In 1960, Saint-John Perse, career diplomat and poet, received the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1916, he had been posted to the French legation in Peking and, during his China years, which lasted until 1921, traveled in Korea, Manchuria, Mongolia, and the Gobi Desert. The composition of Anabasis dates from this period. He is said to have written this work, his best known, in a Taoist temple overlooking the caravan routes leading to the northwest. T. S. Eliot published his English version of the poem, the first English translation of it, in 1930.
Perse explained that the poem, whose title means “military expedition” in the tradition of such mighty military leaders as Alexander the Great, depicts the loneliness of action and the breadth of human potential. A prose poem, it is allegorical; the action is seen through the deeds and words of the nameless Leader, who recites the text. Leader of a nomadic people, he remains faceless throughout the entire work, revealing his innermost thoughts as he speaks but never identifying his ancestry or the elements of his personal life. A similar lack of detail is noticed in all the other characters as well as in the time and place of the poem. Perse’s travels in Asia inspired the sweeping images he depicts of nomadic movement and conquest, although the geographical setting, apart from references to maritime and desert areas, is without identifying detail. The historical period is depicted with equal ambiguity for, although the peoples evoked in Anabasis live in a relatively complex society, as seen in allusions to agriculture, architecture, blacksmithing, and libraries, a precise time frame in world history is not conveyed to the reader. Perse’s objective is to capture the essence of human action in the process of realization and, in doing so, compensate for...
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