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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.
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; he died suddenly and prematurely in 1907. The family of Perse's
mother were plantation owners. The first
10 years of his life Perse spent in and around Guadeloupe. As a result
of the economic and social crisis in the islands, 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 Perse entered diplomatic
corps, serving in this profession under the name Alexis Léger. From
1916 to 1921 he was stationed in China, gripped by civil war. "The
crisis will go on for a very long time in this country where so many
small regional military autocracies are still in existence," he
predicted in a letter to his mother. (Letters, translated and edited by Arthur J. Knodel, 1979, p. 309)
Perse was Secretyary of the Diplomatic Corps and Secretary of the
Association of Allied Minister. After the coup d'état of 1917 by
General Zhang Xun, Perse participated in the evacuation of President Li
Yuan-hong's family. On his vacations Perse sailed the
South Seas and travelled in the Gobi Desert. When he moved back to
Europe, he took the longer route, like Phineas Fogg in Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. Verne was one of Perse's favorite childhood writers. Like Perse, Verne had ties in the West Indies.
Perse's first published collection, Images à Crusoé (1909), lets the famous shipwrecked sailor lament the loss of his paradise when he is finally returned to civilizagtion. Éloges
(1910) appeared 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 in a "small unused Taoist
temple," as he claimed. 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. His 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, a post he held until May 1940.
After the Germans occupied France, he was dismissed from office by his own minister, Paul Reynaud. Behind the intrigues were Reynaud's mistress, the comtesse de Portes, who did not like Perse. He first fled to England, where he kept a distance from Charles de Gaullle, 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. When de Gaulle invited him to London, Perse turned down the suggestion. 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 – came to the fore 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 some of its rhythms from a tropical rainstorm, and Neiges (1945), inspited by a snowstorm in New York, were published in the Sewanee Review. With Poème à l'étrangère (1943) these poems have been grouped together in subsequent editions of Perse's work. From 1953 they have shared the common title Exil.
Pluies was dedicated
to Katherine and Francis Biddle, with whom he journeyed through the
southern United States. Perse began writing this work during a sleepless night in Savannah, in the
middle of an extraordinary storm. Carol Rigolot has argued that Pluies "evokes a whole tradition of American
literature of the South, both in English and in French, and, perhaps
most immediately, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind . . ." (Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse's Conversations with Culture
by Carol Rigolot, 2001, pp. 106-107) When thanking Jacqueline Kennedy
in a letter from 1967 for retrieving a piece of iron grillwork from his
plantation Perse referred to the novel. In 1962 he had been a guest at
Jacqueline Kennedy's state dinner for the Minister of Culture André
Malraux. On Malraux's suggestion, the French government loaned Leonardo da
Vinci's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, to the United States.
Also in Vents (1946) Perse used images from nature's forces, this time the winds. The poem gives a panoramic view into 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 his home country with his American wife, the former Dorothy Milburn Russell. Unhappy with the political atmosphere of France under General de Gaulle, he said that he welt more French in the U.S., wherekept also a residence. 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: Dictionnaire Saint-John Perse, sous la direction d'Henriette Levillain et de Catherine Mayaux (2019); Poetics of the Antilles: Poetry, History and Philosophy in the Writings of Perse, Césaire, Fanon and Glissant by Jean Khalfa (2017); Saint-John Perse by Henriette Levillain (2013); Orphan Narratives: the Postplantation Literature of Faulkner, Glissant, Morrison, and Saint-John Perse by Valérie Loichot (2007); Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse's Conversations with Culture by Carol Rigolot (2001); 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 lœuvre 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).