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Saint-John Perse (1887-1975) - Pseudonym for Marie-René-Auguste-Aléxis Saint-Léger


French poet and diplomat, who used the pseudonym Saint-John Perse to keep his literary activity private. Perse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960. He has been called the embodiment of the French national spirit and also a poet's poet for his emphasis on formal perfection and self-conscious way of choosing his words. Perse's solemn, oracular poetry was written in long lines that look like prose paragraphs but have a delicate musical quality.

Poésie pour accompagner la marche d'une récitation en l'honneur de la Mer.
Poésie pour assister le chant d'une marche au pourtour de la Mer.
Comme l'entreprise du tour d'autel et la gravitation du choeur au circuit de la strophe.

(from 'Et Vous, Mers...' - debut de poème)

Marie René Auguste Alexis Léger (Saint-John Perse) was born on St Léger des Feuilles, a small family-owned coral island in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe. His father, Amédée Léger, was a lawyer. The family of Perse's mother were plantation owners. The first 10 years of his life Perse spent in and around Guadeloupe. For economic reasons the family moved in 1899 to France, where they settled in the resert town of Pau. Perse attended the local lycée and then studied at the University of Bordeaux law, philosophy, classics, anthropology, and science, graduating in 1910. At the age of 27 he entered diplomatic corps, serving in this profession under the name Alexis Léger. From 1916 to 1921 he worked in China. On his vacations Perse sailed the South Seas and travelled in the Gobi Desert.

Perse's first collection of poems, Éloges (1910) was published under the name "Saint-Léger Léger." Its strongly rhythmical poems, which celebrate his lost Antillean paradise, drew the attention of André Gide among others. In 'King Light's Settlements' he remembers palms, servants, roots, the glowing, rich vegetation, and time when everything was more solemn. And then his Uncles talked softly with his mother, and there was a horse at the gate. In 1921 Perse returned to Paris and published the epic poem Anabase (1924, Anabasis), which he had composed during his diplomatic stint in China. The epic is recited by a nomad leader. "... So I haunted the City of your dreams, and I established / in the desolate markets the pure commerce of my soul, / among you / invisible and insistent as a fire of thorns in the gale." Its odysseian feelings can be found from the work of other diplomat-writers, among them Pablo Neruda and George Seferis. Later the poem was translated into English by T.S. Eliot. Anabasis depicts some sort of military expedition of a conqueror to found a new city. It referred to the Anabasis of the Greek historian Xenophon and writer's own travels. "I believe that this is a piece of writing of the same importance as the later work of Mr. James Joyce," Eliot wrote. Although Perse composed many poems between 1924 and 1940, none was published. His pseudonym, St.-John Perse was perhaps taken from Persius, the Latin satiric poet.

From 1921 to 1932 Perse served as a secretary to the French statesman Aristide Briand, called the "Great Peacemaker", who had noted Perse's talents. Perse's close association with Briand started in 1921 in Washington, where the poet was a delegate at the Conference on the Limitation of Armaments. During the 1920s he was associated with Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, and the writers connected with the Nouvelle revue française. However, he avoided public participation in the activities of the literary scene. In 1933 Perse was appointed Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1940, after the Germans occupied France, he was dismissed from office by the collaborationist Vichy government. Perse first fled to England and then to the United States. As a revenge the Nazi secret police looted his Paris apartment, where they seized and destroyed several manuscripts, representing fifteen years of work.

"L'odeur funèbre de la rose n'assiégera plus les grilles du tombeau ; l'heure vivante dans les palmes ne taira plus âme d'étrangère... Amères, nos lèvres de vivants le furent-elles jamais?" (from 'Et Vous, Mers...')

In the new country Perse worked at the Library of Congress. He had a privately funded position as a consultant on French poetry. During these years of exile Perse resumed writing poetry. His works darkened in tone exile was for him a man's ever-present condition. This theme with the images of barren sand and desolate beaches he examined in Exile (1942), dedicated to Archibald Mac Leish, the Librarian of Congress. It has been described as one of the greatest works emerging from World War II. Pluies (1944), which took its rhythms from a rainstorm, and Neiges (1945), more tender in tone, were published in the Sewanee Review.

Also in Vents (1946) Perse used images from nature's forces, this time the winds. In the poem Perse created a panorama of the discovery and exploitation of the New World, in which human action both destroys and creates in an almost ritualistic progress of history. Perse once wrote: "Poetry is not only a way of knowledge, it is even more a way of life  of life in its totality. A poet already dwelt within the cave man: a poet will be dwelling still within the man of the atomic age; for poetry is a fundamental part of man..." Perse's pagan fascination with great forces of nature connects him with the tradition of Walt Whitman, although his aristocratic reservedness was far from Whitman's conception of poetic expression.

In 1967 Perse returned to France with his American wife, the former Dorothy Milburn Russell, but kept also a residence in the United States. Amers (1957) was a long ode to the sea. Its section entitled 'Etroits sont les vaisseaux' (narrow are the vessels...) has been considered one of the great erotic sequences of French literature. At his death in 1975 Perse was grand officer of the Legion of Honour, a commander of the Order of Bath, and recipient of the Grand Cross of the British Empire. Perse died on September 20, 1975, in Giens. His papers and library are housed at the Fondation Saint-John Perse in the hôtel de ville of Aix-en-Provence.

"If one reads through all of the poems of Saint-John Perse, one is immediately aware that each is, as it were, and instrument of one great oeuvre." (W.H. Auden in the New York Times Book Revew, July 27, 1958.) Perse avoided straight ideological messages, but he was well aware of the modern poets role and declared in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech 'in these days of nuclear energy, can the earthenware lamp of the poet still suffice?'

For further reading: Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse's Conversations with Culture by Carol Rigolot (2002); The Prose Works by Saint-John Perse by Richard L. Sterling (1994); Nobel Prize Winners, ed. by Tyler Wasson (1987); Under the Sign of Ambiquity by E. Ostrovsky (1985); Saint-John Perse et la déouverte de l'être by D.L. Nasta (1980); Les thèmesédeniques dans luvre de Saint-John Perse by C. Fournier (1976); Saint-John Perse by Roger Little (1973) ; Saint-John Perse by R.M. Galand (1972); St.-John Perse by P. Emmanuel (1971); Saint-John Perse by A.J. Knodel (1962); Poétique de Sain-John Perse by R. Caillois (1954); Saint-John Perse: A Study of His Poetry by A. Knodel (1966) - Suom.: Suomennoksia kokoelmissa Tulisen järjen aika, toim. Aale Tynni (1962), Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1976) ja 21 Nobel-runoilijaa, toim. Aale Tynn (1976).

Selected works:

  • Éloges, 1911
    - Éloges, and Other Poems (translated by Louise Varèse, 1944)
  • Anabase, 1924
    - Anabasis (translated by T.S. Eliot, 1930)
    - Anabasis (suom. Tuomas Anhava, Parnasso 8/1960)
  • Amitié du Prince, 1924 (Friendship of the Prince)
  • Poème pour Valery Larbaud, 1936
  • Exil: poème, 1942
    - Exile, and Other Poems (translated by Denis Devlin, 1949) / Exil (edited by Roger Little, 1995)
  • Poème à l'étrangère, 1943
  • A Selection of Works for an Understanding of World Affairs Since 1914, 1943
  • Pluies, 1943
    - Rains (translated by Denis Devlin, 1945)
  • Neiges, 1943
    - Snows (translated by Denis Devlin, 1945)
  • Quatre poèmes, 1941-1944, 1944 (as Exil, suivi de Poème à l'étrangère, Pluies, Neiges, 1945)
  • Vents, 1946
    - Winds (translated by Hugh Chisholm, 1953)
  • uvre Poétique: 1: Éloges. La gloire des rois, 1953 (rev.ed., 1960)
  • Amers, 1957
    - Seamarks (translated by Wallace Fowlie, 1958)
  • Chronoque, 1959
    - Chronique (translated by Robert Fitzgerald, 1961)
  • Poésie: allocution au Banquet Nobel du 10 décembre 1960, 1961
    - On Poetry (translated by W. H. Auden, 1961)
  • Hommage à Rabindranath Tagore, 1962
  • L'ordre des oiseaux, 1962 (Oiseaux, 1962)
    - Birds (translated by Robert Fitzgerald, 1966; J. Roger Little, 1967; a version by Derek Mahon, 2002)
  • Au souvenir de Valery Larbaud, 1963
  • Silence pour Claudel, 1963
  • Pour Dante, 1965
  • Two Addresses, 1966 (On Poetry, translated by W. H. Auden; Dante, translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
  • Chanté par celle qui fut là ..., 1969
  • Collected Poems, 1971 (translated by W. H. Auden et al.)
  • uvres Complètes, 1972
  • Chant pour un équinoxe, 1975
    - Song for an Equinox (translated by Richard Howard, 1977)
  • St. John Perse: Letters, 1979 (translated and edited by Arthur J. Knodel)
  • Selected Poems, 1982 (edited by Mary Ann Caws)
  • Under the Sign of Ambiguity: Saint John Perse, 1986 (reprint edition)
  • Alexis Leger-Dag Hammarsjköld Correspondance, 1955-1961, 1993
    - The Poet and the Diplomat: The Correspondence of Dag Hammarskjold and Alexis Leger, 2001 (translated by Marie-Noëlle Little and William C. Parker)
  • Lettres à l'étrangère, 1987 (edited by Mauricette Berne)
  • Correspondance: 1942-1945: Roger Caillois, Saint-John Perse, 1996 (edited by Joëlle Gardes Tamine)
  • Courrier d'exil: Saint-John Perse et ses amis américains, 1940-1970, 2001 (edited by Carol Rigolot)
  • Correspondance: 1942-1975 / Alain Bosquet, Saint-John Perse, 2004 (edited by Roger Little)
  • Lettres atlantiques: Saint-John Perse, TS Eliot, Allen Tate, 1926-1970, 2006 (edited by Carol Rigolot)

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