Alexis Saint-Léger Léger Critical Essays

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.