Perse, Saint-John (Alexis Saint-Leger Leger)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Perse, Saint-John (Alexis Saint-Leger Leger)

Perse, Saint-John (Alexis Saint-Leger Leger) (1887-1975) French poet and translator

Under his pen name of Saint-John Perse, Alexis Saint-Leger Leger won the 1960 Nobel Prize in literature for somber nationalistic poetry as well as celebrations of silence and solitude in NATURE. Born to wealthy French cane and coffee planters on the island of St. Leger des Feueilles off Pointe- a-Pitre, Guadaloupe, he was 10 years old when the French Antilles separated from the French Empire. In 1899, as the political situation grew threatening for colonialists, his family returned to France and settled in the Pyrenees in Pau. After an education at the law school of the University of Bordeaux, Leger initiated translations of Pindaric odes and of Daniel Defoe's adventure classic Robinson Crusoe (1719) in Images for Crusoe (1909), a story of the castaway that foreshadows the poet's last years as a refugee from Hitler's Europe. He followed with Elogues (Elegies, 1910). At age 24, he joined the foreign office and worked for the media during World War I. Afterward, he served in the French embassies in Beijing and Washington, D.C.

By 1938, Leger (or Perse, his pen name) was a senior official at the Munich conference, where, over his protest, Germany formally annexed part of Czechoslovakia. He lost his French citizenship after expulsion in 1940 by the Vichy government, which also revoked his French Legion of Honor. While Nazi investigators pillaged his Paris residence and destroyed his unpublished writings, he escaped near-certain execution by fleeing to England. He lamented the impermanence of a government career: “I have built upon the abyss and the spindrift and the sand-smoke” (Perse 1982, xiv). He refused a position in the government-in-exile of General Charles de Gaulle and rejected a teaching position at Harvard University. From 1941 to 1945, he worked at the Library of Congress as the consultant on French literature, a post obtained for him by the poet Archibald MacLeish. He lived out his retirement in Provence and the United States. He died on September 20, 1975, at his villa in Provence and was buried in Giens.

Writing from Experience

Influenced by the novelist Victor Hugo (1802-85) and by literary colleagues Paul Claudel (18681955), Andre Gide (1869-1951), and Paul Valery (1871-1945), Leger established a literary persona, Saint-John Perse, to separate his writing from his diplomatic career. His adopted surname translated as the exotic “Persia,” and his canon began with the publication of a Homeric epic, Anabase (Anabasis, 1924). The poem is a grand conquest narrative reflective of the influence of the Greek historian XENOPHON, author of the combat memoir Anabasis (The Expedition of Cyrus, 354 B.c.). Perse's story of the protagonist, a tribal despot who journeys to an allegorical interior, draws on the poet's experiences in the Gobi Desert. The text features egotistic idealizations of the unidentified conqueror's campaign: “Glory at the threshold of the tents, and my strength among you, and the idea pure as salt holds its assize in the daylight” (Perse 1982, 31).

Perse wrote timeless verse on the subject of homelessness, alienation, transience, and spiritual drift. The dynamic sweep of his style, which he called parole de vivant (the living word), suggests an active involvement of the writer in the action, an identity with words and movement that sustains the long narrative. In each poem, an underlying continuity aims an unnerving focus, a view ahead that refuses to flinch. Perse established a following with Exil (Exile, 1942), an impersonal meditation on world war. In the “great feat of arms on the march across the world” he envisioned a gothic terror, “This huge muffled thing loose in the world, and suddenly growing huger like drunkenness” (47). His protests against the “monsterhead” seek an end to pursuit of “my Numidian soul” (49), a color image of his dark spirit in flight from Nazi-occupied France. In Vents (Winds, 1946), his commentary on Columbus's discovery and exploration of the Western Hemisphere and on World War II prefigured his voyage imagery in Amers (Seamarks, 1957), a rumination on the human desire for challenge and exploration of the unknown. Upon receipt of the Nobel Prize at age 73, Perse summarized his view of art as an expression of human ambivalence toward injustice: “It is enough for the poet to be the guilty conscience of his time” (xi).


Baker, Peter. Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1991.

Perse, Saint-John. Selected Poems. Edited by Mary Ann Caws. New York: New Directions, 1982.