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Perse, St.-John (Pseudonym of [Marie-René] Alexis Saint-Léger Léger) 1887–
Perse, a French poet, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960. He is best known for Exile and Seamarks. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
Perse composes poems which rely almost as much on their sonorous music as on their, literally, farfetched imagery for a bizarre effectiveness. His adopted name is a key to the character of his poetry, carrying as it does associations with the desert, with the hermit's diet or the fragrance of sherbets in a Persian rose garden and the whiff of sweat and leather from a Persian mount after a lion hunt. And, since "la déesse aux yeux perses," the goddess of the blue-green eyes, was Athene, perhaps the name also suggests wisdom.
Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), Doubleday, revised edition, 1963, pp. 187-88.
Saint-John Perse's unexpected collaboration with Braque [Birds] began as a poetic meditation on birds and turned into a poem about space and the rapture of the poet. Exile, migrant and navigator of the air, Perse's bird, like the rhapsodist, brings the seasons together. His allegiance to life and to nature is that of the ascetic. Launched on his wings, doubly loyal to air and land, he liberates himself from the "tragic shores of the real," only to reaffirm, through the austerity of flight, a sense of peace and unity achieved at the very frontiers of man. He is a "prince of ubiquity," a creator of his own flight.
The topos of the bird is one of the richest and most elusive in Western literature. Soarer of apocalypse or of lyric ecstasy, warbler of songs or predatory circler of the upper spheres, the avian creature has been, in turn, symbol of freedom, pride, creative fancy and Icarian ambition. To the imprisoned spirit it meant freedom and movement. To the spiritually oppressed it represented elation and escape….
Partly a votive poem, partly an oeuvre de circonstance (an almost unique occurrence in Perse's production), Birds curiously combines impressionistic-essayistic meditations with authentic lyricism. By coincidence, Braque and Saint-John Perse, who came to like and respect each other, were both at work on the bird motif. For his projected series of plates, L'Ordre des oiseaux, Braque had chosen an epigraph from Perse's Amers (Seamarks). When they agreed to collaborate on a de-luxe album, the poet's own text developed, partly at least, into a meditation on Braque's avian order….
[The] themes of space, movement, migration have been permanent themes in Perse's work, ever since Anabase, and even earlier in his Antillean poems. The very word anabasis suggests, in the original Greek, expedition, travel and adventure, as well as ascension. This exploration is that of the spirit, but it is conceived first of all in topophilic terms: "… o seekers, o finders of reasons to move elsewhere…." Roger Caillois, in Poétique de St.-John Perse, describes the poet's creation as a "universe of extreme exile." Years later, in his Nobel prize acceptance speech, Perse himself seemed to confirm the notion of a spiritual quest translated into spatial terms. The "great adventure of the poetic spirit" was in his mind related to the "expansion in the moral infinite" of man. It is only appropriate that the Nobel Prize citation should have stressed the "soaring flight" of Perse's poetry. The very titles of his works (Winds, Rains, Exile, Snows, Seamarks) suggest the drama of elemental forces played out in space, as well as the proud isolation of man communing with these forces, and, through them, with other men.
The relationship between love and space has perhaps never been more beautifully sung than in Perse's long sea-poem, Amers (Seamarks)…. There is in Perse's work, a noticeable freedom from Christian beliefs and from the themes of sin. But more significant than this aloofness from Christian anguish or Christian commitment is the positive mystic bond which Perse repeatedly establishes between the private and the universal. He himself, in a commentary on Amers, clearly stated his desire to bring into focus the integrity of man as well as his taste for the divine. He chose the sea because this "reservoir of the eternal forces" symbolically represents the fulfillment and the surpassing of himself by man. A choric ode within a dramatic framework, Amers proclaims a magnificent solidarity with life. But it does so at the level of individual destiny and individual joy….
Perse is endowed with a voice at once intensely personal, representative of modern trends, and utterly independent vis-à-vis current fashions and practices. Exploiter of etymologies, grand master of the ellipsis and the homologue, conjurer of immense and mobile images to which his prosody is the servant, Perse shuns ambiguities, ironies and the precious games of the esthete. The enormous extension and specialization of his vocabulary are often baffling; the ceremonial tone of his free verse is at times awesome. But there is no hermetic impulse here. Syntax itself plays a humble part. What matters is the substantive: the palpable reality of the world.
Compared with his highest achievements (Anabase, Poème á l'Etrangère, Amers), Perse's bird-poem seems to come a little short of greatness. Wavering between the poetic essay and the lyrical meditation, it occasionally even lapses into the didactic….
The thematic texture is opulent; the boldness of the images and their intricate resonances remain as admirable as in some of the exemplary works. Love of the life-principle and of individual vitality are streamlined by graceful flight and by an almost spiritual luminosity….
Nautical similes and metaphors have their place in most of Perse's poetry; they are exploited with singular appropriateness in Birds…. Perse is a master of technical terms. But he is also a master of grandiose and even somber images…
Victor Brombert, "Perse's Avian Order," in The Hudson Review (copyright 1966 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 3, Autumn, 1966, pp. 494-97.
St.-John Perse is a poet who is not only highly original and modern but who is so in so original a way that those in pursuit of some avant-garde may fail to see how new and how strong a synthesis his imagination has created. One … example of his characteristic and inimitable beauty, precision, complexity, and contemporaneity I give in English:
"At the hypnotic point of an immense eye inhabited by the painter, like the very eye of the cyclone on its course—all things referred to their distant causes and all fires crossing—there is unity at last renewed and diversity reconciled. After such and so long a consummation of flight, behold the great round of birds painted on the zodiacal wheel and the gathering of an entire family of wings in the yellow wind, like one vast propeller hunting its blades."
This superb image is even more powerful in French; "renewed" is an imprecise translation of "renoué," which means literally reknitted, the ends as it were retied. Nor am I happy about the propeller "hunting" its blades, though at first sight it is impressive and powerful; is not "en quête de ses pales" rather "in quest of"? This would seem nearer to the suggestion of a reassembling of parts into the whole which they compose than the image of hunting, with its implicit duality of hunter and hunted.
Kathleen Raine, "St.-John Perse's 'Birds'," in The Southern Review, Vol. III, No. 1, Winter, 1967, pp. 255-61.
The pseudonym St.-John Perse was meant partly to force his work to stand on its own, and perhaps it does, but I think it stands firmer when you know the hard and willful statesman Alexis Saint-Leger is behind it, guaranteeing the reality of many of its tones and attitudes, which otherwise could seem a retarded kind of posturing. In America, for example, where anything like a feudal culture or a courtly culture is a regional ruin at best, a poet who took up an aristocratic manner and made as much of rank and ceremony, of ritual and blazonry, as Perse does, would seem only pretentious, and pretending to something silly at that. The attitudes in Perse may be exotic to us, and unsympathetic, but they are real and not to be dismissed lightly. What panache there is to them is a native and recurrent French thing. And of course they beautifully serve his epic manner.
His work, or the sequence of considerable works taken together—Anabasis, Exile, Rains, Snows, Winds, Seamarks, Chronique, Birds—is, like the Divine Comedy, not really an epic. An epic has to have a story, preferably dramatic, at least one good battle and several heroes at odds with each other. Perse's work has several properties of the epic—elevation, rapidity, a certain ferocity, and a wonderful imagination of space and movement—but his essential form is rather the dithyramb or Dionysiac hymn….
Though it is not the Christian God which sustains his work (to the annoyance of Claudel), something reasonably divine does, what he calls Universal Being. It might be a dead end, but it is more essentially the source of movement, if not movement itself, manifesting itself in the movements of the elements, especially in waves, but also in the Winds, Rains, Snows, of his titles. For Perse poetry too is first of all movement, and the movement of his verse follows as closely as it can the movement of the elements, so there is a sort of ritual communion with a divine essence, even a kind of identification of the celebrant with his god, in a dance and trance, as in Dionysiac ritual. For us in America I think the high and wide movement is intoxicating, at least the most vivid pleasure his work affords, but it is also sacred and often expressed in a hieratic language, and that is rather a nuisance….
The movement, the essential, one can take straight, and also the constantly varying and detailed imagery which is propelled by it and made dynamic. Almost everything in Perse travels, be it the nomadic or exiled heroes, the winds and rains, or the plants, which do more than sit there and grow—they disseminate themselves incredibly on the winds…. Perse's eye for telling touches of color and for curious or intricate shapes is very fine, and so is his sense of surfaces, consistencies, and materials, from feathers to castiron, from mucus to sand. The sensuality of the poems is tropical, and again quite natural, after a childhood in Guadaloupe.
It puts him in accord with our current dogma of concreteness and specificity, indeed he himself has spoken sharply against abstractions; but his work is full of abstractions both implicit and overt, some of them rather forbidding….
His fondness for scientific terms, precise, rare, and exotic to the standard literary vocabulary, is as much a wish to classify as to particularize. If I were what he indiscriminately calls an Anglo-Saxon I should be happy to retort that his career as a diplomat has taken its toll, and that he sees the universe from the point of view of Administration, which has to deal in ranks, types, functions, abstractions, and Credit, as well as in funds and back files of precise Information….
What is most engaging in Perse's work is not so much its elevation as its openness and expansiveness, its unrelenting sense of the frontier, geographical frontiers, but also the frontiers of human thought, or of "the human". And all of it in movement. This Whitmanesque side of him, which is large, I find congenial; the Dantesque side, with the chivalry, the scholasticism, and the "imperious" manner, I do not.
Donald Sutherland, "Le Haut et Le Pur," in Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1972, pp. 47-56.
There is no doubt that [Anabase] broke new ground in the field of poetic technique. It is epic in length and subject yet lacks the clear narrative element normal in the epic. It is lyric in its attention to the details of the interrelation of sound and sense and in the personal involvement of the poet. It is dramatic in its clear characterisation and use of snatches of dialogue, a great moving fresco against a desert backcloth. Its sometimes stark juxtapositions of statements leave out what epic would indulge in the shape of extended similes, explanations and digressions. It is like a kaleidoscope in that the material does not change but the patterns and textures do, elements being related not so much by tangible material as by imaginative leaps. It is like a film in that the movement of characters, complete with dialogue and gesture, through clearly coloured archetypal spaces is always with us. It is a distillation of epic, and as such it is interesting to note that the first version was four times the length of the published one. Despite its considerable length, it is a poem of concision and ellipsis, not of expansion and dilution, and this is a principle which remains true of all Perse's subsequent poetry. What is more, it escapes from known subject-matter, traditionally drawn for the epic from Classical and Christian mythology or from history, to become a pure imaginative creation, not derivative in any direct way though not so rashly independent as to refuse echoes of past cultures. It is pagan and timeless, an archetype creating its own mythology, and as such one of the most remarkable poems of this century.
As often happens with such pioneering work, not everything is perfect, and it remains true that Anabase is somewhat lacking in simplicity of approach as well as of vocabulary. The notion of Perse's aloofness stems partly from this poem, and not even the deep human sympathy enlisted by Exil has fully dispelled the legend. (pp. 20-1)
Although the [four] separate poems [of Exil] may be read quite independently, they are all inter-related through the common theme of exile and through their treatment in indirect or symbolic form of Perse's renewed exploration of man's eternal solitude and of the sources of poetic inspiration. (p. 21)
It is sometimes difficult, when reading Perse's prose, to say that it is not poetry. Putting Oiseaux and 'Pour Dante' in separate categories … depends on a partly arbitrary decision. Could not the first have been subtitled 'Discours' and the second 'Méditation poétique' instead of the other way round? The style of both is similar: incantatory even if the argument is clear, dangerously near the over-rhetorical, magisterial in avoiding turgidity by sheer density of texture. (p. 65)
One cannot stress enough how completely faithful Perse is to the concrete data which form the basis of his imagery. They are never debased or denatured, and as he said … the more daring the poet's explorations, the more concrete must be his imagery. It is a sure guard against abstraction and in no way limits the scope or import of the work. (p. 110)
It is all the stranger therefore to find Perse charged by some critics with verbalism, with being too 'literary'. Yet the rare quotations he borrows from other writers are thoroughly assimilated. Of all modern poets, he, like Rimbaud, most invites one outside into the fresh air away from books, encourages one's powers of observation and enjoyment. His pleasure includes language—one would expect no less from a poet—but it is hardly fair to criticise a writer for knowing his craft. It seems to be the Symbolists' deprecation of 'littérature' and the subsequent babel of writers using literature to their own religious, political or other extra-literary ends that has created the confusion in readers' minds. For the poet, there is only one possible 'engagement', and that is to poetry. Literature is literary as water is wet. (pp. 110-11)
His commitment to language is seen not only in his breadth of vocabulary, textural techniques and philological interests but also in the way language takes its legitimate part in the imagery of the poems. Although poets have been known to concretise linguistic phenomena sporadically—Hugo and Baudelaire are cases in point—Perse makes them an integral and consistent part of his structures. They play an important role in fusing the various ingredients of poetic creation: the poet himself, his subject—its concrete existence and metaphysical implications—and his means of expression. Beyond the musical qualities of language lies a whole philosophy of its function as yet another barrier to be converted by the poet into a threshold. It is the fullest means of communication at man's disposal and its purity is therefore imperative if confusion is not to ensue. At the same time, it is paradoxically our most complete and subtle tool for exploring the ineffable unless the experience is to remain unshared and sterile. Those critics … who choose to assume that Perse plays emptily with words, that his rhetoric is verbosity and that where they do not understand a word it must be a wilful neologism could not be further from the truth. For even where, as happens on occasions in Amers, there are somewhat baroque volutes in the writing, they are expressive of the sea's magniloquent currents. Every word is appropriate to the theme in hand. Contrary to all appearances, Perse's poetry is spareness itself…. Everything in Perse is fined down to essentials, and the essential questions—those which ultimately have no answer—are posed. It is the intensity more than anything that holds problems for the reader. (pp. 111-12)
Beyond the contingencies of time and place, Perse seeks those values which endure. In his poems he suggests an order to which some will respond, not simply grasping at straws in the chaos of modern life, but seeking in their turn an ultimate reality which does not depend on belief in denominational orthodoxies. He offers at the same time a heartening sense of delight in things as they are—in natural phenomena and the sensual pleasure of being more alive to them. His joy is matched by an equal feeling for language: he bears an equally high sense of loyalty to the world and to the word. (pp. 113-14)
Roger Little, in his Saint-John Perse, Athlone, 1973.