Éloges and Other Poems Summary
Alexis Saint-Léger Léger, who wrote under the name of Saint-John Perse, was born in Guadeloupe and had a long and very distinguished career in both the prewar and postwar French diplomatic service. He thus represents that peculiarly French combination of the public servant and the man of letters. Though his Anabase (1924; Anabasis, 1930) was translated by so famous a writer as T. S. Eliot, he remained little known outside Europe. It is improbable that his work will ever achieve any wide degree of popularity; nevertheless, because of his marked influence on twentieth century poetry, he remains an important figure.
“Pictures for Crusoe,” the earliest of the poems included in the volume, should be read first; they are the clearest and, once understood, provide a sort of key to the other sections. In them, the reader is made immediately aware of the author’s childhood spent in the tropics; there is a succession of luxuriant images from the island left behind by Robinson Crusoe and the expression of nostalgia for clean wind, sea, and sand, and for the brilliant colors of dawn and sunset. It is the theme of this series of short poems that Crusoe’s real disaster occurs when he returns to the cities of men and leaves forever the lost tropic island. Everything he brings with him, every symbol of the island—the goatskin parasol, the bow, the parrot—decays in the sour dirt of the city; the seed of the purple tropic flower that he plants will not grow; even Goodman Friday, as he steals from the larder, leers with eyes that have become sly and vicious. Crusoe weeps, remembering the surf, the moonlight, and other, distant shores.
The same theme of nostalgia, much less clearly stated, runs through the longer poems “To Celebrate a Childhood” and “Praises.” Here the poet tries to recapture, by the same device of a series of pictures, the lost world of a childhood against the background of violent contrasts of brilliant light and shining water and crowding vegetation. The lush images succeed one another with bewildering rapidity until the lost childhood is re-created. Indeed, the images are heaped with such profusion that the poems become almost cloying, like overripe fruit. There is a shift of emphasis here, for no longer is there a contrast between two worlds, the island and the city, but rather an almost total recall of both the beauty and the squalor of the tropics.
The second section of the book, “The Glory of Kings,” consists of four poems, two written in 1910 and two in 1924. These poems are much more obscure than those in the first section. In them, Perse seems to have moved from the background of his childhood in Guadeloupe to the world of some primitive people where nameless speakers address praises to their half-human, half-divine rulers—the queen, a mysterious sphinxlike creature, at once the queen and the mother; the prince, with his towering headdress, the healer and enchanter, keeping vigil. It may be that Perse is trying to express something of the spirit in which members of a primitive society identify themselves with their rulers, until the king becomes the symbol, indeed the very soul, of his people and is rejoiced in as such. By implication, this belief is set against the critical, questioning attitude of twentieth century human beings, shorn of reverence, cut off from “the sources of the spirit.” “The Glory of Kings” seems to develop further a theme that is already implicit in “Pictures for Crusoe,” the cult of the primitive that appears in the work of so many twentieth century writers.
Under the first pen name of their author, these early poems by Perse are referred to by Marcel Proust, who, in Sodome et Gomorrhe(1922; Cities of the Plain , 1927), gives an appreciation of them and an indication of the likely reaction of the average reader: Lying on the narrator’s bed is a book of the admirable but ambiguous poems of Saint-Léger Léger; Madame Celeste Albaret picks up the book and asks if he...
(The entire section is 1,593 words.)