Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747
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 the lack of precise spatial and temporal references by creating sweeping epic verses that carry the reader along with the Leader on his conquests and discoveries.
Perse’s encyclopedic vocabulary, the use of somewhat obscure words—anabasis, for example—is characteristic of his unique style. While his vocabulary conveys extreme precision, and in the contexts of botany and zoology is almost scientific in its specificity, the structure of individual cantos in Anabasis is often elliptical and sometimes difficult to follow. Perse does not guide the reader by means of a simple, straightforward style. Rather, his complex images at times produce cryptic meanings that do not always reveal themselves to the reader but that add to the mystery that emanates from the poem. The characters, for example, receive little realistic differentiation, allowing them to convey more than individual personalities; they express the essence of pioneers, adventurers, and nomads. More important than the characters themselves is the ultimate action of the poem: the foundation and organization of a society. The captivating rhythm of Anabasis is built on symmetries, alliterations, assonances, and internal rhymes that carry the reader along in the same majestic and expansive movements that characterize the anabasis. Human movement is, therefore, at the core of the poem’s imagery. The use of language is often elliptical, reflecting the idea of movement and omitting linking elements that follow a standard language usage that renders a text easily understandable. Perse’s style, lyric and evocative, follows an internal logic different from standardized usage, but that conveys, for example, the urgency of movement or an act in progress.
Skillful translations of Anabasis exist in Russian, Italian, and German. The fact that the poem is so widely read is testimony to the manner in which its grandeur captivates the reader through the portrayal of humanity’s collective history, of its epic aspirations to establish modern civilization, and of its constant yearning to surpass the here and now. The universal appeal of Perse’s work is undoubtedly the presence of allegory and symbolism, elements that unite people in a shared cultural experience that transcends time and space.
Saint-John Perse is the poet of humanity’s struggle to surpass itself. His gift of poetic language achieves its apotheosis in complex and exotic images: “Like milch-camels, gentle beneath the shears and sewn with mauve scars, let the hills march forth under the scheme of the harvest sky.” His poetry functions as myth in a modern world, paradoxically subject to fragmentation and disunity, for it expresses a vision of history that reminds one of the cohesive influence of collective action, of our past, and of a future that will forever loom on the horizon of the human imagination.
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