(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Galand, René. Saint-John Perse. New York: Twayne, 1972. Ideal for serious research. Discusses the themes, symbolism, and influences on Perse’s poetry in a systematic and chronological order. Includes a chronology of Perse’s life and an extensive bibliography.

Gallagher, Mary. “Seminal Praise: The Poetry of Saint-John Perse.” In An Introduction to Caribbean Francophone Writing: Guadeloupe and Martinique, edited by Sam Haigh. New York: Berg, 1999. Analyzes the “highly complex connection” between the Caribbean and Perse’s poetry.

Little, Roger. Saint-John Perse. London: Athlone Press, 1973. Excellent discussion of the collected poems, extremely helpful for beginning a study of the poet. Includes chapters on Perse’s other writings and ways in which to interpret his poetry. Bibliography.

Loichot, Valérie. “Saint-John Perse’s Shipwrecked Plantation: Éloges.” In Orphan Narratives: The Postplantation Literature of Faulkner, Glissant, Morrison, and Saint-John Perse. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007. Analyzes how Éloges and other works of postslavery literature reflect the violence of plantation slavery.

Mehlman, Jeffrey. “Saint-John Perse: Discontinuities.” In Émigré New York: French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan, 1940-1944. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Chronicles the lives of Perse and other French writers who spent World War II living in exile in New York City.

Ostrovsky, Erika. Under the Sign of Ambiguity: Saint-John Perse/Alexis Léger. New York: New York University Press, 1984. A chronological discussion of Perse’s life in relation to his poetry. Ostrovsky attempts to eliminate the ambiguities inherent in Perse’s poetry. Includes a bibliography.

Rigolot, Carol. Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse’s Conversations with Culture. Chapel Hill: Department of Romance Languages, University of North Carolina, 2001. Rigolot likens reading Perse’s poetry to “eavesdropping on a telephone conversation in which only one side is audible.” She analyzes his use of dialogue in his poetry, focusing on his conversations with a range of historical figures. Chapter 1 focuses on Éloges.

Sterling, Richard L. The Prose Works of Saint-John Perse: Towards an Understanding of His Poetry. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. A good source for twentieth century French aesthetics, especially in relation to Perse’s poetry. Includes a good bibliography.