Alexis Saint-Léger Léger Criticism

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Katherine Garrison Chapin (essay date 1952)

(Poetry Criticism)

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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!"
Vents (II)

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 recognition long overdue with the publication of the French quarterly, Les Cahiers de la Pleiade, given over entirely to appreciation of Saint-John Perse. Here the elder writers, Gide, Claudel and Valery Larbaud, join younger critics and poets of many different schools and nationalities (English, Spanish, German, Italian, Swiss, American) to attest his significance. Such a tribute to a French poet during his lifetime is as rare as the criticism is interesting.

The American reader, who has become familiar with the influence of the French Symbolists on modern writing through Pound and Eliot, is finding in this epic poetry of Perse a stimulation and satisfaction far beyond his knowledge of the foreign tongue in which it is written. Almost impossible as it is to translate into poetry—the very metal of the French language relates to a distinctive table of values—the fine rhythmic English of T. S. Eliot's [translation of] Anabase; the translations of Louise Varese, and Denis Devlin, in bi-lingual editions respectively of Éloges and Exil, serve at least as introduction and guidance to the originals.

That this poetry has been translated into many other foreign tongues is a recognition of its vitality. Pierre Jean Jouve, the French poet, has suggested that Perse himself has the ambitious dream of creating a universal language of poetry. This, I think, is erroneous. The voice is French, in all its nuances, to be heard in its special richness of overtone, in its epic music, in its delicate inner rhyming, only by ears attuned to French. Yet its breadth and power extend beyond the frontiers of language. It is outside of time and space, having neither region nor era.

"Il n'est d'histoire que de l'âme, il n'est d'aisance que de l'âme."

The whole meaning of Perse will not be found within the confines of any one national literature, and he himself, with his declared hatred of "literary doctrine," will never be interested in elucidating it, in the fashion of some contemporary poets. I propose here to consider a few of the poetic conflicts and contradictions in his work, for the sidelights they may throw on an impressive body of poetry. These conflicts are, in themselves, creative, they are often the spark which sets off the fire. One might almost say, as in a primitive myth, they are the male and female principle in all things which join together to fructify. This deep vein of oppositeness—the strophe and antistrophe, the dramatic clashes of personality—exist in this poetry to a fecund use. The poet is both "un homme assailli du dieu," and "un homme parlant dans l'équivoque." These poems, in which we find opposed violence and wisdom, barbarity and serenity, chaos and...

(The entire section is 48,760 words.)