saint st perseIntroduction

Saint John Perse (1887-1975), the pseudonym of Marie-René-Auguste-Aléxis Saint-Léger was born on St Léger des Feuilles islet of Guadeloupe in the French Antilles. His father was a lawyer, and his mother came from plantation owners. On this family-owned islet, pampered by servants and intoxicated by the natural world around him, the young Saint-Léger spent an idyllic childhood, to which he would return in his later writings.

In 1899 the family moved to Pau in France, where the young man attended the lycée and then the University of Bordeaux. At 27 he entered the diplomatic service and began a brilliant career that took him to China, Washington and finally to Paris, where he became Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An outspoken opponent of the Nazis, Alexis Léger, as he now called himself, was dismissed by the Vichy Government in 1940, and fled to America, which became his second home. He was found work at the Library of Congress and later married Dorothy Milburn Russell. At his death in 1975, St. John Perse was a celebrated writer with homes in France and the USA, and honoured by numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960.

Saint-Léger is an enigmatic figure, amply reflected in the impersonal nature of his literary persona. On his 1916-21 China posting the poet travelled in the Gobi Desert and vacationed in the South Seas. Éloges appeared in 1910, and Anabase in 1924, but Saint-Léger published nothing further until arrival in America. He associated with Claudel and Valéry in the Nouvelle Revue Française, but mostly kept out of literary affairs. He refused the many offers of employment in France after the war, and, at the age of seventy, with no previous relations with women to speak of, he married someone much younger in age. His correspondence suggests a very reserved personality, but associates report great charm and consideration.

St. John Perse is often compared to Paul Claudel, also a distinguished diplomat, but Claudel was a committed Catholic haunted by a protracted affair with a married Polish woman. Both writers extended the experiments of Victor Hugo, however, and created an oracular prose with rhythmic elements that only broadly approximated to the alexandrine. St. John Perse was the more original, recondite in diction and sometimes obscure in meaning. Claudel wrote for the stage and his language was emotionally charged, sometimes overpoweringly so, but St. John Perse was drawn to the power and variety of the natural world in which man plays a decided but subordinate role. Éloges celebrated the lost paradise of the Antilles, and Anabase drew on his Gobi Desert experiences, speaking in a disembodied but hypnotic voice of a tribal leader with empires to conquer. Exile (1942) has images of desolate seascapes. Pluies (1944), Neiges (1945), Vents (1946) and Amers (1957) are again impersonal. Oiseaux appeared in 1962 and Pour Dante in 1965: travel, exile, and the transitory nature of human existence are again in evidence.

St. John Perse was one of a galaxy of poets who greatly broadened what was possible in French — Claudel, Valéry, Peguy, Fargue, Jammes — and who came to international prominence when the rebuilding of a shattered Europe renewed interest in its achievements. Though academic study continues, much of that interest has now passed. Contemporary French poetry has other concerns, and St. John Perse is known to English readers through the T.S. Eliot translation.

Books on St. John Perse and his work include R. Little's Saint-John Perse (1973), R.M. Galand's Saint-John Perse (1972), A Knodel's Saint-John Perse: A Study of his Poetry (1962) C. Rigolot's Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse's Conversations with Culture (2002) and R.L. Sterling's The Prose Works by Saint-John Perse (1994).

Suggestion: Saint-John Perse: Selected Poems. New Directions Publishing. 1982. $10.95

Much of the poetry and studies of Saint-John Perse are still in French, but here is a good selection of his poetry in English, translated by Mary Ann Caws. Published some years ago, but worth the delivery wait.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.