners. It includes the syllable mer (sea) (feminine in French) and its homophone mère (mother); it is also both homophone and homonym of the masculine plural adjective meaning bitter, a possible secondary connotation. Countless alliterations in m support these homophones. The poem is in multiple parts, most sub-divided: “Invocation,” “Strophe,” “Choeur” (Chorus), and “Dédicace” (Dedication). In Greek tragedy, both chorus and strophe were fundamental. The latter was the initial component of a choral ode; the word strophe later referred to a structural division of any irregularly stanzaic poem of intermediate length. In Perse’s poem, the strophe is in nine parts, the last subdivided into seven sections, some in turn subdivided; the chorus follows. Various lexical items support the motif of Greek drama and of recitation in honor of the sea.
The sea is primordial, reaching beyond human history, nourishing it. It is not approached phenomenologically, as the thing itself, in the manner of Edmund Husserl, nor geologically; what is essential are its connections to human beings and its seamarks. “Et de la mer elle-même it ne sera pas question, mais de son règne au coeur de l’homme” (And of the sea itself it shall not be a question, but of its reign in man’s heart). It is, Perse writes, the memory of the longest day, the promise of forever, the “face première de nos songes” (first face of our dreams); it is the “nourrice du plus grand art” (nurturer of the greatest art), the matrix of the greatest text. It is associated with both the moon and the sun at its zenith; the primary place given to the midday sun establishes a parallel with Valéry’s “Le Cimètière main” (1922, The Cemetery by the Sea). Man is mortal, but the brilliant noonday light announces the eternity of the moment, “l’homme immortel au foyer de l’instant” (man immortal in the hearth [or focus] of the instant).
The strongest marks of the sea are, however, affective–the bonds of love and desire. Whereas Perse had written earlier of the poet’s impersonality, he said in a 1955 letter to his friend Katherine Chapin Biddle that the poet’s function is “d’intégrer la chose qu’il évoque ou de s’y intégrer, s’identifiant à cette chose jusqu’à la devenir lui-même et s’y confondre” (to integrate the thing he invokes or integrate himself into it, identifying with that thing to the point of becoming it himself and joining it). Thus several critics, among them Ostrovsky, read Amers as a highly personal statement of erotic desire as well as love for the sea. Jacques Guicharnaud even called the poem a “great erotic hymn.” The section titled (from the opening line) “Etroits sont les vaisseaux,” often anthologized and translated, is a celebration of love:
… Etroits sont les vaisseaux, étroite notre couche.
Immense l’étendue des eaux, plus vaste notre empire
Aux chambres closes du désir.
(… Narrow are the ships, narrow our bed.
Immense the extent of the waters, even vaster our empire
In the closed rooms of desire).
The first line, a classical alexandrine, is marked by syntactical inversions, repetition of adjective, and ellipsis of a verb; the ellipsis and inversion are echoed in the next line. Critics have seen imitation of ocean rhythms in the rise and fall of certain lines. In the following subsections, the voice of a woman is heard, addressing “l’homme avide” (hungry man); the man’s voice follows, “mer moi-même à ton orient” (sea myself, to your orient). The entire section praises the one flesh of man and woman; the body, in Perse’s poetry, is not disgusting.
In 1958 Leger married Dorothy Milburn Russell (the couple had no children). Later that year he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale University. The next year he published Chronique, composed on Giens. The title, meaning chronicle, from the Greek khrônos (time), suggests both time and history or accomplishments within time. Questioned about the word, Perse replied (in a passage reproduced in the Pléiade edition) that it should be taken in a double meaning, personal and impersonal: “C’est un poème à la terre, et à l’homme, et au temps, confondus tous trois pour moi dans la même notion intemporelle d’éternité” (It’s a poem to the earth, and to man, and to time, all three united for me in the same atemporal notion of eternity). Dag Hammarskjöld (who translated the work), then secretary of the United Nations, interpreted the poem as impersonal, writing that it expressed “avec une clarté divinatoire” (with clairvoyant clarity) the author’s deep reactions to the political crises of the period. In eight parts, composed chiefly of long versets, the poem celebrates what Perse calls “grand âge”: “Grand âge, nous voici. Rendez-vous pris, et de longtemps, avec cette heure de grand sens” (Great age, here we are. An appointment made, and since long ago, with this hour of great meaning). The speaker appears to be a traveler, a navigator, saying farewell: “I1 est temps de brúler nos vieilles coques chargées d’algues. /… / Toute cette passion d’être et tout ce pouvoir d’être, ah! tout ce très grand souffle voyageur” (It is time to burn our old keels laden with seaweed. /… / All that passion of being and all that power of being, ah! all that very great traveling spirit).
In addition to the motif of the sea there are mentions of islands, desert traits, trees, the austral sky, salt, and other natural features. Age is seen as “l’embrasement d’un soir aux senteurs d’algue sèche” (the blaze of an evening with odors of dry seaweed) and a preparation for “de plus hautes transhumances” (higher changes of pasture). The past is immense: “la horde des Siècles” (the horde of Centuries). But the future is possibility: “Nous sommes pâtres du futur” (We are herders of the future). There is no direct metaphysical statement, but a phrase such as “Pour nous la turbulence divine à son dernier remous” (For us, divine turbulence in its last eddy) suggests that immanent and visible experience does have a divine dimension. Others will build “parmi les schistes et les laves” (among schist and lava); “pour nous chante déjà plus hautaine aventure” (for us, a haughtier adventure already sings).
Perse received the Grand Prix National des Lettres in 1959. In 1960 Leger traveled to Argentina as a guest of the government; for a month and a half he visited the country, meeting writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Victoria Ocampo in Buenos Aires and seeing Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and Cape Horn. Later that year Perse received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the soaring flight and the evocative imagery of his poetry which in a visionary fashion reflects the conditions of our time,” as the citation read. At the awards banquet, Bertil Lindblad, president of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, spoke of the poet’s “sublime intuition,” with which he had described “in brilliant metaphors the reaction of the human soul to a world of inexhaustible richness.” He continued: “You are one of the most powerful defenders of the rights of modern poetry to be recognized and accepted as a living force.”
Perse’s reply, published in the Pléiade edition under the title “Poésie” (Poetry), began: “J’ai accepté pour la poésie l’hommage qui lui est ici rendu, et que j’ai hâte de lui restituer” (I have accepted for poetry the homage here rendered to it and which I hasten to restore to it). He noted the increasing dissociation between poetry and the material servitude of society. Quoting an anonymous scientist (whose credentials resemble those of Albert Einstein) on imagination as the true terrain of scientific germination, Perse observed that science and poetry, though proceeding by different methods, are both concerned with disinterested questioning of the world. Poetry goes even farther, however, because by its analogic and symbolic language, its correspondences, it transmits “le mouvement même de l’Etre” (the very movement of Being). In addition to being a mode of knowledge, it is also a mode of life: “C’est dans la poésie que trouve refuge le divin” (Divinity finds refuge in poetry).
Perse was seventy-three years old when he received the Nobel Prize. His work was nearly complete; translations by eminent figures already existed; and his stature among the cognoscenti was firmly established, so the prize did not dramatically change his reputation or increase the number of translations and bilingual editions of his works. His fame obviously spread somewhat, however, because of the prize. To judge by his activities (invitations, meetings with well-known figures, and correspondence with some of these figures), he acquired an even larger circle of acquaintances worldwide in the literary and artistic circles and also diplomatic ones. He was invited to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, and in 1963 in France he was given a dinner on a warship and a reception on an aircraft carrier. He did not go on lecture tours or circulate as a public figure as much as some Nobel winners have done; he preferred travel, spending time with friends, listening to music, boating, and writing.
The standard edition of his next work, Oiseaux (translated as Birds, 1966), was published in 1963. The year before, the text had appeared under the title L’Ordre des oiseaux (The Order of Birds) in a deluxe volume, a joint project with Georges Braque, who provided etchings. Birds are mentioned many times in other pages by Perse, including his early text “Pour fêter des oiseaux.” He had also spent time in serious study of some species. Oiseaux is in thirteen parts, composed of short paragraphs that resemble prose more than verse. The work is both a commentary on aspects of Braque’s etchings and an imaginative treatment of birds, which goes beyond the visual pretexts to introduce motifs typical of the poet.
Short poems that appeared in the NRF after Oiseaux are “Chanté par celle qui fut là” (1969; translated as “Sung by One Who Was There,” 1970), “Chant pour un équinoxe” (1971; translated as “Song for an Equinox,” 1977), “Nocturne” (1973; translated in Song for an Equinox, 1977), and “Sécheresse” (1974, Drought). In “Sécheresse,” the poet addresses Maïa (Maya), a Hindu divinity, and proclaims that “la vie remontera de ses abris sous terre” (life will rise again from its shelters under the earth). The production of Leger’s last decades also includes books on Dante Alighieri, Claudel, and Larbaud; commentaries on his own verse; and articles, letters, and speeches, some in homage to other artists. His last poems were collected as Chant pour un équinoxe (1975; translated as Song for an Equinox, 1977). Leger, who had cancer, died on 20 September 1975 and was buried in a small cemetery on the Giens Peninsula.
By his high poetic achievement, recognized by fellow poets and critics alike and attested to by many translations as well as awards, Saint-John Perse is worthy of being ranked among the most important twentieth-century poets. He deserves recognition also for his poetic integrity-consistency, concern for circumstances of publication and editions, and eschewing of facile confessional effects. His outstanding career as a diplomat adds to his stature, showing that for him poetry was not inconsistent with life and underlining his humane concerns. As biographer Jean d’Eudeville stresses, poetry for him was a mode of existence. Far from choosing either ascetic devotion to art or a decadent, self-indulgent aestheticism, Leger wished to fulfill life, for himself and others, through poetry; his vision, while expressed in original diction and poetic craftsmanship demanding of the reader, is never confined to the particular but always moves to the general. In contrast to the pessimism that reigned in much French literature of the mid twentieth century, his work also expresses strong vitality. This characteristic is despite its occasional dream-like quality, which is not that of the nineteenth-century aesthetes such as the Comte Jean-Marie Mathias Philippe-Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, for whom dream replaced life, nor the distorted reality cultivated in the 1920s by the Surrealists, but a conscious and fruitful daydreaming, often preparatory to action.
Perse’s work also suggests what civilization means, broadly speaking. In his role of maker (poet coming through Latin from the Greek poiêtês, meaning both poet and maker), the poet shares in the establishment and refinement of civilization. Fouchet (in Honneur à Saint-John Perse) called Perse’s writing “la culture à son faîte” (culture at its peak). The sense of timelessness adhering to many of his pages arises from the fact that they point not to a particular civilization but to the age-old experience of man bringing to bear on nature his capacities for alteration of the given and fabrication of the new. Even suffering and death appear in an anthropological light-experiences belonging to all times, all places. It is suggested ultimately that human beings are one with the universe. Thus poetry, as Perse carried it out, is akin to being; Féquant termed his work a “Cantique à l’être” (Hymn to Being) and French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty spoke of it as “la chair du monde” (the flesh of the world). It celebrates, to borrow the poet’s phrase in “Chant pour un équinoxe,” an “équinoxe d’une heure entre la Terre et l’Homme” (equinox of one hour between Earth and Man).
Letters: St.-John Perse, translated and edited by Arthur J. Knodel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979);
Leger and Rosalia Sánchez Abreu, Lettres à l’étrangère, edited by Mauricette Berne (Paris: Gallimard, 1987);
Correspondance Saint-John Perse Jean Paulhan: 1925–1966, edited by Joëlle Gardes Tasmine, Cahiers Saint-John Perse, no. 10 (Paris: Gallimard, 1991);
Alexis Leger, Dag Hammarskjöld-Correspondance: 1955–1961, edited by Marie-Noëlle Little, Cahiers Saint-John Perse, no. 11 (Paris: Gallimard, 1993); translated by Little and William C. Parker as The Poet and the Diplomat: The Correspondence of Dag Hammarskjöld and Alexis Leger (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2001);
Lettres d’Alexis Leger à Gabriel Frizeau: 1906–1912, edited by Albert Henry (Brussels: Académie Royale de Belgique, 1993);
Correspondance 1942–1945: Roger Caillois, Saint-John Perse, edited by Gardes Tamine, Cahiers Saint-John Perse, no. 13 (Paris: Gallimard, 1996);
Courrier d exil: Saint-John Perse et ses amis americans, 1940–1970, edited and translated by Carol Rigolot, Cahiers Saint-John Perse, no. 15 (Paris: Gallimard, 2001);
Lettres à une dame d’Amérique, Mina Curtiss, edited by Mireille Sacotte, Cahiers Saint-John Perse, no. 16 (Paris: Gallimard, 2003).
Ruth S. Freitag, “Saint-John Perse: A List of His Writings in the Collections of the Library of Congress,” in Pierre Emmanuel’s Saint-John Perse: Praise and Presence (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1971), pp. 25–80;
Roger Little, Saint-John Perse: A Bibliography for Students of His Poetry (London: Grant & Cutler, 1971; supplements, 1976, 1982);
René Galand, “Saint-John Perse,” in A Critical Bibliography of French Literature, edited by Richard A. Brooks, volume 6, The Twentieth Century, edited by Douglas W. Alden and Brooks, part 2, PrincipallyPoetry, Theater, and Criticism before 1940, and Essay (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1980), pp. 1024–1059.
Jean d’Eudeville, Saint-John Perse ou la poésie pour mieux vivre (Paris: L’Asiathèque, 1984);
Erika Ostrovsky, Under the Sign of Ambiguity: Saint-John Perse/Alexis Leger (New York: New York University Press, 1985).
Marcelle Achard-Abell, “Heidegger et la poésie de Saint-John Perse: Un rapprochement,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 71 (July-September 1966);
Paul Allard, Le Quai d’Orsay: Son personnel, ses rouages, ses dessous (Paris: Editions de France, 1938);
Peter Baker, Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriorily and the Modern Long Poem (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991); Alain Bosquet, Saint-John Perse (Paris: Seghers, 1952; enlarged, 1971);
André Brincourt, Messagers de la nuit: Roger Martin du Gard, Saint-John Perse, André Malraux (Paris: Grasset, 1995);
Eveline Caduc, Saint-John Perse: Connaissance et création (Paris: José Corti, 1977);
Roger Caillois, Poétique de Saint-John Perse (Paris: Gallimard, 1954);
Jacques Charpier, Saint-John Perse (Paris: Gallimard, 1962); Elisabeth Coss-Humbert, Saint-John Perse: Poésie, science de l être: Une lecture ontologique de l’ceuvre de Saint-John Perse (Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1993);
Mechthild Cranston, Enfance mon amour: La Rêverie vers l’enfance dans l’oeuvre de Guillaume Apollinaire, Saint-John Perse et René Char (Paris: Debresse, 1970);
Christian Doumet, Les Thèmes aériens dans l’ceuvre de Saint-John Perse (Paris: Minard, 1976);
Yves-Alain Favre, Saint-John Perse: Le Langage et le sacré (Paris: José Corti, 1977);
Guy Féquant, Saint-John Perse: Qui êtes-vous? (Lyons: La Manufacture, 1986);
Wallace Fowlie, “The Poetics of Saint-John Perse,” Poetry (Chicago), 82 (September 1953);
René Galand, Saint-John Perse (New York: Twayne,1972),
Roger Garaudy, D un réalisme sans ravages: Picasso, Saint-John Perse, Kafka (Paris: Plon, 1963);
Pierre Guerre, Saint-John Perse et l’homme (Paris: Gallimard, 1955);
Jacques Guicharnaud, “Vowels of the Sea: Amers by Saint-John Perse,” Yale French Studies, 21 (Spring-Summer 1958), 72–82;
Albert Henry, “Amers” de Saint-John Perse: Une Poésie de mouvement (Neuchatel, Switzerland: Editions de La Baconnière, 1963);
Honneur à Saint-John Perse (Paris: Gallimard, 1965);
Henri Hoppenot, D’Alexis Leger à Saint-John Perse (Liège, Belgium: Editions Dynamo, 1961);
Arthur J. Knodel, Saint-John Perse: A Study of His Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966);
Knodel, “Towards an Understanding of Anabase,” PMLA, 79 (June 1964): 329–343;
Camille R. La Bossière, “The Monumental Nonsense of Saint-John Perse,” Folio, 18 (February 1990);
Henriette Levillain, Le Rituel poétique de Saint-John Perse (Paris: Gallimard, 1977);
Roger Little, Etudes sur Saint-John Perse (Paris: Klincksieck, 1984);
Little, “The Image of the Threshold in the Poetry of Saint-John Perse,” Modern Language Review, 64 (October 1969): 777–792;
Little, Saint-John Perse (London: Athlone, 1973);
Little, “Saint-John Perse, poète anglais,” Revue de Littérature Comparée, 46 (1972);
Albert Loranquin, Saint-John Perse (Paris: Gallimard, 1963); Archibald MacLeish, “The Living Spring,” Saturday Review, 32 (16 July 1949): 8–9;
Catherine Mayaux, Les Lettres d’Asie de Saint-John Perse: les récits d un poète (Paris: Gallimard, 1994);
Pierre Mazars, Une Journée avec Saint-John Perse (Liège, Belgium: Editions Dynamo, 1961);
Charles Moeller, L’Homme moderne devant le salut: Sartre, T. S. Eliot, Kafka, Saint-John Perse, Claudel, Péguy (Paris: Editions Ouvrières, 1965);
Christian Murciaux, Saint-John Perse (Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1961);
C. E. Nelson, “Saint-John Perse and T. S. Eliot,” Western Humanities Review, 17 (Spring 1963);
Monique Parent, Saint-John Perse et quelques devanciers (Paris: Klincksieck, 1960);
Georges Poulet, “Saint-John Perse,” in his Etudes sur le temps humain (Paris: Plon, 1964), pp. 160–186;
Kathleen Raine, “Saint-John Perse: Poet of the Marvelous,” in her DefendingAncient Springs (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 176–192;
Mireille Sacotte, “Elopes” et “La Gloire des Rois” de Saint-John Perse (Paris: Gallimard, 1999);
Maurice Saillet, Saint-John Perse, poète de gloire (Paris: Mercure de France, 1952);
Richard L. Sterling, The Prose Works of Saint-John Perse: Towards an Understanding of His Poetry (New York: Peter Lang, 1994).
The papers of Saint-John Perse are at the Foundation Saint-John Perse, Aix-en-Provence.