To a man whose first poems were published in 1909 and who, though widely acclaimed by his fellow writers, remained for years totally unknown outside literary circles, public honors have at last come in rich measure. In the space of little more than a year he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the National Grand Prize for Literature in Paris, and the International Prize for Poetry in Belgium. Furthermore, he was chosen by eighty-six French poets to bear the title of “Prince of Poets,” an honor that he declined. Lastly, he was given the Award of Merit by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1960.
It is unfortunately true that today, in spite of an ever-widening reading public, poetry is less and less read, and a thousand times it has been explained that this avoidance of poetry is the direct result of its constantly increasing difficulty. Nowadays it is taken for granted that any contemporary poem will be obscure; that it will be packed with either literary or personal allusions that are incomprehensible to the reader, or that the syntax and imagery will be so densely woven as to present an impenetrable jungle. Of no modern poet are these statements truer than of Perse. The natural question of the reader: “What is this poem about?” is extremely hard to answer when the poem is by Saint-John Perse, who is quoted as having described his poetry as “a long single sentence without break and forever unintelligible.”
On the subject of obscurity in modern poetry the author had something to say in his speech of acceptance of the Nobel Award, to the effect that poetry is obscure, not because of its nature but because it explores the darkness of the human soul and the mystery of being. To this statement the impatient reader might conceivably reply, “Is the human soul any darker at the present than it has been hitherto? Is the mystery enveloping human existence any darker than in the past?” One would like to have the poet’s answer.
But to turn to the poem itself. It is a prose poem, the author’s usual vehicle, though somewhat shorter and hence more compressed than are some of his earlier works. It is written in his familiar style: an elaborate chant, a kind of solemn invocation, as if the author were addressing a divinity that could be approached only through a sonorous, ritualistic ceremony. In reading the poetry of Perse, one always has the impression of a ceremony—not of the rococo ceremony of Versailles but of an almost archaic rite out of some very ancient, primitive civilization. The long, sweeping sentences full of superlatives (tres haut, tres grand occur again and again) have the lofty dignity of a Greek chorus and the impersonality of a traditional invocation chanted by priests.
The invocation of CHRONIQUE, however, is addressed to the “Great Age” in which man now finds himself. It is an age, a century, whose entrails and viscera have been rent, when the finger of man has been probing into the sky. Man surges forward on his unlimited course like a horseman who is driving his steed with its last ounce of strength to cross some high mountain pass, buffeted by a great wind that bends him back. One might say that the poet beholds the countless generations of men without names, without even faces, pushing forward to this great victory at the crest. It is this age, in which man, having slowly gathered together all his forces over uncounted centuries, has at last reached his fulfillment, ready to face what may come, for tomorrow there will be the thunder and lightning of the summit.
This has been the age of man’s probing into the sky to unravel the last secrets of nature because we could no longer accept ignorance as our lot. For the elders with their stone books have failed us: they did not speak the living word. Science alone cannot fulfill man’s needs. Here the author touches on one of the most fought-over questions of the last century and a half: does the scientist or the poet offer the clearer way to truth? Beginning, perhaps, with Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians, the cry has grown ever stronger that only science can give us ultimate truth; that poetry is at best, as Bentham claimed, only a minor pleasure, to be cultivated by a few. In his speech already referred to, Perse put himself in the tradition of Blake and Shelley, for, though not claiming that poetry is pure reality, he does maintain that it gives us a reality beyond the scope of the scientist. Modern science has opened to man vistas filled with the greatest drama, but the spiritual adventure of poetry need yield nothing to science. Indeed, Perse claims for poetry a very high place: it rekindles the fire of man’s passion in his search for truth.
In awarding the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy spoke of Perse’s “soaring flight and the evocative imagery of his poetry.” This citation expresses very well the special technique that the author has developed. We have returned to Baudelaire’s “Correspondences,” where “Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se repondent.” The difference is that Perse has turned his back on the source from which contemporary poetry has derived most of its images and correspondences and its unusual associations; that is, the stony city, the megalopolis in which modern man is trapped. Perse goes instead to the life of simple yet immensely dignified people: herdsmen, sailors, villagers. These people are timeless in that we never know when or even where they live, except that they are members of some primitive society and that their lives are marked by a kind of archaic gravity. Perhaps a childhood spent in the West Indies gave Perse this feeling for the primitive, as it unquestionably gave him the tropical luxuriance of imagery that has been characteristic of his previous verse.
One critic has said of Perse that he has used rare words with greater success than has any other French poet since Hugo. The reader, however, never feels that the poet has been combing lexicons for unusual language; these words seem to come naturally to him. Again, the background of the tropics has provided him with a vocabulary filled with names of plants and animals little known to the reader from other shores: the frigate bird, the harpy eagle, the wizard snake. He is fond of terms drawn from zoology, botany, geology. CHRONIQUE, however, is more restrained, even austere; the landscape is not that of a tropical island or of some unnamed ancient city (as in SEAMARKS)—it is the whole earth from all sides. The landscape is more stylized, as in an illuminated manuscript, to suit the solemnity and impersonality of the invocation, for in CHRONIQUE the poet is even more impersonal than is his custom, as if he were speaking through the mask of a Greek actor. His style has even been called “haughty”; yet its manner is not so much haughtiness as the gravity befitting a solemn occasion. So much of modern poetry has been characterized by the conversational tone introduced by Eliot that we are no longer accustomed to the “grand manner” and it seems strange to us.
And what of this century when, as Perse says, man lives on what is beyond death? For the poet it is not an age of despair. Man is the herdsman of the future; he need not cover his face, for he has the knowledge that his soul is growing to greatness. It is an age that demands the most that man can give, and it is towards this crest that he has been struggling through the centuries. Perse’s long, slow, solemnly chanted invocation ends with an appeal for the “Great Age” to look upon us and take the measure of our hearts.