Seamarks Critical Evaluation
by Alexis Saint-Léger Léger

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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Saint-John Perse has been one of the most mysterious figures in contemporary literature. Born in the French West Indies, educated in France, and until 1940 attached to the French diplomatic corps with a most distinguished record of public service, he has, since 1910, written poetry under an assumed name. It is said that during his early career the secret of his true identity was so well kept that even his closest colleagues did not guess it. At the fall of France during World War II he fled to England and then, by way of Canada, came to this country.

In the literary world he has also been a shadowy and mysterious figure, standing behind the scenes rather than on the center of the stage. Praised almost extravagantly by nearly every important Continental critic and translated by T. S. Eliot (ANABASIS, 1930), he yet remains almost unknown to the reading public. The reason for this paradox is obvious enough: his poetry presents so many and such great difficulties that the average reader is, understandably, frightened away. Hugo von Hofmannsthal has pointed out that Perse descends poetically from Rimbaud, so to the obscurities of the late Symbolists are added those peculiar to Perse himself. Eliot tries to supply a key to the reading of this poetry by stating that the apparent obscurity arises from the poet’s device of suppression and elision. The reader must, therefore, follow the sequence of images, holding them in memory without attempting to understand too much at a time until totality of effect is achieved. In other words, the reader must not expect each line to yield a complete meaning, as is true in more conventional poetry; the “meaning” is to be found only in the poem as a totality of effect.

It might be suggested, without attempting to push the idea too far, that the genesis of SEAMARKS is to be found in Baudelaire’s “L’homme et la mer,” which begins:

Homme libre, toujours tu cheriras lamer!La mer est ton miroir; tu contemples tonameDans le deroulement infini de salame. . . .

It is the eternal fascination held for man by what Perse refers to as the same worldwide wave, in evidence since Troy, for in the sea man beholds the beginning and perhaps the end of all life.

The poem seems to have been written during a period of years—parts of it were published in France in 1948—but it was obviously planned from the outset as an organic whole. It begins with an “Invocation”; then follows a section called “Strophe” which is divided into nine parts of varying lengths. Finally, there is a Chorus, and the poem ends with a short “Dedication.” Obviously, Perse had in mind a very definite structure for his work, and the parts of the poem should be read in order. It might be added that the author does not use any of the conventional verse forms or indeed verse at all; this is “prose-poetry” of the type that the French have worked with since Baudelaire’s time, except that SEAMARKS is on a much larger scale.

The word “seamark” can have two meanings, and perhaps a deliberate ambiguity in the title is intended. A seamark can be a line drawn on the coast to show the highest point reached by the tide, or it can be an object on land by which the sailor can plot his position. In either case, it is the meeting of the sea and the land—the deepest inroad into the coast of the sea from which the land rose and to which it may return, or that moment at which the helmsman can find the distance and the direction of the harbor where he will briefly anchor before resuming his voyage.

Those who have read Perse’s ELOGES, and especially the section called “The Glory of Kings,” will find something familiar in the present volume. We have the same primitive yet hierarchic society; we have the same impression of vast crowds of people dimly glimpsed as they move solemnly through unexplained rituals. There are the patrician women, the tragediennes, the priests, the pilots—the whole population of an unnamed city from an unnamed period of ancient history. It could be Minoan, Greek, or Roman, a city in Central America, or even a lost Atlantis; but always it is a city facing on the sea, not in the frozen North but in the warm Mediterranean or the tropics. We do not find the Anglo-Saxon fear of the ocean as a cold, gray waste of bitter wind and sleet and snow; instead, there is the influence of the author’s childhood in the French West Indies—the lush images of a tropic coast and a tropic port with the sunlight flashing on blue water.

In following the development of the poem, the reader, as has been said, becomes gradually aware of a definite structure, so that that which seemed at first merely haphazard or chaotic begins to fall into place. At the beginning, the emphasis is focused on the seaport and its inhabitants; then we descend to the shore, to its harbor-works and beaches; then in the “Chorus” we are on the sea itself and have left the city behind us. We might even say that we are like a man who walks through the crowded streets of a great city swarming with people in order that he may reach the shore, there to plunge into the surf. There is also, as the poem develops, a transition from the personal to the impersonal: we begin with all the kinds of people in this nameless city, each group concerned in its own way with the sea, for even the lovers in “Narrow are the Vessels” interpret their passion in terms of the sea. Then we pass away from land and the world of men onto the open water and the impersonal, universal sea. Man has been absorbed into the sea.

As was true of the earlier poems of Perse, the reader of SEAMARKS is struck, first of all, by the incredible virtuosity of the writer’s language. The style is unbelievably luxuriant; image succeeds image in bewildering succession. It is, most of the time, “pure poetry” in the sense that was made popular by the Abbe Bremond some decades ago, when he said that to read a poem as it should be read, that is, poetically, it is not necessary to grasp the meaning. Yet Perse’s language has the dignity and solemnity of a Greek chorus, as if no language were great enough for his subject.

Clearly this poem in praise of the sea is a labor of love on the part of the author. In the fifth section of the “Invocation” he speaks briefly in his own person of the long time that he had wanted to write this poem. The poem is the voice of a man born on the coast and reared on the edge of the sea, who interprets everything in terms of it, and in whose ears the sound of the waves can never be stilled. And perhaps the poem can best be understood by someone who, like the author, has had a lifelong love of the sea. In spite of the many difficulties and obscurities, such a reader will experience the beauty of the poem and recognize its greatness.