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Perse, St.-John (Pseudonym of Alexis Saint-Léger Léger) 1887–1975
A French poet, Perse first published his verse under a pseudonym to conceal his identity as a diplomat. He was a political exile during the Second World War, and during this period his work is imbued with a sense of solitude and loss. His poetry reflects his love of nature and explores the sensual exchange between man and his surroundings, presented in a highly wrought, almost classical verse style. Perse collaborated with the artist Georges Braque on a volume entitled Birds. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 61-64.)
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[In Pluies, a] magnificent poem, which is at once a kind of litany, or litany of litanies, and an allegorical history of mankind, a history in terms of metaphor, the poet drives his tandem of methods with complete mastery. The whole meaning, the history of man in terms of rain, or the interpretation of him in terms of rain—rain as the fertilizer, rain as the purifier, even as the principle itself of life and change—gives a majestic centripetal design to the poem, and a tremendous sense of controlled richness, but it is also of such a nature, even more so than in the case of Anabase, as to make the utmost possible use of incidental, but directed, improvisation. With the beginning of each of his nine canticles the poet can return, as it were, to his base, his central theme, only then to allow himself, in the long, rich, flexible triads, the dispersed exfoliation of imaginative reference, the sheaves of image and metaphor, which so wonderfully evoke a sense of the many-corridored, many-layered, many-echoed and many-faceted past of man. Here too the use of highly affective language, and what at moments seems an almost "blind" symbolism, is precisely what contributes most to the poem's remarkable projection of the racial unconscious: it isn't about, it becomes and is, our sad rich dreadful glorious disastrous foul and beautiful history. We emerge with it, shedding and altering; and at the end, after a prayer to rain, it is as if by a ritualistic achieving of self-knowledge we had released ourselves from what is binding or shameful and were now free to go forward again. Surely this is one of the finest poems of the century. (pp. 321-22)
Conrad Aiken, "Perse, St. John" (originally published in a different version under a different title in The New Republic, April 16, 1945), in his Collected Criticism (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt), Oxford University Press, New York, 1968, pp. 320-23.
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However much one may see seeds of Perse's style and imagery in the earliest published work, and see the same forceful guiding hand behind all the poems, a development is [clear]…. [It] is a gradual move away from a specific preoccupation with the physical, through broader connotations of the material image, towards a gesture of speculation on the metaphysical. It is a shift in emphasis rather than of subject, which remains essentially grounded in this world.
Early suggestions of an interest in the in-between states on which Perse is to build so much offer only in retrospect a basis for wider application. Reading Eloges , for example, the immediate reaction is to the physical and sensual qualities of the poems. The plenitude of the land and solitude of the sea are posited explicitly, without the poet delving into the nature and implications of their point of meeting. Halcyon expanses of purity stand in opposition to the 'végétales ferveurs' of the poet's tropical island home. Distinctions were sharp, brilliant colours reflecting the...
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child's clear-cut ideas, brought up as he was with a sure sense of hierarchy and propriety in all things…. (p. 785)
If the child has an instinctive liking for the doorstep (and how often children seem to concentrate their games at this point midway between safety and adventure) … it is Exil that brings us face to face with its full poetic significance. It is Exil, too,… that specifies and elaborates upon the conjunction of threshold and beach…. [It] is on the shore—the threshold—of the New World, though essentially on any shore in the world, that Perse can construct his poem out of the very quicksand ambivalence of the site. (p. 786)
Both Exil and Amers are played out at the edge of the sea, and both derive much of their central imagery from the fact. But in most of the other poems too the critical shore is mentioned or its equivalent proposed. If it starts essentially as an expression of la poésie des départs with which Perse was to sympathize so much … it did not remain at that stage…. Ideas and epithets of distance recur more and more often in Perse's output, and that of departure and travel becomes the very framework for the majestic epic of oriental spaces, Anabase. As an expression of the nomadic nature of man's spirit, it epitomizes the very notion of la poésie des départs while avoiding any of the superficiality or Romantic exoticism into which the genre has all too often slipped. Reinforced by all the overtones of poetic creation and profound spirituality, the poem concludes triumphantly…. The precarious restlessness is something accepted as a force for good. To stand still is to atrophy, to die. Consequently it is seen as an integral part of the human condition that however splendid and satisfying the immediate environment may appear, we are always aware of an urge to 'fare forward'. We are always in a state of exile, and none more so than the man who uses his faculties to the full, since he is more fully receptive to the present, but also more acutely aware of his unfulfilled potential.
Although Anabase shows an important manifestation of the same idea, the terms are necessarily different since the poem is set inland, although starting beside the sea. The series of American poems includes, apart from Exil and Amers which take place on the sea-shore itself, a number of references to its importance…. The poet's own position is clearly allied to that of the special intercourse of land and sea, or of any equivalent image evoking ambiguity, insecurity, and at the same time creativity, poetry being born of the conjunction of such forces, in themselves nothing, but being sublimated through the art of words. (pp. 787-89)
The extension of [the] newly found positive aspect of the sea shore as the threshold to new vistas of plenitude can well be seen by reference to Amers. The multiplicity of connotation in the title itself suggests that of the poem: apart from the 'Seamarks' of the translated title, there are echoes of bitter gall, of 'amour' (sometimes spelt 'amer' in medieval French) and of 'mer' itself. From the poem, with its central imagery revolving around the sea and love, the title could be a crossing of mer with amour. It is truly Persean that an actual word with even wider associations, and just as appropriate, should have been used. But lurking also is what Miłosz called 'l'amer amour de l'autre monde'. (pp. 789-90)
[The] constantly repeated notion of being on the verge of some marvellous discovery, whether of a rare plant or bird or of some mystical insight, provides intense excitement, and captivates by its immense enthusiasm for life in all its forms…. [There] is a double view of the relationship between things and the sea: if things pay homage or lemming-like disappear into the primeval element, it is the sea, 'ellemême voyageuse', which allows things to be appreciated for what they are…. The sea is in its turn the threshold, as we have seen, to that sort of 'super-reality' in which things play their part, both as themselves and as images of metaphysical counterparts…. Both spatial and temporal concepts are included in a sort of 'pan-time', partaking of both immensity and eternity…. The maieutics of threshold and beach sharpen sensitivity so as to allow an over-all appreciation of its significance. Only an attachment to concrete phenomena can permit any exploration of mystery and abstraction.
Not only in space, but also in time Perse shows a predilection for the threshold of day and night, and again these are gradually assembled into a broader conception of man standing on the verge of eternity. Any mystical tendency which this might suggest is, as in other fields, subordinate to the physical bases of the idea. The mention of dawn or dusk comes so frequently to Perse's pen that elaboration seems scarcely necessary. What is true of the spatial images of the threshold is also true of the temporal…. But dawn and dusk are not the only fulcrum-points of the fourth dimension. Noon and midnight are also springboards to something greater, and are frequently evoked in Perse's work…. Corresponding to the four main points of the day—dawn, noon, dusk and midnight—which are all temporal 'thresholds' in Perse's world, are their equivalent seasons in the course of the year: the solstices and equinoxes. Again links are forged with broader connotations, with the doorstep itself, with love, and with the intoxication of creation…. (pp. 790-92)
[Perse] is far more attracted to spatial than to temporal extension….
The virtue, then, of threshold, beach, dawn, and noon is a precariousness which heightens awareness. In itself, each 'threshold' remains unchanged, stated unequivocally as valid for its own sake. But like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, it must be present for the reaction to take place. The sublimation occurs without denying or denaturing the area of space or time which lies on either side of the threshold, yet with a very complete exploration of both the contents and limits of either direction. The dialectic is a form of dualism in which both elements are positive…. [Perse's] quest for order leads him from the precarious here and now into universal history and geography, but also into that spiritual infinity which alone can suggest a sense and pattern in existence. (p. 792)
Roger Little, "The Image of the Threshold in the Poetry of Saint-John Perse," in The Modern Language Review (© Modern Humanities Research Association 1969), October, 1969, pp. 777-92.
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[For Perse] symbolic and individual man, that is Man the species and man the solitary male human being, share many of the same qualities, and … these vary little throughout the poetry. Furthermore, it is in the light of his own conception of himself as a man that Perse perceives the outside world, the 'other' that, whether woman, earth, sea or muse, takes on a feminine aspect. (p. 555)
[By] placing between himself and the world a screen of praise, Perse maintains both his solitude and his liberty, preserving himself from involvement with a kind of diplomatic immunity. This situation is that of man throughout Perse's work; 'gardé par le sourire et par la courtoisie' …, he can tour the world at his leisure; his relationship with it is held at one remove, and he cannot be imprisoned in the immobility that he holds to be so dangerous to the human species…. All senses at the ready, he proceeds in search of the new and the unknown.
Man's role in relation to his fellow-men is seen in [Anabase] as one of creating order, either physical in the building of towns, or legal in the formulation of laws. This order can be inhabited by those for whom it is created, but not by its creator himself, who moves on to repeat the exercise elsewhere.
In Amitié du Prince the preoccupations of the major character are more spiritual and artistic. His public daytime role is sparsely described, simply as being 'd'être là' …, and to keep watch…. A more detailed account is given of his night-time activities; then he satisfies his sexual appetite, sings 'ses plus beaux chants de Prince' and pursues a spiritual debate with himself….
The association, by virtue of their non-public character, of sexual, artistic, and spiritual activities is again strongly made in Anabase, and here once more man asserts his domination over them, returning at dawn to his daytime role…. (p. 556)
[The] night-time pursuits are kept totally separate from man's public and daytime occupation, and man exercises his mastery over the temptations and delights they offer in order to pursue his nomadic path and his public function as builder and establisher of order.
In the Exil tetralogy, however, it is clear that this public function has ceased, and this fact allows the spiritual preoccupations evident especially in Amitié du Prince to play a wider and fuller role. The 'Étranger' becomes the 'Poète'; instead of building towns and founding laws, the latter, while still fundamentally concerned with the creation of order and the discovery and acceptance of the new, is engaged on a spiritual quest, saluting a new age and relaying his message of hope to the rest of humanity….
It can now be seen in what ways Perse's conceptions of the individual man and of humanity are the same: both go forth to conquer …, refusing either to submit or to involve themselves with the things and forces they observe around them: distance, freedom and praise are maintained to the end. Secondly, both individual man and Man are distinguished from the static society of men who inhabit the towns created for them, trapped in the routine of their habits and their customs. Perse's heroic conception is of a nomad rather than of a settler, of a hunter rather than a farmer, and remains constant throughout his work. (p. 557)
In direct contrast with individual man, the individual woman is associated primarily with staticity, with the pauses in man's nomadic life. From the first it is she who stays at home while the man pursues his wanderings…. In that pre-war poetry that describes not a childhood but the life of an adult, the woman's role is purely sexual; as we have seen, she had no part to play in man's public or daytime life…. [However], she has an association with man's other nocturnal pursuits. This parallel is used once more in Exil to introduce the first of the symbolic women to appear in the poetry, the Muse figure of the 'Mendiante'…. Unlike the physical women who appear in this tetralogy—the poet's mother and his mistress, 'sur l'autre rive' …, and the 'Etrangère'—who remain locked within their houses, in the latter case even refusing to contemplate the New World, the 'Mendiante', like man, is a wanderer, 'partouterrante'…. She is, also like him, a threshold creature, and at this site of ambiguity opening on to the outside and the unknown she brings to the nomad the spiritual and poetic newness that he now seeks.
There is another equally important difference in the characteristics accorded to femininity once this is seen as symbolic rather than physical: whereas the women of Anabase were sterile in the sense that man never contemplated the thought of childbirth, the symbolic forces are prolific with freshness and the unknown. The characteristics of the 'Pluies' illustrate this aspect of symbolic femininity very well.
Two very different sorts of force are brought to the town that the rains invade: there is on the one hand the violent and renewing, freshening strength of nature, symbolized by the vegetal complexity and disorder of the banyan tree, and on the other a possible form to contain this force, a form associated with gardens, the order man gives to or imposes on nature. Since it is not merely the city that is refreshed by the rains, but also the institution of language, the form is also seen as the metre, the rhythm to be imposed…. (pp. 557-58)
The domination of the female by the male, whatever the characteristics of the former, is the one constant element of the relationship between the two principles. (p. 558)
[The] 'Amante' and the 'Amant' are ambivalent figures, at once individuals meeting in a particular spatio-temporal situation, and representatives of Perse's view of humanity….
The poet's physical enjoyment of the woman's body [in Amers] is akin to the sensual delight he takes in living things in general, and implies no lasting involvement with the woman as a person. Later the physical sense of 'Amant' modulates rather abruptly into a more spiritual one, as the canto ends with a paean to the 'amants', 'seuls et libres, sans caution ni gage', who, whether male or female, are attributed the male—or more correctly, human—qualities of detachment and wandering. Thus the question of the personal fate of the 'Amante' is eluded, forgotten or, to take a more sympathetic view, transcended in this shift to an avowedly symbolic plane of thought. (p. 559)
In spite of the femininity of its force and fecundity, the sea symbolizes the spiritual reservoir within man, and it is therefore only to be expected that at the very centre of this most feminine of symbols we should find the ultimate personification of the male principle of order: 'Dieu l'Indivis gouverne ses provinces'…. It is precisely this principle that we have seen to animate man on his twin journeys through the material and spiritual domains of his existence, and the symbolic placing of it at the centre of 'la Mer identifiée à l'Être universal, s'y intégrant infiniment et y intégrant l'homme lui-même' is Perse's ultimate affirmation of his optimism about man's destiny.
Throughout the poetry then, and in spite of the varying qualities that are classified or personified under the sign of woman, the relationship between male and female remains constant, a reflection of Perse's view of man as triumphant nomad….
At the centre of the metaphysical picture that is presented in Amers is this conception of man as a nomad going from victory to greater victory, yet remaining emotionally detached from the fate of his enterprises. It is an attitude of the greatest optimism, and that it is consciously taken and asserted is evident from a number of prose texts…. Perse has written that Amers was intended specifically as an expression of this optimism…. It is therefore, on the poet's own admission, a one-sided view of man's destiny—just as one-sided, though obviously in the opposite direction, as the one he attacks. As such, it is difficult to reconcile with the avowed ambition of Amers, which in the same 'Note' is described in the following words: 'Reprise de la grande phrase humaine, à son plus haut mouvement de mer, pour une réintégration totale de l'homme sur ses deux plans complémentaires'—these being of course the material and spiritual domains into which Perse's world is characteristically divided. For how can we have a 'réintégration totale de l'homme' if a whole part of human experience and human possibility is systematically excluded and ignored?
The excluded part is that which, taken by itself, can lead to the nihilism that Perse rejects, and of which it is convenient to call one aspect, that of human experience, suffering…. Perse identifies his thesis and his synthesis, and does not bother to present an antithesis. (pp. 560-61)
[By] refusing, in this particular poem that is supposed to be an exaltation of the human condition, to depict or to refer to at any length, that part of human experience that might oppose such a view, Perse undervalues and renders suspect the very grandeur he is trying to celebrate. There is, one strongly suspects, in all human enterprises worthy of the name, a time for the gritting of the teeth, for wishing one had never started out; man's greatness can only be truly meaningful if he overcomes suffering and the difficulties that beset his path, and to exclude these from consideration both demeans the ultimate victory that Perse wishes to evoke, and renders it less credible….
[Perse] fails totally, in Amers, to depict the only background against which his heroic conception of man can have meaning, which is the essential ambiguity of the human condition—essential if only because there is so much of it, and so much variety through the dimensions of time and space, that almost any attitude of life, optimistic or pessimistic, can find evidence in its support. (p. 562)
One of the reasons for this imbalance, for this non-depiction of the totality of human experience and possibility lies in the separation of the symbolic and the individual levels of existence in Amers, and the fact that most of its action takes place on the former level. (p. 563)
[Almost] all the characters of Amers, with the possible exception of the 'Amants' at certain points of their dialogue, contemplate the drama of human destiny from some distance, separated even from each other. As we have seen, the dissatisfaction with man's progress felt by the various feminine figures in Amers does not in any way cast doubt upon his future triumphs. The symbolic view of 'Man' is completely separate from the men who live in the town that seeks renewal, and by divorcing the two notions of symbolic and temporal realities, as he does characteristically throughout his work, Perse is able to prevent any dissatisfaction with the latter from clouding his belief in the former, and thus avoids the real drama of human destiny. There is no direct confrontation between the two levels, no attempt to integrate the realities of human suffering and evil into the symbolic view of man, no dramatic development in any dialectical sense, and no conflict: Amers, describing a religious ritual rather than the human condition, is a work that can satisfy only the converted.
Coming to these rather negative conclusions about the most ambitious poem written by one of the world's most gifted poets is all the more painful when one contrasts Amers with some of his earlier work, and more especially with the Exil tetralogy. In these four poems an individual man is stripped to the bone of his detachment and the action is explicitly rooted in subjective experience, using this as a starting point for more symbolic and metaphysical speculation, rather than presenting these on their own as objective truth. Such symbolic figures as appear are related to an individual human being, to a particular spatio-temporal situation, rather than floating in an unrelated and ill-defined eternity. And in these poems, written at a time of enforced staticity in exile, Perse is confronted by precisely those problems and that part of human experience from which his carefully adopted diplomatic immunity normally shields him. In particular he is led to consider the fate of individual human beings, his mother, the 'Étrangère' and of course himself…. (pp. 563-64)
It is of course the case that he overcomes these difficulties, and the possible temptation of pessimism, by redonning his habitual mask of praise…. However, because the difficulties have been admitted and presented, because the world described is identifiably that of a human individual related to other members of the species, we feel that this triumph has substance….
[It] is at least partly this systematic exclusion of the depiction of human suffering and evil, and this divorce between symbolic and temporal reality that are responsible for the feeling that is commonly experienced by the reader of Amers once he has ceased to be impressed and even overwhelmed by the formidable prosodic mastery of the poem; the feeling that the work is, in its essence, hollow…. (p. 564)
John D. Price, "Man, Women, and the Problem of Suffering in Saint-John Perse," in The Modern Language Review (© Modern Humanities Research Association 1977), July, 1977, pp. 556-64.
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[There is] an affinity between Perse's poetry and the great sacred texts. This involves not only a wealth of legitimate interpretations and a sense of revealed truth, firmly rooted in Perse's case in physical realities, but also a carefully woven and infinitely pleasurable pattern of sound and inflexion. The establishment of this highly wrought texture and Perse's refusal of any preordained orthodoxy are what most clearly distinguished his work from Claudel's, and these two factors are crucial in recognizing Perse's very individual voice. The other aspect that singles him out is the one most often noted: his celebration of the world and its ways, and his ennoblement of even the humblest tasks and objects which fulfil their potential.
The quest for self-fulfilment indeed guides Perse's mind through its own labyrinth, with the outside world as a constant foil and fund of imagery, to an ecumenical vision of physical and spiritual totality, the peaceable eye at the centre of violent natural forces. He is an accomplisher rather than an innovator, blending many traditions and seeming to be a pioneer more because some of those traditions had long been out of fashion than because of any intractable extremism or hollow belief in originality for its own sake.
Roger Little, "The Eye at the Centre of Things," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspaper Ltd. (London), 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 7, 1977, p. 1155.
[The brief texts in Song for an Equinox] can be taken doubly: as a nostalgic recapitulation of the themes and forms that Perse explored and perfected during more than half a century of labor, or as a relatively easy and altogether pleasing initiation into the mysteries of the oeuvre. (p. 10)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1978, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 65, No. 1, (Winter, 1978).