St. John Perse: Letters
translated and edited by Arthur J. Knodel
Bollingen Series LXXXVII: 2 Princeton University Press, 719 pp., $20.00
All poets are mysterious, in the sense that they themselves are never sure about their creative impulse. But some are relatively easy to get the feel of as personalities, from outside, and their work appears as a natural extension of their being. Not so, at least not so at first sight, with Marie-René Alexis Saint-Leger Leger, whose pen name, Saint-John Perse (Perse is the French form of Persius) seems highly significant in its haughty, enigmatic, English-cum-Latin remoteness.
He is an odd man out among twentieth-century French poets for a number of reasons, and not merely because he wrote entirely in a kind of rhythmic prose, developed from André Gide’s lyrical writings and the verset of Paul Claudel. He was by birth a Creole, indelibly marked by his West Indian childhood, and could trace his ancestry back to minor French aristocrats who had emigrated to the New World in the eighteenth century. In his early twenties, he opted deliberately for a career in the diplomatic service, but, unlike some other writer-diplomats, such as Paul Claudel, Jean Giraudoux, and Paul Morand, he did not believe in the propriety of combining his role as public servant with the activities of a man of letters, and so, for twenty years or more, he abstained from publication, and perhaps even from writing. Had his official career not been unexpectedly interrupted by the collapse of France in 1940, it is conceivable that he might never have gone back to poetry to compose the major works of his maturity.
Then, although passionately, even chauvinistically, devoted to the French language, he does not seem to have had a comparable commitment to France as a country to live in; indeed, one of his stated reasons for joining the diplomatic service was to get abroad again, and out of a life-span of eighty-eight years he spent only thirty-five consecutively in France, if my calculations are correct. He went into voluntary exile in America in 1940, and did not set foot in France again until 1957. Thereafter, he divided his time between France and America—five months of the year in a house on the Mediterranean coast near Toulon and seven months in Washington. But the French house was a present made to him by “a group of American friends and admirers”; he did not take the initiative of looking for it; it was found for him, and, reading between the lines of his first letters about it, we may even wonder to what extent he was genuinely gratified by the gift.
However, this uncertainty about his private feelings is relevant to every period of his life. He was by nature exceptionally reserved. During his thirty-year career, and especially during his occupation of the key post of secretary-general of the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs between 1932 and 1940, he inevitably had dealings with many people, eminent and less eminent, some of whom have written about him. The impression invariably conveyed is that of an extremely self-controlled person, whose political …