Saint-John Perse (French: [pɛʁs]; also Saint-Leger Leger, pronounced [ləʒe]; pseudonyms of Alexis Leger) (31 May 1887 – 20 September 1975) was a French poet-diplomat, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960 "for the soaring flight and evocative imagery of his poetry." He was a major French diplomat from 1914 to 1940, after which he lived primarily in the United States until 1967.
Alexis Leger was born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. His great-grandfather, a solicitor, had settled in Guadeloupe in 1815. His grandfather and father were also solicitors; his father was also a member of the City Council. The Leger family owned two plantations, one of coffee (La Joséphine) and the other of sugar (Bois-Debout).
In 1897, Hégésippe Légitimus, the first native Guadeloupan elected president of the Guadeloupe General Council, took office with a vindictive agenda towards colonists. The Leger family returned to metropolitan France in 1899 and settled in Pau. The young Alexis felt like an expatriate and spent much of his time hiking, fencing, riding horses and sailing in the Atlantic. He passed the baccalauréat with honours and began studying law at the University of Bordeaux. When his father died in 1907, the resulting strain on his family's finances led Leger to temporarily interrupt his studies, but he eventually completed his degree in 1910.
In 1904, he met the poet Francis Jammes at Orthez, who became a dear friend. He frequented cultural clubs, and met Paul Claudel, Odilon Redon, Valery Larbaud and André Gide. He wrote short poems inspired by the story of Robinson Crusoe (Images à Crusoe) and undertook a translation of Pindar. He published his first book of poetry, Éloges, in 1911.
In 1914, he joined the French diplomatic service, and spent some of his first years in Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom. When World War I broke out, he was a press corps attaché for the government. From 1916 to 1921, he was secretary to the French embassy in Peking. In 1921 in Washington, DC, while taking part in a world disarmament conference, he was noticed by Aristide Briand, Prime Minister of France, who recruited him as his assistant. In Paris, he got to know the fellow intellectual poet Valéry, who used his influence to get the poem Anabase published, written during Leger's stay in China.
Leger was warm to classical music and knew Igor Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger, and les Six.
While in China, Leger had written his first extended poem Anabase, publishing it in 1924 under the pseudonym "Saint-John Perse", which he employed for the rest of his life. He then published nothing for two decades, not even a re-edition of his debut book, as he believed it inappropriate for a diplomat to publish fiction. After Briand's death in 1932, Leger served as the General Secretary of the French Foreign Office (Quai d'Orsay) until 1940.
Within the Foreign Office he led the optimist faction that believed that Germany was unstable and that if Britain and France stood up to Hitler, he would back down. He accompanied the French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier at the Munich Conference in 1938, where the cession of part of Czechoslovakia to Germany was agreed to. He was dismissed from his post right after the Fall of France in May 1940, as he was a known anti-Nazi. In mid-July 1940, Leger began a long exile in Washington, DC
In 1940, the Vichy government dismissed him from the Légion d'honneur order and revoked his French citizenship (it was reinstated after the war). He was in some financial difficulty as an exile in Washington until Archibald MacLeish, the Director of the Library of Congress and himself a poet, raised enough private donations to enable the Library to employ him until his official retirement from the French civil service, in 1947. He declined a teaching position at Harvard University.
During his American exile, he wrote his long poems Exil, Vents, Pluies, Neiges, Amers, and Chroniques. He remained in the US long after the end of the war. He travelled extensively, observing nature and enjoying the friendship of US Attorney General Francis Biddle and his spouse, author Katherine Garrison Chapin. He was on good terms with the UN Secretary General and author Dag Hammarskjöld.
In 1957, American friends gave him a villa at Giens, Provence, France. He then split his time between France and the United States. In 1958, he married the American Dorothy Milburn Russell.
In 1960, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. After receiving the Nobel Prize, he wrote the long poems Chronique, Oiseaux and Chant pour un équinoxe and the shorter Nocturne and Sécheresse. In 1962, Georges Braque worked with master printmaker Aldo Crommelynck to create a series of etchings and aquatints, L’Ordre des Oiseaux, which was published with the text of Perse's Oiseaux by Au Vent d'Arles.
A few months before he died, Leger donated his library, manuscripts and private papers to Fondation Saint-John Perse, a research centre devoted to his life and work (Cité du Livre, Aix-en-Provence), which remains active down to the present day. He died in his villa in Giens and is buried nearby.
- Éloges (1911, transl. Eugène Jolas in 1928, Louise Varèse in 1944, Eleanor Clark and Roger Little in 1965, King Bosley in 1970)
- Anabase (1924, transl. T.S. Eliot in 1930, Roger Little in 1970)
- Exil (1942, transl. Denis Devlin, 1949)
- Pluies (1943, transl. Denis Devlin in 1944)
- Poème à l'étrangère (1943, transl. Denis Devlin in 1946)
- Neiges (1944, transl. Denis Devlin in 1945, Walter J. Strachan in 1947)
- Vents (1946, transl. Hugh Chisholm in 1953)
- Amers (1957, transl. Wallace Fowlie in 1958, extracts by George Huppert in 1956, Samuel E. Morison in 1964)
- Chronique (1960, transl. Robert Fitzgerald in 1961)
- Poésie (1961, transl. W. H. Auden in 1961)
- Oiseaux (1963, transl. Wallace Fowlie in 1963, Robert Fitzgerald in 1966, Roger Little in 1967, Derek Mahon in 2002)
- Pour Dante (1965, transl. Robert Fitzgerald in 1966)
- Chanté par celle qui fut là (1969, transl. Richard Howard in 1970)
- Chant pour un équinoxe (1971)
- Nocturne (1973)
- Sécheresse (1974)
- Collected Poems (1971) Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press.
- Œuvres complètes (1972), Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard. The definitive edition of his work. Leger designed and edited this volume, which includes a detailed chronology of his life, speeches, tributes, hundreds of letters, notes, a bibliography of the secondary literature, and extensive extracts from those parts of that literature the author liked. Enlarged edition, 1982.
- Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century, a list which includes Amers
Secondary literature in English
- S. A. Rhodes, "Poetry of Saint-John Perse", The Sewanee Review, vol. XLIV, no. 1, Jan.-March 1936
- Paul Rosenfeld, "The Poet Perse", The Nation, New York, vol. CLVIII, no. 20, 15 May 1944
- John Gould Fletcher, "On the Poetry of Alexis Saint-Leger Leger", Quarterly Review of Literature, vol. II, Autumn 1944
- Edouard Roditi, "Éloges and other poems, Saint-John Perse", Contemporary Poetry, Baltimore, vol. IV, no. 3, Autumn 1944
- Conrad Aiken, "Rains, by Saint-John Perse. Whole Meaning or Doodles", New Republic, Washington, no. CXII, 16 April 1945.
- David Gascoigne, "Vents by Saint-John Perse", Poetry, London, June–July 1948,
- Valéry Larbaud, préface à Anabasis, translated by Jacques Le Clerq, in Anabasis, New York, Harcourt, Brace and C°, 1949.
- Hugo von Hofmannsthal, préface à Anabasis, translated by James Stern, ibid.
- Giuseppe Ungaretti, préface à Anabasis, translated by Adrienne Foulke, ibid.
- Archibald MacLeish, "The Living Spring", Saturday Review, vol. XXXII, no. 24, 16 July 1949
- Hubert Creekmore, "An Epic Poem of the Primitive Man", New York Times Book Review, 25 December 1949
- Allen Tate, "Hommage to Saint-John Perse", Poetry, Chicago, LXXV, January 1950
- Harold W. Watts, "Anabase: The Endless Film", University of Toronto Quarterly, vol XIX, no. 3, April 1950
- Stephen Spender, "Tribute to Saint-John Perse", Cahiers de la Pléiade, Paris, Summer-Autumn 1950
- Amos Wilder, "Nature and the immaculate world in Saint-John Perse", in Modern Poetry and the Christian tradition, New York, 1952
- Katherine Garrison Chapin, "Saint-John Perse. Notes on Some Poetic Contrasts", The Sewanee Review
- Paul Claudel, "A Poem by St.-John Perse", translation by Hugh Chisholm, in Winds, New York, Pantheon Books, Bollingen Series, no. 34, 1953.
- Gaëtan Picon, "The Most proudly free", translation by Willard R. Trask, ibid, 1st edition in Les Cahiers de la Pléiade, no. 10, été-automne 1950.
- Albert Béguin, "A Poetry marked by scansion", translation by Willard R. Trask, ibid, 1st edition in Les Cahiers de la Pléiade, no. 10, été-automne 1950.
- Gabriel Bounoure, "St.-John Perse and poetic ambiguity", translation by Willard R. Trask, ibid, 1st edition in Les Cahiers de la Pléiade, no. 10, été-automne 1950.
- Wallace Fowlie, "The Poetics of Saint-John Perse", Poetry,, Chicago, vol. LXXXII, no. 6, September 1953
- Hayden Carruth, "Winds by Saint-John Perse... Parnassus stormed", The Partisan Review, vol. XX, no. 5, September–October 1953
- Henri Peyre, "Exile by Saint-John Perse", Shenandoah, Lexington, vol. V, Winter 1953
- "Tribute to Saint-John Perse", The Berkeley Review (Arthur J. Knodel, René Girard, Georges Huppert), vol. I, no. 1, Berkeley, 1956
- Archibald MacLeish, "Saint-John Perse. The Living Spring", in A continuing journey. Essays and Addresses, Boston, 1957
- Wallace Fowlie, "Saint-John Perse", in A Guide to Contemporary french Literature, from Valéry to Sartre, New York, 1957
- Anonymous, "Saint-John Perse, poet of the Fare Shore", Times Literary Supplement, London, 2 March 1957
- Paul West, "The Revival of Epic", The Twentieth Century, London, July 1957
- Conrad Aiken, A Reviewer's A.B.C., Collected criticism from 1916, New York, 1958
- Jacques Guicharnaud, "Vowels of the Sea: Amers", Yale French Studies, no. 21, Spring-Summer 1958
- Martin Turnell, "The Epic of Saint-John Perse", The Commonweal, LXX, 17 July 1958
- W. H. Auden, "A song of life's power to renew", New York Times Book Review, vol. LXIII, no. 30, 27 July 1958
- Melvin Maddocks, "Perse as Cosmologist", Christian Science Monitor, 4 September 1958
- John Marshall, "The greatest Living French Poet", The Yale Review, XLVIII, September 1958
- Katherine Garrison Chapin, "Perse on the sea with Us: Amers", The New Republic, Washington, CXXXIX, 27 October 1958
- H.-J. Kaplan,"Saint-John Perse: The Recreation of the World", The Reporter, XV, 22 January 1959
- Raymond Mortimer, "Mr Eliot and Mr Perse: Two fine Poets in tandem", Sunday Times, London, May 1959
- Philip Toynbee, "A great modern Poet", The Observer, London, 31 May 1959
- Charles Guenther, "Prince among the Prophets", Poetry, Chicago, vol. XCIII, no. 5, 1959
- Joseph Henry McMahon, A Bibliography of works by and about Saint-John Perse, Stanford University, 1959
- Stanley Burnshaw, "Saint-John Perse", in The Poem Itself, New York, 1960
- Joseph MacMahon, "A question of Man", Commonweal, LXXIII, 13 January 1960
- Byron Colt, "Saint-John Perse", Accent, New York, XX,3, Summer 1960
- Joseph Barry, "Science and poetry merge in the crucial stage of creation", New York Post, 12 December 1960
- Bernard Weinberg, The Limits of Symbolism. Studies of Five modern French Poets. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Valéry, Saint-John Perse, Manchester, 1961
- Anthony Hartley, "Saint-John Perse", Encounter, London, no. 2, Feb. 1961
- Octavio Paz, "Saint-John Perse as Historian", The Nation, New York, 17 June 1961
- Donald Davis, "Chronique by Saint-John Perse", New Statesman, London, LXII, 26 July 1961
- John Montague, "The Poetry of Saint-John Perse", Irish Times, Dublin, 25 August 1961
- Léon-S. Roudiez, "The Epochal Poetry of Saint-John Perse", Columbia University Forum, New York, vol. IV, 1961
- Anthony Curtis, "Back to the Elements", The Sunday Telegraph, London, 7 January 1962
- Amos Wilder, "St-John Perse and the future of Man", Christianity and Crisis, New York, vol. XXI, no. 24, 22 January 1962
- Ronald Gaskell, "The Poetry of Saint-John Perse", The London Magazine, vol. I, no. 12, March 1962
- Peter Russel, "Saint-John Perse's Poetical works", Agenda, London, May–June 1962
- Cecil Hemley, "Onward and Upward", Hudson Review, XV, Summer 1962
- Eugenia Maria Arsenault, Color imagery in the Vents of Saint-John Perse, Catholic University of America, Washington, 1963
- Arthur J. Knodel, "Towards an Understanding of Anabase", PMLA, June 1964
- Eugenia Vassylkivsky, The Main Themes of Saint-John Perse, Columbia University, 1964
- Arthur J. Knodel, Saint-John Perse. A Study of his Poetry, Edimburg, 1966
- R. W. Baldner, "Saint-John Perse as Poet Prophet" in Proceedings of the Pacific Northwest Conference on Foreign Languages, vol. XVII, no. 22, 1966
- Roger Little, Word Index of the Complete Poetry and Prose of Saint-John Perse, Durham, 1966 and 1967
- M. Owen de Jaham, An Introduction to Saint-John Perse, University of South Western Louisiana, 1967
- Kathleen Raine, "Saint-John Perse, Poet of the Marvellous", Encounter, vol. IV, no. 29, October 1967; idem in Defending Ancient Springs, Oxford, 1968
- Roger Little, "T. S. Eliot and Saint-John Perse", The Arlington Quarterly Review, University of Texas, vol. II, no. 2, Autumn 1969
- Charles Delamori, "The Love and aggression of Saint-John Perse's Pluies", Yale French Studies, 1970
- Richar O. Abel, The Relationship between the Poetry of T. S. Eliot and Saint-John Perse, University of Southern California, 1970
- Roger Little, Saint-John Perse. A Bibliography for Students of His Poetry, London, 1971
- Ruth N. Horry, Paul Claudel and Saint-John Perse. Parallels and Contrasts, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1971
- Pierre Emmanuel, Praise and Presence, with a Bibliography, Washington, 1971
- Candace Uter De Russy, Saint-John Perse's Chronique: a study of Kronos and other themes through imagery, Tulane University, 1971
- Marc Goodhart, Poet and Poem in Exile, University of Colorado, 1971
- René Galand, Saint-John Perse, New York, 1972
- Richard Ruland, America as metaphor in modern French Letters. Celine, Julien Green and Saint-John Perse, New York, 1972
- Roger Little, Saint-John Perse, University of London, 1973
- Carol Nolan Rigolot, The Dialectics of Poetry: Saint-John Perse, University of Michigan, 1973
- Richard-Allen Laden, Saint-John Perse's Vents: From Theme to Poetry, Yale University, 1974
- Elizabeth Jackson, Worlds Apart Structural Parallels in the Poetry of Paul Valéry, Saint-John Perse, Benjamin Perret and René Char, The Hague, 1976
- Arthur J. Knodel, Saint-John Perse: Lettres, Princeton, 1979
- Edith Jonssen-Devillers, Cosmos and the Sacred in the poetics of Octavio Paz and Saint-John Perse, San Diego, University of California, 1976
- John M. Cocking, "The Migrant Muse: Saint-John Perse", Encounter, London, XLVI, March 1976
- Elizabeth Jennings, "Saint-John Perse: the worldly seer", in Seven Men of Vision: an appreciation, London, 1976
- Roger Little, "A letter about Conrad by Saint-John Perse", Conradiana, Lubbock, Texas, VIII, no. 3, Autumn 1976
- Anonymous, "An Exile for Posterity", The Times Literary Supplement, London, no. 3860, 5 March 1976
- Roger Little, "The Eye at the Center of Things", Times Literary Supplement, London, no. 3941, 7 October 1977
- Roger Little, "Saint-John Perse and Joseph Conrad: some notes and an uncollected Letter", Modern language Review, Cambridge, LXII, no. 4, October 1977
- Roger Little, "The World and the Word in Saint-John Perse", in Sensibility and Creation: Essays in XXth Century French Poetry, London and New York, 1977
- John D. Price, "Man, Women and the Problem of Suffering in Saint-John Perse", Modern language Review, Cambridge, LXII, no. 3, July 1977
- Reino Virtanen, "Between Saint-John and Persius: Saint-John Perse and Paul Valéry", Symposium, Summer 1978
- Roger Little, "Saint-John Perse and Denis Devlin: a compagnonage", Irish University Review, Dublin, VIII, Autumn 1978
- Roger Little, "Claudel and Saint-John Perse. The Convert and the Unconvertible", Claudel Studies, VI, 1979
- Steven Winspur, "Saint-John Perse's Oiseaux: the Poem, the Painting and beyond", L'Esprit Créateur, Columbia University, XXII, no. 4, Winter 1982
- William Calin, "Saint-John Perse", in A Muse for heroes: Nine Centuries of the Epic in France, University of Toronto Press, 1983
- Steven Winspur, "The Poetic Signifiance of the Thing-in-itself", Sub-stance, no. 41, 1983
- Joseph T. Krause, "The Visual Form of Saint-John Perse's Imagery", Aix-en-Provence, 1983
- Peter Fell, "A Critical Study of Saint-John Perse's Chronique" . MA dissertation, University of Manchester, 1983
- Saint-John Perse: Documentary Exhibition and Works on the Poem Amers, Washington, 1984–1985
- Erika Ostrovsky, Under the Sign of Ambiguity: Saint-John Perse/Alexis Leger, New York, 1985
- Steven Winspur, Saint-John Perse and the Imaginary Reader, Geneva, 1988
- Peter Baker, "Perse on Poetry", The Connecticut Review, Willimantic, XI, no. 1, 1988
- Peter Baker, "Saint-John Perse, Alexis Leger, 1960", The Nobel Prize Winners: Literature, April 1988
- Peter Baker, "Exile in Language", Studies in 20th century Literature, Manhattan (Kansas) and Lincoln (Nebraska), XIV, no. 2, Summer 1990
- Judith Kopenhagen-Urian, "The voyage chronotop and other dynamic topoi in Saint-John Perse's Work", American Comparative Literature Association, Pennsylvania State University, annual meeting Marc 29-31 1990 (unpublished)
- Erika Ostrovsky, "Saint-John Perse", The Twentieth Century, New York, 1990
- Luigi Fiorenzato, Anabasis/Anabase: T. S. Eliot translates Saint-John Perse, Padova, 1991–1992
- Peter Baker, "Metric, Naming and Exile: Perse, Pound, Genet", in The Scope of Words in Honor to Albert S. Cook, New York, 1991
- Peter Baker, Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem, University of Florida Press, 1991
- Josef Krause, "The Two Axes of Saint-John Perse's Imagery", Studi Francesi, Torino, XXXVI, no. 106, 1992
- Carol Rigolot, "Ancestors, Mentors and 'Grands Aînés': Saint-John Perse's Chronique", Literary Generations, Lexington, 1992
- Richard L. Sterling, The Prose Works of Saint-John Perse. Towards an Understanding of His Poetry, New York, 1994
- Richard A. York, "Saint-John Perse, the diplomat", Claudel Studies, XXIII, 1-2, 1996
- Judith Urian, The Biblical context in Saint-John Perse's work, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997
- Mary Gallagher, "Seminal Praise: The Poetry of Saint-John Perse", in An Introduction to Caribbean Francophone writing, Oxford, 1999
- Carol Rigolot, "Saint-John Perse's Oiseaux: from Audubon to Braque and beyond", in Resonant Themes: literature, history and the arts in XIXth - and XXth - century Europe, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1999
- Judith Urian, "Delicious abyss: the biblical darkness in the poetry of Saint-John Perse", Comparative literature studies, XXXVI, no. 3, 1999
- Jeffrey Mehlman, Émigré New York. French Intellectuals in Wartime, Manhattan, 1940–1944, Baltimore and London, 2000
- Zeyma Kamalick, In Defense of Poetry: T. S. Eliot's translation ofAnabase by Saint-John Perse, Princeton, 2000
- Emmanuelle Hériard Dubreuil, Une certaine idée de la France: Alexis Leger's views during the occupation of France June 1940-August 1944, London School of Economics, 2001
- Pierre Lastenet, Saint-John Perse and the Sacred, University of London, 2001
- Marie-Noëlle Little, The Poet and the Diplomat [Correspondence Saint-John Perse/Dag Hammarskjöld], Syracuse University Press, 2001
- Marie-Noëlle Little, "It is the same land: Poetry and Diplomacy for Dag Hammarskjöld and Alexis Leger", Uppsala, 7 September 2001, in Dag Hammarskjöld and the XXIst Century (Unpublished work)
- Marie-Noëlle Little, "Letters written, read and translated: The Correspondence of Dag Hammarskjöld and Alexis Leger", Uppsala, 8 September 2001, in Dag Hammarskjöld and the XXIst Century (Unpublished work)
- Marie-Noëlle Little, "Travellers in two Worlds: Dag Hammarskjöld and Alexis Leger", in Development Dialogue, Uppsala, 2001
- Carol Rigolot, Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse's Conversations with Culture, The University of North Carolina Press, 2002
- Mary Gallagher, "Re-membering Caribbean childhoods, Saint-John Perse's Éloges and Patrick Chamoiseau's Antan d'enfance", in The Francophone Caribbean today-literature, language, culture, The University of West Indies Press, 2003
- Colette Camelin, "Hermes and Aphrodite in Saint-John Perse's Winds and Seemarks", in Hermes and Aphrodite Encounters, Birmingham, 2004
- Patrick Chamoiseau, "Excerpts freely adapted from Meditations for Saint-John Perse", Literature and Arts of the Americas, XXXVII, no. 1
- Henriette Levillain, Saint-John Perse, Ministère des Affaires étrangères, Paris, 2005
- Joseph Acquisto, "The Lyric of Narrative: Exile, Poetry and Story in Saint-John Perse and Elisabeth Bishop", Orbis Litterarum, no. 5, 2005
- Xue Die, "Saint-John Perse's Palm Trees", American Letters and Commentary, no. 17, 2005
- Valérie Loichot, "Saint-John Perse's Imagined Shelter: J'habiterai mon nom, in Discursive Geographies, Writing Space and Place in French, Amsterdam, 2005
- Carol Rigolot, "Blood Brothers: Archibald MacLeish and Saint-John Perse", Archibald MacLeish Journal, Summer 2005
- Carol Rigolot, "Saint-John Perse", in Transtlantic relations, France and the Americas, Culture, Politics, History, Oxford and Santa Barbara, 2005
- Valérie Loichot, Orphan Narratives: The Postplantation Literature of Faulkner, Glissant, Morrison and Saint-John Perse, University of Virginia Press, 2007
- Harris Feinsod, "Reconsidering the 'Spiritual Economy': Saint-John Perse, his translators and the limits of internationalism", "Benjamin, Poetry and Criticism", Telos, New York, no. 38, 2007
- Peter Poiana, "The order of Nemesis in Saint-John Perse's Vents", Neophilologus, vol. 91, no. 1, 2007
- Jeffrey Meyers, "The Literary Politics of the Nobel Prize", Antioch Review, vol. 65, no. 2, 2007
- Fondation Saint-John Perse, Aix-en-Provence, Website of the Aix-en-Provence Fondation about the poet and diplomat (in French)
- Saint-John Perse biography from the official Nobel Prize website
- Nobel acceptance speech
- Saint-John Perse, le poète aux masques, site devoted to the author (in French)
- Liste de diffusion SJPinfo (news) devoted to Saint-John Perse
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