St. John Perse
St. John Perse; drawing by David Levine

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 views were known up to a point because of his professional activities, but whose intimate self was never revealed. Given the fact that he was at the center of French official activity from the point at which Hitler came to power up to the German invasion of France, it would have seemed natural for him to write his memoirs, as so many other people did, to give his version of the collapse of France. But he did not do so, and his occasional pieces about French political and literary figures to mark their deaths or anniversaries are short and formal in the extreme.

It follows that the letters here translated, which are taken from the collection that he himself prepared for the Pléiade edition of his works published in 1972, tell us as much about him as we are ever likely to know, unless there exist as yet unrevealed documents compiled by some contemporary who managed to penetrate his reserve. He left instructions for his unpublished papers to be destroyed, so presumably there is no enlightening Nachlass for a biographer to draw upon. This correspondence represents the visage he himself wished to show to posterity, outside his creative works which, in any case, contain few personal revelations.

All this goes to explain why Saint-John Perse, Nobel Prize-winner though he may be, has always seemed something of a marginal and impersonal figure, when viewed from the perspective of France. He has not lacked enthusiastic admirers, from Valéry Larbaud and André Gide, who discovered and encouraged him while he was still a young student in the provinces, up to the late Roger Caillois who wrote one of the best analyses of his poetic style. But he has never won through to a relatively popular or fashionable position; he has remained, as it were, a connoisseur’s poet, to be rediscovered by different individuals from time to time. It may, indeed, be the case that his name is rather more familiar in the Anglo-American world through being associated with that of T.S. Eliot, who translated his first long poem, Anabase.


This American version of his letters, on the whole, respects the Pléiade classification established by Saint-John Perse himself: “Early Letters” (1906-1925), “Letters from Asia” (1916-1922), and “Letters from Exile” (1940-1962); it adds a few items taken from other sections of the Pléiade volume but, for unexplained reasons, misses out some significant letters that I shall mention in due course.

For pure enjoyment, the “Letters from Asia” are the best, since they amount to a travelogue, written largely for his mother’s benefit, and give a vivid, perceptive, and even prophetic account of China. Not only do they show that he was a young man of exceptional ability and authority, they are also marked by a sense of humor which is not much in evidence elsewhere, as if he had been particularly relaxed and happy during that period. It is a pity he did not produce more writing of this kind; perhaps he might have done, had his plans to take up a position under the Chinese government come to fruition. But the political situation turned sour, and he had to come back to Paris.

The other two sections contain much of great interest about the author’s attitudes to life and literature, but they are not so readily interpretable. He keeps such a tight rein on himself, even as a young man, that one wonders if he ever consented to be jovially, or even tolerantly, at home with the man within. Valéry Larbaud, in a fascinating letter about his first meeting with Leger, says that the totally unknown young writer spoke with the dignity and the self-control of a prince, and it may be significant that regal imagery is frequent in the poems. The early letters state explicitly that this self-command was achieved by rigorous discipline, but the reasons for the discipline are not explained. Creoles have a reputation for being lackadaisical that Saint-John Perse directly belies, but why? After losing the aristocratic, patriarchal setting of Guadeloupe at the age of twelve, did he feel himself obliged to maintain the demeanor of a ci-devant in the rough-and-tumble of democracy? He was, of course, greatly impressed by Nietzsche, like so many Frenchmen of his generation, and, in spite of the reservations he had about the German writer, he may have got from him the desire to be a strong man and master of his fate. Or perhaps he was just naturally proud, and determined that the nobler part of his nature would always rule.

In approaching the problem of his personality, I would like to mention first some obvious biographical puzzles which are not elucidated in the letters. He would no doubt have said that they are irrelevant, or that curiosity about them is impertinent. Nevertheless, they would have a place in the picture of the whole man that any biographer would like to give.

First, there is no mention of any vie sentimentale before the age of seventy-one. At that point, Saint-John Perse married an American lady, Mrs. Russell, née Dorothy Milburn. He announces the event to Archibald MacLeish, who was apparently one of his closest friends, in a short, formal note, with a reference to his mother who had died ten years before:

I am thus fulfilling a wish that was dear to my mother’s heart, for the person who is linking her fate to mine brings rare human qualities with her.

This strikes a slight chill, even in the original French. He seems to be marrying the lady less for her own sake than in retrospective obedience to his mother’s wish that he should eventually settle down with a good woman, and he also gives the impression of having chosen her for her definable qualities and not through a spontaneous loving impulse. But it is impossible to tell what the sentence really means. Perhaps he was regularizing a long-standing situation that his mother had known about and had wished to see brought to a happy conclusion. The point is that, on the subject of sex and love, which many poets have found inexhaustible, this is all Saint-John Perse has to say, apart from one reference to his wife, again formal, in a late poem.

Then, what exactly was the material basis of his life from youth onward? His father died when he was twenty, and he writes solemnly about his role as chef de famille, with the obligation of looking after his mother and two sisters, and, to judge by one remark, he even seems to have held the purse strings. He must have been an exceptionally gifted and hard-working student, since he passed into the Foreign Service from a provincial university background, an unusual feat in France. But this was not an immediate route to prosperity; during his five-year mission to China, he mentions the meagerness of his salary and occasionally inquires about his mother’s small investment income. Since he appears to have been supporting only himself, his choice of career was not dictated in the first place by his family responsibilities; it must have corresponded to his temperament and his wish to travel.


Between 1922 and 1932, when he was back in Paris, he must have had an adequate income, and still more so after 1932, when he was given the rank of ambassador. In America, after 1940, Archibald MacLeish found him employment, privately financed, with the Library of Congress. Later, according to the biographical notes in the Pléiade edition, he lived on “a literary contract” that he had concluded with the Bollingen Foundation, but its terms are not explained, there is no reference in the letters to any functions that he performed, and he appears to have been able to travel as he wished.

This being so, it seems strange that he should not have returned to France immediately after the war to see his mother and sisters, and to seek relief from the “Exile” about which he had written so eloquently. The explanation he gives to Adrienne Monnier in 1948 sounds unconvincing:

I’m not returning to France for quite humble reasons that have nothing to do with the reasons imputed to me. There’s no way I could subsist in France—no roof, no bed, no table, no private resources—and I refuse once and for all to hold any public office again. The little—very little—that the state still owes me must be reserved for my family (my mother and one of my sisters, unmarried).

Could his pension as a former secretary-general and ambassador be as small as that, even though he had left the service at the age of fifty-three? Besides, how could he resist the urge to be reunited with his family even for a short time? Nor does he explain why he is determined not to return to public life. It is true that Paul Reynaud had removed him unfairly from his post in 1940, and the Vichy Government had deprived him of his rank, but he had been rehabilitated by the postwar administration.

A similar ambiguity hangs over his earlier decision not to throw in his lot with de Gaulle after 1940, even though the Free French leader invited him to come back from America to England for consultations, and Churchill sent him a letter and a telegram to back up the request. Neither these texts nor the answers are given in the translated volume, which is perhaps a pity, but it has to be said that Leger’s replies are just as peculiar as the two letters, already quoted, to MacLeish and Monnier. They are politely evasive and say practically nothing. More revealing, perhaps, is another letter, written much later in response to a query from a Belgian historian, in which Leger implies that he could not accept de Gaulle’s claim to be the “legitimate” heir to French sovereignty. There is substance in this objection, but he had not made it at the time, and one cannot know to what degree he had really held this view.

One might expect his attitude to literature to be easier to define, but such is not the case. In his early years, when he was involved in the literary life through his acquaintanceship with Francis Jammes and Valéry Larbaud and his correspondence with Jacques Rivière, André Gide, and Paul Claudel, he was almost a poète malgré lui, who said he preferred life to art, had to be pressed into publishing his poems, and even looked upon the composing of poetry as guilty self-indulgence. In 1909, he wrote to Rivière:

I make no distinction between art and a nervous twitch…. I might even say that I hate “art” for being an end and no longer a means…. The whole business involves, in a terribly sensual way, an indirect giving of one’s self, a kind of turning aside, when lyricism can be an immediate and unpremeditated thing.—It’s simply that I would like to be healthy, and that means, avid to possess. Art = onanism. Only by running away from himself can a man write, and clandestinely, with his mouth full of saliva, the way one discovers some nasty, solitary pastime as a child. By “art” I mean the only relevant sort, the sort that submits to the rules of games that are useless, secondary, and incomplete, and that shuns as if it were an indecent, vulgar outburst, the saying of anything “essential.”

If I understand this paragraph, it means that the direct expression in poetry of essential emotions is vulgar, and that even art conceived as a superior, formal game is a solitary vice. Three years later, in a letter to Paul Claudel which is unaccountably missing from this American volume, he repeats the image of masturbation, but adds immediately, as if there were no contradiction, that some day he would like to “mener une ‘oeuvre,’ comme une Anabase sous la conduite de ses chefs” (conduct, produce a work, as an Anabasis—military expedition—is carried out under the direction of its commanders), a curiously warlike or princely transfiguration of autoeroticism. Years later, in 1949, in another letter to Claudel, he makes what is perhaps his most revealing statement:

What is saddest to me in such a state [his own state] is that everything must always be done consciously. A hatred of letting go, in all things! Art itself, to my way of thinking, is only a kind of incest between instinct and will. (The poet, for centuries in France, was but a horseman without a mount; and then one fine day he wanted to be a horse without a rider. It is high time that we make [made?] the irrational and the rational come to terms.) Another sad development [in himself] is the refusal to recognize that poetic creation has no other object than the liberating of joy, or rather, more precisely, of “pleasure” in its very essence—the most mysterious, most useless, and by that very fact, the most sacred of pleasures. Whence the taking refuge, on the part of the agnostic, in a kind of blind and, as it were, vital reverence, which must be, alas! quite close to that of primitive man.

The general pronouncement about French poetry is astonishingly unfair to Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry who, in reaction to empty rhetoric, the horseman without a mount, were vitally concerned with the tension between emotion and form. The rest of the passage shows that, for Saint-John Perse, the masturbatory or incestuous activity of poetic composition, the vibrant polarity between the ego and the id, had now become, as it were, a substitute for religion, a sort of primitive ecstasy in the face of the cosmos, that he as an agnostic could bring himself to confess at this stage to Claudel, the poet of Catholic belief. He both regrets the self-control which is an intrinsic part of his being, and rightly senses it to be the source of the elaborate, rhetorical virtuosity, so characteristic of his later writing.

In view of this, I find myself wondering if 1940 was not, for him, a blessing in disguise, a public disaster which released him from the burden of official responsibility he had carried for many years and allowed him to devote himself, with a relatively clear conscience and egotistical concentration, to the “vital reverence” that he expressed in Exil, Pluies, Vents, Amers, and Oiseaux. His deepest poetic impulse seems to have been to stand in front of the universe and to celebrate its meteoric and animal phenomena in long bouts of tragico-sublime yea-saying, like some latter-day Zarathustra who has decided once and for all to disregard the petty complexities of his individual destiny.

One cannot deny the nobility of the undertaking and the sonorous richness of the language, but some readers may find this sustained applauding of the universe a little vacuous, since it is unrelieved by any humble, personal note relating the immediately human to the vast inhuman. Saint-John Perse’s splendidly sophisticated rhetoric may not, in the last resort, seem very different in its ultimate effects from the more naïve eloquence of Victor Hugo, the supreme example in French literature of a marvelous horseman with a problematic mount. The Prince in exile, who has excised all trace of the undignified, fallible, individual man from his work—who has, perhaps, too successfully repressed the Id—and whose inspiration is like a cosmic wind, can appear dangerously similar to the Magus on his Guernsey rock communing with God and the ocean.

This Issue

February 21, 1980