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 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.
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 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...
(The entire section is 4,208 words.)