Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1322 words.)