Léger, Alexis Saint-Léger
Alexis Saint-LégerLéger 1887–1975
(Full name Marie-Rene Auguste Alexis Saint-Léger Léger; also known by pseudonyms St.-John Perse, Alexis Léger, and Saintléger Léger) French West Indies-born French poet and essayist.
Best known by the pseudonym St.-John Perse, Léger was a Nobel laureate whose verse reflected his perception that humanity is universally subject to alienation. Léger's focus on loneliness and solitude was tempered, however, by his acceptance of positive facets of existence. This latter position is demonstrated in his vivid descriptions of exotic landscapes and kinetic language praising the spiritual and physical aspects of life. Often prosaic in appearance, Léger's poetry is written in the free verse style of verset which, with its heavily cadenced, incantatory rhythms and reverential content, resembles portions of the Old Testament as well as the poetry of Walt Whitman and Paul Claudel.
Léger was born on Saint-Léger-les-Feuilles, an island owned by his family in the French West Indies. As a child, Léger was exposed to the lush foliage and natural disasters—hurricanes, tidal waves, and earthquakes—indigenous to the tropics. Raised in Roman Catholicism, he became familiar with Hinduism through his childhood nurse. These elements provided him with a knowledge of botany, natural history, and diverse religions, all of which are amply displayed in his verse. Financial difficulties caused by a massive earthquake eventually forced Léger's family to sell the island and relocate to France. After an education encompassing medicine, philosopy, and literature, Léger embarked upon a career as a diplomat. As secretary of the French Embassy in Peking, China, he befriended Chinese philosophers and became familiar with Asian culture. His intellectual and professional development was influenced by the poet Paul Claudel, who acted as his mentor and advisor. Léger's esteemed government career climaxed when he was appointed Secretary-General of the French Foreign Ministry in 1932. Before this promotion, he had already published Eloges (1911) and Anabase (1924; Anabasis) but foreswore publishing future poems while in public service. Léger did continue to write, however, and reputedly amassed several volumes of manuscripts that were confiscated by Nazi soldiers in 1940. After refusing to cooperate with the collaborationist government in Vichy, he was stripped of his French citizenship. Léger fled France for England, and this traumatic exile is reflected in his later work. He settled in Washington, DC, and served as Fellow for the Library of Congress, consulting on French literature. With his French citizenship restored after the war, he returned to his native country in 1957 and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960. Léger died in 1975.
In many of the poems of Eloges, Leger evokes memories of his childhood and details life in the tropics through the use of sensuous and precise language. The poem sequence "Images à Crusoé" ("Pictures for Crusoe"), inspired by Daniel Defoe's prose work Robinson Crusoe, presents Cru soe as an emblem of solitude and loneliness. Similar themes pervade all of Léger's work. Anabasis, which is perhaps Léger's most celebrated composition, revolves around a nomadic tribe that explores and civilizes an arid, windy area similar to the Gobi Desert. Once the land is settled, a sense of longing provokes another excursion into the desert to repeat the process, and so illustrates the restless nature of humanity. The pieces in Exil recount the desperation of exile in images that are derived from contemporary and personal situations but are universally applicable. Léger claimed that he was redeemed from this bleakness through the inspiration and creation of poetry. Vents traces the destructive results of human knowledge on the development of modern civilization, as evidenced by the atomic explosion at Hiroshima. Léger's last major volumes, Amers and Chronique, focus on the affirmative qualities of life. Included in Amers are descriptions of erotic love, while Chronique captures Léger meditating on his life's experiences and alluding freely to his previous works.
Commentators have noted the rich imagery and complex style of Léger's verse, and some maintain that this style provided an almost hermetic quality that made it inaccessible to readers. Similarly, critics have complained that many of the words Léger employed are arcane, almost undefinable. Yet readers praise Léger's unusual uses of language that often result in innovative and unexpected phrasing. A standard approach Léger's work depends heavily on biographical interpretation, and commentators have traced his development as a poet from the early autobiographical subject matter to later work characterized by more impersonal language and generalized subjects. For Léger's exaltation of imagination and inclination toward antirealism, he is sometimes linked with the French Symbolist poets.
*Éloges [as Saintléger Léger] 1911
Amitié du prince [Friendship of the Prince] 1924
Anabase [Anabasis] 1924
Exil [Exile] 1942
Pluies [Rains] 1944
Quatre Poèmes 1941-1944 [Four Poems] 1944
Vents [Winds] 1946
Amers [Seamarks] 1953
L'ordre des oixeaux [Birds] 1962
Oeuvres completes [Complete Works] 1972
Chant pour un équinoxe [Song for an Equinox] 1975
Other Major Works
A Selection of Works for an Understanding of World Affairs since 1914 [as Alexis Saintléger Léger] (essays) 1943
On Poetry (speech) 1961
Letters of St.-John Perse (letters) 1979
*Published as an expanded second edition in 1925 under the pseudonym St.-J Perse.
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SOURCE: "Saint-John Perse: Notes on Some Poetic Contrasts," in Sewanee Review, Vol. LX, No. 1, Winter, 1952, pp. 65-81.
[In the following essay, Chapin examines contradictory elements of Léger's poetry, describing them as the "aristocratic" and "primitive" aspects of his writing.]
"O Poète, ô bilingue, homme assailli du dieu! homme
parlant dans l'équivoque!"
The poetry of Saint-John Perse, constantly becoming more available to American readers, is taking its place here in a peculiarly alien soil. This has little to do with the fact that he has elected to live among us for the last ten years, years stretched beyond the necessary exile imposed on an important diplomatic figure when his government took a role of compromise and cowardice to which he could not give his allegiance. The legend of the poet veiled and separated from the man of affairs continues to surround him. Under varying aspects this separation is at the basis of some of the significant conflicts and contrasts to be found throughout his work.
The austerity of this separateness and the hermetic quality of the poetry itself—as well as the long unrhymed strophe, the lack of syntax and the elliptical approach—have made it difficult for the general reader, and kept it a poetry for the few. But today it is receiving...
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SOURCE: "The Poetics of St.-John Perse," in Poetry, Vol. 82, No. 6, September, 1953, pp. 345-50.
[In the following favorable review of Vents, Fowlie places Léger within the context of modern French poets as well as the tradition of Symbolism and Surrealism.]
St.-John Perse revindicates, reactivates the ancient belief that each event in the history of man signifies something else. In this sense, the work of the poet is comparable to the work of the psychoanalyst who explores the meanings of things and at the end of the search illuminates them. Poetry is a combination of two languages: one, the words defined in dictionaries and used by the contemporaries of the poet, the vocabularies of the uneducated and the educated; and the other, the rhythm of language, the spell created by combinations of words. This second language is in reality the poet's effort to move beyond langauge, to reach the ineffable. Language itself may be for man his deepest spiritual experience. Beyond language extends the void, the unmeasured spaces inhabited by the winds of which Perse speaks in his poem. The meaning of the winds which blow over the face of the earth and disturb all perishable things is the subject matter of his poem. The opening words speak of the winds in quest, of oracles and maxims, and of the narrator who seeks for his poem the favor of a god.
St.-John Perse, as the contemporary poet,...
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SOURCE: "The Imagery of Saint-John Perse's Neiges," in PMLA, Vol. LXX, No. 1, March, 1955, pp. 5-18.
[In the following essay, Knodel offers a close reading of Neiges to demonstrate Léger 's ability to convey "the most intimate of his feelings " through language that seems impersonal and objective.]
The most significant studies to date of Saint-John Perse approach his work "extensively," keeping the poet's total output in the foreground. Commentary on individual poems is not entirely lacking, especially on Anabase and Vents, but nothing approaching exhaustive textual analysis of any one poem has yet been attempted. The present study has been undertaken in the belief that an intensive approach to a small segment of Perse's work may supplement and give sharper relief to the insights of more general studies and perhaps lead some readers more directly to the actual text of one of the unquestioned major poets of our time.
For the purpose of such a study Neiges offers several advantages. First, there are the purely mechanical ones: Neiges is neither too long nor too short, and it already exists in numerous editions. It is, moreover, quite exemplary of Perse's highly personal idiom. And, although it is acknowledged to be one of the poet's most beautiful pieces, Neiges has been relatively neglected. That fact alone would justify speaking of the...
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SOURCE: "St.-John Perse," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 3, September, 1960, pp. 235-38.
[In the following essay, Colt discusses the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy on Léger's work.]
Appraisals of St.-John Perse, the French poet, by American critics leave one with the double impression of their high estimation of the man and their inability to come to grips with his work. For example, the reviews of Amers, Perse's latest work, give clear evidence that the poetry has eluded the commentators in a surprising way. When we are not being told that "in the world of Seamarks the sea is central," we read that "the pseudonym of the poet, after the Roman Persius, is as vague and evocative as his poetry" (italics mine) or that Perse "creates absolute metaphors whose effectiveness owes little to reference. Such images as 'the white bitches of disaster capped with gold' offer little hold for exegesis."
These comments are indeed intersting. For many of us, the more we read Perse, the more convinced we become of the relentless precision of his work and the concreteness of the metaphors which, in contradistinction to surrealist practice, are always rooted in reality, if only we probe far enough. If the origin of some of the metaphors still escapes us, it is probably because our imaginations fail to take the leap that the poet originally made or that we...
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SOURCE: "Saint-John Perse: A Way to Begin," in Books Abroad, Vol. 36, No. 4, Autumn, 1962, pp. 375-78.
[In the following essay, Nelson provides a stylistic analysis of "Poème: pour M. Valery Larbaud. "]
More so than in most poetry, structure is the problem for the reader of St.-John Perse, for contrary to our usual expectations of poetry, a poem by Perse generally offers few direct references to the world outside the poem. That is, in Perse there are few points of reference within the poem which, by their simultaneous pointing to the general world of experience and the unique world of the poem, guide the reader to the poet's meaning. Thus, his images do not so much help us to understand the poem as the poem helps us to understand the images. This is the reason that while in much poetry we can go from the parts to the whole, in Perse we must generally go from the whole to the parts. And the whole, in Perse, is the structure of the poem.
The purpose of this essay is to examine a relatively unknown short poem of Perse. And unfortunately, what has just been said may appear to be given the lie by what is to follow. However, "Poème: pour M. Valery Larbaud" (Les Cahiers de la Pléiade, X [Été-Antomne 1950], though it does involve certain external referents, is, finally, typical of Perse:
"Poème" is primarily an occasional piece, and thus it does have built-in...
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SOURCE: "Towards an Understanding of Anabase," in PMLA, Vol. LXXIX, No. 3, June, 1964, pp. 329-43.
[In the following excerpt, Knodel explores the function of anonymity in Anabase.]
Anabase was the first of Saint-John Perse's poems to be widely translated into other languages, as well as the first to receive widespread critical attention. Yet, despite several recent attempts at detailed exegesis, the poem remains baffling in many of its details and even in some of its more general implications. Close scrutiny of the text of the poem is, of course, the most natural and legitimate way of coming to grips with its meaning, but the more recent commentaries on Anabase too often prove that close textual examination alone is not an adequate safeguard against runaway interpretation. The present study, therefore, seeks to supplement close scrutiny of the text with references to other of Saint-John Perse's writings, especially to certain of his pronouncements on the nature of poetry in general and, most particularly, to his declaration of intent in writing Anabase.
That declaration is found in the text of an interview granted to the journalist Pierre Mazars immediately after Saint-John Perse was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. [In Le Figaro littéraire, November 5, 1960, the] poet is quoted as saying:
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SOURCE: '"L'Activité du Songe' in the Poetry of Saint-John Perse," in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. II, No. 4, October, 1966, pp. 356-67.
[In the following essay, Cranston examines the role of the sea, violence, and dreams in Léger's poetry.]
Mer de la transe et du délit;
Mer de la fête et de l'éclat;
et Mer aussi de l'action!(Amers)
Like every true poet, Saint-John Perse is forever singing but one song. For the Guadeloupean poet, this song is the song of the sea. The oneness of Perse's poetry lies in the double nature of that sea: sea of childhood, innocence and peace, but also of temptation and war. Two main principles can be derived from this ambiguity: that of violence, which rules in the world of action, and that of acquiescence, governing the sphere of dreams. These mutually oppose each other and are, by turns, opposed by death and, possibly, ennui. The interplay of these two principles can be observed even in Perse's earliest works. It is, surely, the mainspring of Anabase, where the opposition is perhaps momentarily resolved.
In the Images à Crusoé (1904), activity governs "la ville", while to the "Ile natale" belong silence, indolence and dream. But from these early dreams there already breaks forth a cry:
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SOURCE: "St.-John Perse: Poet of the Marvellous," in Encounter, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, October, 1967, pp. 51-61.
[In the following essay, Raine explores the defining characteristics of Léger's verse.]
In conversation the author of the poems published under the pseudonym St.-John Perse once said to me what a pity it was that whereas up to the beginning of the last war English and French poets knew one another's work as a matter of course, this was no longer so. The context of St.-John Perse's poetry is by no means limited by the language in which he writes. His earliest master was Conrad, whom as a young man he knew intimately, and who introduced him also to W. H. Hudson and his writings; one of his earliest poems (Images à Crusoe) is an evocation of Defoe's hero by a poet whose boyhood was lived in the tropical archipelago of the Antilles. He was associated, in the period between the two world wars, with the American-born Duchess of Sermoneta, Marguerite Caetani, in the editing of the magazine Commerce; as was also Paul Valéry. His latest—and finest—work has been written in America, in whose natural features and majestic scale he has found the correspondence of his characteristic themes. Alexis St.-Léger Léger, one-time Permanent Secretary of the French Foreign Office, has lived in the United States ever since the destruction of the Third Republic; at which time he lost, with...
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SOURCE: "Saint-John Perse's Quest," in Climate of Violence: The French Literary Tradition from Baudelaire to the Present, Macmillan, 1967, pp. 87-101.
[In the following essay, Fowlie provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Amers.]
Abruptly, with the announcement in the late fall of 1960 that Saint-John Perse had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the work of a relatively obscure poet became a public concern. The work itself had been previously scrutinized and studied only by that small public that is devoted to the cause of poetry and aware of the poetic ambitions of our age, although to a wider public the name of Saint-John Perse was known, as were the few biographical details that have been rehearsed so often in print: the birth of Alexis Léger on a coral island near Guadeloupe in 1887, his education in France, his choice of the diplomatic service in 1914, his sojourn of seven years in China, his high post at the Quai d'Orsay in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his refusal to work for the Vichy government, and his arrival in the United States in 1940, where he lived for seventeen years, before returning to France.
With the honor of the Nobel Prize, which in a sense was the world's recognition of Saint-John Perse, the wide international public that follows literary matters, asked, with perfect justice, Why this man? Why a poet? Why a French poet so soon after the award...
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SOURCE: "Language as Imagery in Saint-John Perse," in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. VI, No. 2, April, 1970, pp. 127-39.
[In the following essay, Little discusses the function of language in Léger's poetry.]
There are two obvious ways in which Perse reveals his attachment to language. The first shows in his technical mastery and his sensitivity to philology, the second in his extensive use of language itself as an image. Not only is language likened to things; things are also likened to language. The various manifestations of language become images in their own right, so creating the curious situation in which the tool becomes an integral part of the end product.
The process is essentially one of the materialisation of language by association with concrete phenomena and a consequent etherealisation of those phenomena through that association. A simple example will serve to make this clearer. Perse mentions in Eril, VI, "le Dépôt des Phares, où gisent les fables, les lanternes". The linking of items lying together makes the lanterns somehow less real and the temptation to translate fables as "yarns" almost irresistible, so material do the sailor's tales seem to have become. Similarly, addressing the Stranger, Perse assimilates into terms of finance the notion of the foreign language he speaks:
tu ne franchiras point le seuil...
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SOURCE: "Voice and Vision, Cry and Gesture: The Birds of Saint-John Perse," in Symposium, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 103-13.
[In the following essay, Cranston asserts that birds are "the overarching theme of Léger's œuvre."]
The Saint-John Foundation, organized in 1976, placed its inaugural exhibit in Aix-en-Provence under the heading, "Les Oiseaux et l'Œuvre de Saint-John Perse," a title at once appropriate and surprising. While Perse's "cult of movement" has received much scholarly attention, this theme has generally been linked not to the flight of birds, but to the interplay of cosmic phenomena as seen in Pluies (1943), Neiges (1944), and Vents (1944), or to the long marches across land and sea sung from Anabase (1924) to Amers (1957). These are, by common consensus, the milestones on Perse's way.
The 1962 "méditation poétique" that came to be known as Oiseaux (1963), on the other hand, met with reservations in accounts such as Victor Brombert's [in The Hudson Review, Autumn, 1966] and Arthur Knodel's [Saint-John Perse, 1966] discussion. The Oiseaux texts, though his last major work, are not generally considered Perse's best. [In Saint-John Perse, 1973] Roger Little assigns to the collection a limited value when he concludes: "The text has the great virtue, however, of revealing much of Perse's...
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SOURCE: "The Sexuation of Poetic Language in Saint-John Perse's Anabase," in Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem, University of Florida Press, 1991, pp. 30-40.
[In the following essay, Baker examines Anabase from a feminine perspective.]
A serious meditation on sexual difference serves to motivate the disposition of the text of Anabase, both in its specific language and its overall strategies of representation. Beginning with specific uses of language means reexamining the often-remarked strangeness of the language Perse employs to describe objects in the natural world. Analysis of this "semiotics of the natural world" in Anabase shows that the descriptive register of objects in nature and gender-marked human traits intermingle in figurai strategies that defy traditional tenor/vehicle distinctions. The traditional inner/outer distinction drawn between "man" and nature is refigured in the register of sexual differences. Like the human/natural difference, sexual difference is both nonassimilable and nonoppositional and serves to place in question the logical oppositions of rational discourse through figurai means. The figurai, following Jean-François Lyotard, operates a "renversement" whereby what is thought to be outer reverses the logical categories of the inner. This approach to poetic language necessarily goes against the traditional interpretation of...
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Ashton, Dore. "St.-John Perse's Guadeloupe." The Kenyon Review XXIII, No. 3 (Summer 1961): 520-26.
Provides a biographical approach to Legér's work.
Carmody, Francis J. "Saint-John Perse and Several Oriental Sources." Comparative Literature Studies II, No. 2 (1965): 125-51.
Discusses various influences on Anabase, Exil and Vents.
Cocking, J. M. "The Migrant Muse: Saint-John Perse (1887-1975)." Encounter XLVI, No. 3 (March 1976): 62-8.
Surveys Léger's life and work.
Fowlie, Wallace. "A Note on St.-John Perse." Poetry 74, No. 6 (Septemer 1949): 343-48.
Discusses the major themes of Exile and Other Poems.
Galan, René. Saint-John Perse. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972, 172 p.
Full-length critical study of Léger's work.
Knodel, Arthur. Saint-John Perse: A Study of His Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966, 214 p.
Thematic and stylistic analysis of Léger's work.
Little, Roger. Saint-John Perse. London: The...
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