Saint-John Perse

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Some 440 pages of the Pléiade edition of Saint-John Perse’s Œuvres complètes, an edition supervised by the poet himself, are given to letters. Perse’s letters provide the reader not only with a wealth of details about his life but also with comments about his poems and political and cultural events during more than half a century. In Perse’s letters to his family and to literary figures such as André Gide, Paul Claudel, Jacques Rivière, Archibald MacLeish, Allen Tate, and T. S. Eliot, one can find clues to the duality of Saint-John Perse the poet and Alexis Saint-Léger Léger the diplomat. An English translation of these letters by Arthur Knodel, St.-John Perse: Letters (1979), gives them the same emphasis as Gide’s or Claudel’s journals.

Perse’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Poésie” (“On Poetry”), delivered in Stockholm on December 10, 1960, and his address “Pour Dante” (“Dante”), delivered in Florence on April 20, 1965, to mark the seventh centenary of Dante Alighieri’s birth, are available in St. John Perse: Collected Poems, a bilingual edition. Perse’s manuscripts, his annotated personal library, his notebooks on ornithology, several scrapbooks with clippings, and other documents have all been gathered by the Saint-John Perse Foundation in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Achievements

Saint-John Perse is a “poet’s poet.” Although he won international recognition with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960, preceded by the Grand Prix National des Lettres and the Grand Prix International de Poésie in 1959, his readership has remained small. Poets as diverse as T. S. Eliot and Czesław Miłosz have paid him tribute; it is in the tributes of Perse’s fellow poets that one finds the measure of his work, rather than in the standard literary histories of his age, for he remained aloof from fashionable movements of the century.

Indeed, Perse is characterized above all by a self-conscious detachment. During his diplomatic career, from 1914 to 1940, he maintained a sharp division between his public and his poetic persona. In these years, he published only two works, Anabasis and Friendship of the Prince. His choice of a partly English pseudonym emphasized his aloof stance.

Perse’s exile to the United States in 1941 marked the end of his political career but the revival of his poetic creation. Exile, his first poem written in the United States, was first published in French in Poetry magazine in 1941. Although Perse never wrote in English, his poems were always published in the United States in bilingual editions and followed by numerous articles and reviews by American critics. Perse disdained literary factions and did not give public readings of his works. He twice refused the Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard, in 1946 and 1952, but he was officially recognized by the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1950, when he received the Award of Merit medal for poetry.

In his poetry, Perse maintained distance by seldom including place-names or markers of any kind that would locate his work in a specific place or time. In Perse’s conception, the poet’s task, like the scientist’s, is to explore the universe, the elements, and human consciousness. The distinguishing quality of Perse’s poetry is its universality, its endeavor to celebrate the cosmos and humankind beyond the limits of the personal, beyond the literary currents of the time. In this conception, poetry is not a re-creation or a transcription of reality; rather, poetry is reality, continually in flux, with all its tensions and its complexity. Perse’s long poems, free from a specific form or traditional meter, and his symphonic compositions, with echoes and...

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variations of the same phrase, achieve a musical quality seldom surpassed by his contemporaries.

Biography

Marie-René Alexis Saint-Léger Léger (who later shortened his name to Alexis Léger and chose the pseudonym Saint-John Perse) was born on May 31, 1887, on a small island near Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe. His parents were both of French descent and came from families of plantation owners and naval officers established in the islands since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Perse spent his childhood in Guadeloupe, where his father was a lawyer. The young poet and his sisters were brought up on family plantations among servants, private tutors, and plantation workers. It was not until the age of nine that Perse started school. In 1899, a few years later, earthquakes, the Spanish-American War, and an economic crisis compelled the family to leave for France, where they settled in Pau. In 1904, Perse began studying law, science, literature, and medicine at the University of Bordeaux. He wrote his first poems there, and between 1904 and 1914 he met a number of writers, among them Francis Jammes, Paul Claudel, Paul Valéry, André Gide, and Jacques Rivière. After his military service in 1905 and 1906, Perse divided his time between traveling and studying political science, music, and philosophy; he soon extended his circle of friends to include Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky.

Perse spent the years from 1916 to 1921 in Peking, where he wrote Anabasis. After serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was promoted in 1933 to secretary general, a position that he held until 1940, when the war and the Vichy government forced him to leave for England and, shortly after, for the United States. It was Archibald MacLeish who encouraged him to accept an appointment at the Library of Congress. In 1942, he published Exile and became known officially as Saint-John Perse. He spent the following seventeen years in the United States, where his voluntary exile provided him with an endless array of new scenery, including rare species of birds and plants that he painstakingly detailed in his notebooks. In 1946, he published Winds, followed by Seamarks in 1957; in the latter year, he returned to France, where he continued to spend most of his summers. In 1958, he married Dorothy Milburn Russell in Washington, D. C. Limited editions of his last two major works, Chronique and Birds, were illustrated with color etchings by Georges Braque. Although the years that followed his Nobel Prize in 1960 were rich in translations, new editions, and tributes, Perse’s publications after Birds were limited to a few short poems. He spent his last years in France at the Presqu’île de Giens, where he died in 1975 at the age of eighty-eight.

Analysis

When asked why he wrote, Saint-John Perse always had the same answer: “to live better.” For him, poetry was a way of life, not self-centered but open to the world. In his work, the universe predominates over the self, and very little space is left in the texts for the poet’s own life and feelings. Perse recorded details of travels and carefully described the flora and fauna that he encountered; these details constitute the only “autobiographical” elements in his Œuvres complètes. Perse was a close observer of nature, often compared to the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. He was not only a scientist who named things but also a thinker and wanderer. The constant tension between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the precise words for small details, provided Perse with a means to stop, to reverse, or to capture what the Romantics cried for: the passage of time. Few poets have been so at ease with the concept of time and space; for Perse, these concepts are not limited by nihilism or religion. Perse rejected the alternatives represented by Jean-Paul Sartre and Paul Claudel: Neither man nor God is the center of his vision. There is only the universe and the beyond, the symbiosis of man and the elements. Perse goes beyond traditional spatiotemporal limits. He is everywhere and nowhere in particular; in his sweeping vision, time and space merge in one eternal movement.

This universality was recognized by the Swedish Academy, which awarded Perse the Nobel Prize for “the soaring flight and the evocative imagery of his poetry, which in a visionary fashion reflects the conditions of our time.” Perse’s oeuvre leaves an impression of wholeness. He saw his poems as “one long uninterrupted phrase,” as if they belonged to the same mold or flow.

Éloges

In Perse’s first collection, Éloges, one can find the roots of his later, more solemn, longer poems: the mysterious forces of the elements, the insistent presence of the sea, the celebration of life as well as the yearning for other shores, for a place outre-mer (beyond the sea) and outre-songe (beyond the dream). The figure dominating Perse’s works has no proper name; “Navigator” and “Poet” together provide enigmatic suggestions of anonymity and leadership.

Perse’s manuscripts, with their lists of variations and echoes of other poems or lines, sometimes more than half a century apart, show that the final version of a given poem was often highly condensed, frequently a synthesis of passages written at different times. His œuvre is characterized by an unusual consistency of style and vision; a complex network of recurring motifs provides an inner structure that belies the prosaic “formlessness” of his verse.

Anabasis

Anabasis, Perse’s first major poem, recounts an expedition through the desert, the symbol of man’s march through time and space and through consciousness. Although it was written in China in a Daoist temple in the Gobi desert, it echoes the Anabasis (c. fourth century b.c.e.) of the Greek historian Xenophon, describing the retreat of a mercenary force of ten thousand Greeks after the failure of an expedition organized by Cyrus the Younger against his older brother Artaxerxes. Emphasizing the literal meaning of “anabasis,” an expedition beyond geographical boundaries (in this case, both inland and inward, toward the essence of Being), Perse sets his poem outside a particular time and place. In addition to the narrative and epic aspects of the poem, it is perhaps this very movement of the expedition and march that has inspired composers such as Alan Hovhaness and Paul Bowles in their musical transcriptions of passages from Anabasis. They were preceded by the Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl, a disciple of Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók, who composed an oratorio using the original French version of the poem. Blomdahl saw Anabasis as an “uninterrupted dialogue” and compared the work to a Byzantine mosaic. This fragmented aspect of some of the more elliptical and condensed passages in Anabasis perhaps results from the fact that the published poem was the condensed version of an original poem four times as long.

This epic poem has ten cantos framed by two songs in which the birth of a colt, the passage of a stranger, and the “feminine” soul are related parts of Perse’s main network of motifs. In the first group of cantos, the stranger reappears, contemplating his land. Through the figure of the stranger, Perse explores the conflict between the restless urge to conquer new lands and the civilizing impulse to build a city. Tracing a cycle of exploration, achievement, and renewed restlessness, the poem conveys the movement of human history.

Seamarks

Seamarks, Perse’s longest poem, recalls classical Greek drama with its imagery, its chorus and altar, the sea being the theatrical arena where man and woman celebrate life. In French, the title Amers also suggests a fusion of “sea” (mer) and “love” (amour). The poem’s four parts are divided in turn into cantos of uneven length. In the first part, “Invocation,” ritual preparation for the celebration of the sea is accompanied by ritual preparation for the poem, unifying reality and poetry. The second part, “Strophe,” or “movement of the chorus around the altar,” introduces the different groups and individuals confronting the sea for “questioning, entreaty, imprecation, initiation, appeal, or celebration.” The second part ends with a very long canto, “Étroits sont les vaisseaux . . .” (“Narrow Are the Vessels . . .”), the high point of the poem, which celebrates the physical and psychological union of man and woman. They are navigating on a ship as narrow as a couch, and the woman’s body has the shape of a vessel; thus, the sea, which seems to protect and “bear” the lovers, becomes feminine and a synonym for love.

In the third part, “Choeur” (“Chorus”), one collective voice exalts the sea on behalf of humankind, and the procession from the city to the shore led by the poet is, according to Perse, the “image of humanity marching towards its highest destiny.” In the concluding fourth part, “Dédicace” (“Dedication”), it is noon; the drama is over, and the poet removes his mask, after having brought his people to the highest point in time and space, where man is immortal. One finds the same ascension and defiance of death in Perse’s next poem, Chronique, which is the “chronicle” of the earth, of man, and of the poet himself in pursuit of nomadism toward higher elevations and a “higher sea,” beyond death.

Birds

Perse’s last major poem, Birds, is more a meditation on art and on poetry than a continuation of the cosmic cycle of Anabasis, Seamarks, and Chronique. The limited first edition of the poem was illustrated with twelve lithographs by Georges Braque; the references to Braque’s birds were added after Perse had already written most of the poem. They add a new dimension to the bird in flight, now caught on the canvas, where it continues to live, not as a visual image but as a living part of reality. The descriptive, the technical, and the metaphysical passages of the poem, although very different from one another, all convey the movement of the bird in flight—on the canvas, in the air, and in poetry.

The poem is divided into thirteen parts, the first part introducing the migratory bird, which searches for “an uninterrupted summer,” as do the painter and the poet. The asceticism and the “combustion” of his flight have a symbolic import, reinforced in the last part, in which the bird’s wings are like a cross. Part 2 presents a very technical description of the anatomy of the bird compared to the structure of a ship, as was the woman in Seamarks. It is followed in parts 3 through 7 by the description of the bird perceived by Braque’s eye, like the eye of a bird of prey, and painted on the canvas, where it continues to live and fly in its metamorphoses throughout the successive stages of the painting. The finished painting is like the launching of a ship, and the needle of the nautical compass, shaped as a bird, now becomes the symbol for direction and equilibrium. In parts 8 through 10, the bird, defying the seasons, night, and gravity, continues its migration, searching for eternity and “the expanse of Being.” In parts 11 and 12, Perse returns to Braque, but only to give a long list of legendary or historical birds that are different from Braque’s anonymous birds on the canvas. Thus, the bird becomes the poet’s sacred messenger and a symbol for the nomadism of his poetic creation.

Perse’s epic vision of the universe informs his entire œuvre—a timeless vision that will endure when many celebrated poems, tied too closely to their time and place, have faded into oblivion.

Bibliography

Baker, Peter. Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991. Critical interpretation of some of Perse’s works with an introduction to the history of American poetry in the twentieth century. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Galand, René. Saint-John Léger. Boston: Twayne, 1972. A standard critical biography.

Knodel, Arthur. Saint-John Perse. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1966. Critical analysis of selected works by Perse. Includes bibliographic references.

Kopenhagen-Urian, Judith. “Delicious Abyss: The Biblical Darkness in the Poetry of Saint-John Perse.” Comparative Literature Studies 36, no. 3 (1999): 195-208. Kopenhagen-Urian examines Saint-John Perse’s oxymoron “delicious abyss” in relation to four functions observed in Perse’s use of the Bible: the contrasting perspective, the structured allusion, the repeated motif, and the “collage.”

Ostrovsky, Erika. Under the Sign of Ambiguity: Saint-John Perse/Alexis Léger. New York: New York University Press, 1984. A thorough biography, with aesthetic and psychological insights into Léger’s life and accomplishments.

Rigolot, Carol. Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse’s Conversations with Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Analyzes Perse’s multiple strategies of dialogue within his poems.

Sterling, Richard L. The Prose Works of Saint-John Perse. New York: P. Lang, 1994. A critical study of the prose works of Perse that is intended to give a fuller understanding of his poetry. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Baker, Peter. Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991. Critical interpretation of some of Perse’s works with an introduction to the history of American poetry in the twentieth century. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Galand, René. Saint-John Léger. Boston: Twayne, 1972. A standard critical biography.

Knodel, Arthur. Saint-John Perse. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1966. Critical analysis of selected works by Perse. Includes bibliographic references.

Kopenhagen-Urian, Judith. “Delicious Abyss: The Biblical Darkness in the Poetry of Saint-John Perse.” Comparative Literature Studies 36, no. 3 (1999): 195-208. Kopenhagen-Urian examines Saint-John Perse’s oxymoron “delicious abyss” in relation to four functions observed in Perse’s use of the Bible: the contrasting perspective, the structured allusion, the repeated motif, and the “collage.”

Ostrovsky, Erika. Under the Sign of Ambiguity: Saint-John Perse/Alexis Léger. New York: New York University Press, 1984. A thorough biography, with aesthetic and psychological insights into Léger’s life and accomplishments.

Rigolot, Carol. Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse’s Conversations with Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Analyzes Perse’s multiple strategies of dialogue within his poems.

Sterling, Richard L. The Prose Works of Saint-John Perse. New York: P. Lang, 1994. A critical study of the prose works of Perse that is intended to give a fuller understanding of his poetry. Includes bibliographical references and index.

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