Katherine Garrison Chapin (essay date 1952)
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!"
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 a supreme spiritual order, take form and content from these vivid antagonisms of his own poetic personality.
Yeats has said: "I make out of the quarrel with my friends, rhetoric; out of the quarrel with myself, poetry." Perse's attitude to rhétorique is as austere as was Verlaine's to éloquence; but from these profound disagreements with his other self, what we shall call, for lack of better words, his aristocratic personality and his primitive personality, spring some of his most memorable poetry.
This contrast serves also to illuminate some of his remarkable uses of language, and the imaginative contradictions within his images. Much has been written of that language, the exotic and archaic words, the concrete names of strange trades and professions culled from distant parts of the world, belonging to French speech, but a speech seldom heard in poetry. Valery Larbaud, in his introduction to the Russian edition of Anabase (as early as 1926), thus records the impact of this strange tongue on contemporary French writers: "In his hands the language of French poetry is like some splendid thoroughbred he is riding; he uses its qualities but forces it to move at a gait new to it, and contrary to its habits." Perse does not use words in a foreign tongue, except an occasional American noun, and never the expressions or images from any literature, except the Bible as myth, or from history, or from what he calls the Great Books. But in the imaginative image, the image perhaps based on a real act or emotion, the startling twist, the unexpected, is, as it were, the sound of that other voice. "At the pitch of passion, at the peak of desire, the same gull on the wing." …"he who discovers one day the very perfume of his soul, in the planking of a new sail boat."…"Et il y avait aussi bien à redire à cette enseigne du bonheur, sur vos golfes trop bleus, comme le palmier d'or au fond des boîtes à cigares." Over and over again, the anastrophic voice speaks and the eye sees, the naked, impudent eye, never impressed by the accepted, the classic view, but, as in Anabase, with a quick, crude touch of the actual, "la ville jaune, casquée d'ombre, avec ses caleçons de filles aux fenêtres."
In Éloges he has immortalized some of the picture memories of his own childhood in Guadaloupe and the West Indies, where, as a very French product of French parents, he was born and spent the first twelve years of his life. Here as a child of a fresh, explorative nature, he was observant at once of vast aspects and definite details—"the sea like a sky," the "wounding of sugar cane at the mill", "the happy adventure of a million children rushing to the shore, wearing their eyelashes like umbels of flowers." Seldom has the quality of childhood been more sensitively expressed than in the verse where he tells his nurse not to pull his hair, as she brushes it, ending with this description of his own preoccupations:
je sortirai, car j'ai affaire: un insecte m'attend pour traiter. Je me fais joie
du gros oeil à facettes: anguleux, imprévu, comme le fruit du cyprès.
Ou bien j'ai une alliance aves les pierres veinéesbleu: etvous me laissez également,
assis, dans l'amitié de mes genoux.
The two important strains of personality were evident in this poet from his earliest beginnings. Even the little boy sitting in the friendship of his knees was aware of existence on more than one level. He looked at the immediate world of his elders, listened to "things said in profile," and took his place within the formal pattern of a colonial homestead. The authoritative patrician, whom he saw in his father, surveying his plantation, directing and teaching his dependents, became symbolic, and the whole country of this childhood remembrance was an ordered hierarchy. He fitted into it, now from one side, now from the other, young and imperious, or the little savage who loved a horse, remembering with affection his mulatto nurse who smelt deliciously of castor bean, and the servitors in the tall wooden house whose names he did not know, but whose faces
insonores, couleur de papaye et d'ennui, qui s'arrêtaient derrière nos chaises comme des astres morts.
He was impatient with the sick man who wished to stop the boat, fascinated by the dead fish-head which jeered, the Negro towering like a prophet about to shout into a conque, and the "yellow black-spotted-purple-at-the-base flowers that are used for the diarrhea of horned animals." The memory of the tropic islands and waters of Éloges is never the sentimental backward looking to a happier time. It represents a Garden of Eden of peculiar purity and vitality, a state of mind, a time of discovery of man and beast. The nostalgia for this land he framed into a series of short poem sketches called Images à Crusoé. Here the free adventurer and explorer is imprisoned in a city The evening descends in a "reek of men," and symbols of the parrot, his Man Friday, and his goatskin parasol return to mock him with their metamorphoses into their civilized degenerations.
Thus at the outset of Perse's poetic career the two deep and underlying contrasts make themselves felt—the man of authority and the impulsive, the natural man. The aristocratic thread of personality does not belong to any traditional point of view, or attach itself to any social or economic system. It is a spiritual nobility which assumes lineage of pure blood, in animals as among men. It implies strength and decision, freedom from waste mixtures; blood that is purified, ideas that are renewed by contact with the sources of life.
And alongside of this strain of classic restraint runs the other, the free, the uncivilized, the radical overthrower of ancient systems, the innovator, the lover of wild and empty places, "flagrants et nul," where life may start again, the man with bare head and empty hands, whose eyes are for the new day, the new forces stirring in the world, even if they should become forces which will overwhelm him.
It might be easy to exaggerate what this Antillian childhood planted in him. His love for it returns in images again and again. Paul Claudel speaks of him as belonging to the West, the land of the setting sun toward which turn a poet's desires. But the years in which he wandered among the islands in comparative freedom were counterbalanced later by the classical French education in town and university, including studies in both law and medicine, the contact of reality with men in military service, the development continually of the delights of botanist, anthropologist and geographer. Unlike the city bred Frenchman, he was always ready to travel, to wander, to explore any corner of the earth, preferably the parts where man had not set foot, but at least where man's life had not become so crystalized that the unexpected could not upset it.
This interest in the bizarre, which has been remarked by critics and called "exotic" by different names, and which finds expression in his impatience before certain usually accepted forms of art, springs from a conviction that the thing which is perfectly finished is dead. The form which is entirely harmonious and of its time, has expressed itself fully, can say no more, and Perse finds no incentive in contemplating the past. The past appears only as affecting the present and the future. Within these poems nothing is ever static. "I honor the living," he cries at the end of Éloges. He is essentially a poet of the verb, of action. The incongruous which he enumerates many times, the strange juxtapositions of dignity and impudence, the classical restraint yet barbaric interference, these things are not fossils, they carry the seeds of life, are still in flux, and express the moving and vital world wherein as poet he lives. He writes in Vents "et trois feuilles errantes autour d'un osselet de Reine morte mènent leur dernière ronde." For the moment the three leaves and the knuckle bone of the dead Queen, whether he imagined or saw them, expressed a point of silence and the futility of pride.
Into these strange poetic dialogues in which, as Roger Caillois has pointed out, the reader is never quite certain who speaks or who is listening, run continually these contrasting strains of personality. One protagonist is pictured clearly for us by those who establish his fame, in L'Amitié du Prince, an early poem, published shortly after Éloges. The discourse here is turned over to "men on journeys arguing the things of the spirit." It is they who tell of the Prince, "the man of thin nostrils among us…. Healer and Assessor and Enchanter … I have seen the sign on your forehead … you may be silent among us, if that is your pleasure, or decide to go alone…. We ask of you nothing but to be there." "Homme très simple parmi nous; le plus secret dans ses desseins; dur à soi-même … et fomentant au plus haut point de l'âme une grande querelle." What this soul's quarrel is we are not told. But almost at once that other personality, the barbaric, the man in touch with live and sentient things, comes into being. The Prince "seizes by its nostrils an invisible quivering beast … and goes through the day that has the odor of entrails, and nourishes his clean thoughts on the whey of the morning." There are descriptions of the Prince with his aigrette, in his "mouchoir de tète," shaking dice and bones, covered with heavy gold. He is named no further, but the Narrator hastens to meet him saying that "friendship is welcome, like a gift of odorant leaves." This poem, part of a spiritual biography called "La Gloire des Rois," ends at each section with...
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