Alexis Saint-Léger Léger

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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.

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