Saint-John Perse

(Poets and Poetry, Complete Critical Edition)

Other Literary Forms

Some 440 pages of the Pléiade edition of Saint-John Perse’s Œuvres complètes, an edition supervised by the poet himself, are given to letters. Perse’s letters provide the reader not only with a wealth of details about his life but also with comments about his poems and political and cultural events during more than half a century. In Perse’s letters to his family and to literary figures such as André Gide, Paul Claudel, Jacques Rivière, Archibald MacLeish, Allen Tate, and T. S. Eliot, one can find clues to the duality of Saint-John Perse the poet and Alexis Saint-Léger Léger the diplomat. An English translation of these letters by Arthur Knodel, St.-John Perse: Letters (1979), gives them the same emphasis as Gide’s or Claudel’s journals.

Perse’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Poésie” (“On Poetry”), delivered in Stockholm on December 10, 1960, and his address “Pour Dante” (“Dante”), delivered in Florence on April 20, 1965, to mark the seventh centenary of Dante Alighieri’s birth, are available in St. John Perse: Collected Poems, a bilingual edition. Perse’s manuscripts, his annotated personal library, his notebooks on ornithology, several scrapbooks with clippings, and other documents have all been gathered by the Saint-John Perse Foundation in Aix-en-Provence, France.


Saint-John Perse is a “poet’s poet.” Although he won international recognition with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960, preceded by the Grand Prix National des Lettres and the Grand Prix International de Poésie in 1959, his readership has remained small. Poets as diverse as T. S. Eliot and Czesław Miłosz have paid him tribute; it is in the tributes of Perse’s fellow poets that one finds the measure of his work, rather than in the standard literary histories of his age, for he remained aloof from fashionable movements of the century.

Indeed, Perse is characterized above all by a self-conscious detachment. During his diplomatic career, from 1914 to 1940, he maintained a sharp division between his public and his poetic persona. In these years, he published only two works, Anabasis and Friendship of the Prince. His choice of a partly English pseudonym emphasized his aloof stance.

Perse’s exile to the United States in 1941 marked the end of his political career but the revival of his poetic creation. Exile, his first poem written in the United States, was first published in French in Poetry magazine in 1941. Although Perse never wrote in English, his poems were always published in the United States in bilingual editions and followed by numerous articles and reviews by American critics. Perse disdained literary factions and did not give public readings of his works. He twice refused the Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard, in 1946 and 1952, but he was officially recognized by the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1950, when he received the Award of Merit medal for poetry.

In his poetry, Perse maintained distance by seldom including place-names or markers of any kind that would locate his work in a specific place or time. In Perse’s conception, the poet’s task, like the scientist’s, is to explore the universe, the elements, and human consciousness. The distinguishing quality of Perse’s poetry is its universality, its endeavor to celebrate the cosmos and humankind beyond the limits of the personal, beyond the literary currents of the time. In this conception, poetry is not a re-creation or a transcription of reality; rather, poetry is reality, continually in flux, with all its tensions and its complexity. Perse’s long poems, free from a specific form or traditional meter, and his symphonic compositions, with echoes and variations of the same phrase, achieve a musical quality seldom surpassed by his contemporaries.


Marie-René Alexis Saint-Léger Léger (who later shortened his name to Alexis Léger and chose the pseudonym Saint-John Perse) was born on May 31, 1887, on a small island near Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe. His parents were both of French descent and came from families of plantation owners and naval officers established in the islands since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Perse spent his childhood in Guadeloupe, where his father was a lawyer. The young poet and his sisters were brought up on family plantations among servants, private tutors, and plantation workers. It was not until the age of nine that Perse started school. In 1899, a few years later, earthquakes, the Spanish-American War, and an economic crisis compelled the family to leave for France, where they settled in Pau. In 1904, Perse began studying law, science, literature, and medicine at the University of Bordeaux. He wrote his first poems there, and between 1904 and 1914 he met a number of writers, among them Francis Jammes, Paul Claudel, Paul Valéry, André Gide, and Jacques Rivière. After his military service in 1905 and 1906, Perse divided his time between traveling and studying political science, music, and philosophy; he soon extended his circle of friends to include Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky.

Perse spent the years from 1916 to 1921 in Peking, where he wrote Anabasis. After serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was promoted in 1933 to secretary general, a position that he held until 1940, when the war and the Vichy government forced him to leave for England and, shortly after, for the United States. It was Archibald MacLeish who encouraged him to accept an appointment at the Library of Congress. In 1942, he published Exile and became known officially as Saint-John Perse. He spent the following seventeen years in the United States, where his voluntary exile provided him with an endless array of new scenery, including rare species of birds and plants that he painstakingly detailed in his notebooks. In 1946, he published Winds, followed by Seamarks in 1957; in the latter year, he returned to France, where he continued to spend most of his summers. In 1958, he married Dorothy Milburn Russell in Washington, D. C. Limited editions of his last two major works, Chronique and Birds, were illustrated with color etchings by Georges Braque. Although the years that followed his Nobel Prize in 1960 were rich in translations, new editions, and tributes, Perse’s publications after Birds were limited to a few short poems. He spent his last years in France at the Presqu’île de Giens, where he died in 1975 at the age of eighty-eight.



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Saint-John Perse Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Baker, Peter. Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991. Critical interpretation of some of Perse’s works with an introduction to the history of American poetry in the twentieth century. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Galand, René. Saint-John Léger. Boston: Twayne, 1972. A standard critical biography.

Knodel, Arthur. Saint-John Perse. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1966. Critical analysis of selected works by Perse. Includes bibliographic references.

Kopenhagen-Urian, Judith. “Delicious Abyss: The Biblical Darkness in the Poetry of Saint-John Perse.” Comparative Literature Studies 36, no. 3 (1999): 195-208. Kopenhagen-Urian examines Saint-John Perse’s oxymoron “delicious abyss” in relation to four functions observed in Perse’s use of the Bible: the contrasting perspective, the structured allusion, the repeated motif, and the “collage.”

Ostrovsky, Erika. Under the Sign of Ambiguity: Saint-John Perse/Alexis Léger. New York: New York University Press, 1984. A thorough biography, with aesthetic and psychological insights into Léger’s life and accomplishments.

Rigolot, Carol. Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse’s Conversations with Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Analyzes Perse’s multiple strategies of dialogue within his poems.

Sterling, Richard L. The Prose Works of Saint-John Perse. New York: P. Lang, 1994. A critical study of the prose works of Perse that is intended to give a fuller understanding of his poetry. Includes bibliographical references and index.