Perse, St.-John (Pseudonym of Alexis Saint-Léger Léger)
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.)
[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...
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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...
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John D. Price
[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...
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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...
(The entire section is 299 words.)