Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1226 words.)