Alexis Saint-Léger Léger Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Alexis Saint-Léger Léger, the French poet who wrote under the pseudonym of Saint-John Perse (pehrs), was born on the small, family-owned island of Saint Léger les Feuilles, off the coast of Guadeloupe. His biographers credit his Caribbean upbringing with having given him a love of colorful vistas and traveling. Growing up in Guadeloupe made Léger a man of the New World as much as of the Old, an American as well as a European. His early education explains in part the symbolic and esoteric nature of his poetry, for his first intellectual influences came from a Roman Catholic bishop and from a nurse who was a Hindu priestess of Shiva. His formal education, begun in France when he was eleven years old, was liberal in the fullest sense of the word. Léger’s poetic gift began to blossom in 1907, when the sudden tragedy of his father’s death forced him to confront his own imaginative maturity. The studies of medicine, letters, and law all combined to fashion the background that made him not only a poet but also a distinguished statesman.{$S[A]Léger, Alexis Saint-Léger;Perse, Saint-John}

It was as a diplomat that he became known to his countrymen, and it was in the French diplomatic corps that he made his public career. He entered the foreign service in 1914, served in Beijing from 1917 to 1921, and acted as consultant on Asiatic affairs during the Washington conference on disarmament in 1922. He served in the foreign office under Aristide Briand and on Briand’s death became permanent secretary of foreign affairs, holding that position until the Nazi invasion of France. Refusing, unlike so many French intellectuals of the time, to become a collaborationist, he left for England, traveled from there to Canada, and finally, at the behest of Archibald MacLeish, came to the United States to act as consultant of French poetry to the Library of Congress.

Léger’s career as a poet ran concurrently with his career as a diplomat, but he managed to keep the two separated. He published little, and always under the pseudonym Saint-John Perse, concealing his artistic identity so well that few, if any, of his colleagues in the diplomatic service knew of his literary career. Among fellow poets, however, he became known, despite the infrequency of his publications, as a writer of great accomplishment and considerable scope.

His first collection of poems, Éloges, came out in 1911; though a few individual lyrics had been pirated earlier, this was his first acknowledged appearance in print. Thirteen years later Anabasis, the work now considered his masterpiece, was published. The word “anabasis” means “upward journey”; Léger’s poem, though difficult at times, is filled with the exhilaration of discovery. Set in an undefined past, the book is filled with nomadic expeditions, migrations of peoples, and a sense of the inscrutable and innumerable processes of cosmic order. This work established him as a worthy successor to Arthur Rimbaud in the school of French Symbolism; the poem was compared favorably with Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (1873), and its author praised for his ability to portray the “subconscious mastered by reason.” Anabasis also brought him to the attention of poets in the United States and in England, and T. S. Eliot published an English translation in 1930. The manuscripts of whatever work Léger produced between 1924 and 1940 were left behind when he fled the Nazis. After World War II Léger published several additional volumes of poetry, including Exile in 1942 and Vents in 1946. In 1960 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


(Poets and Poetry, Complete Critical Edition)

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.