Saint-John Perse (pseudonym of Marie René Auguste Alexis Saint-Léger Léger) (31 May 1887–20 September 1975) was a French poet, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960 "for the soaring flight and evocative imagery of his poetry." He was also 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 was awarded the baccalaureate with honors, 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 interrupt temporarily 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, while taking part in a world disarmament conference, he was noticed by Aristide Briand, the then-Prime Minister of France, who recruited him as his assistant. In Paris, he got to know the fellow intellectual poet Paul Valéry who used his influence to get the poem Anabase, written during Léger's stay in China, published. Léger 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", one he employed for the rest of his life. He then published nothing for two decades, not even a re-edition of his debut book, because 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, a period in which the French government experienced chronic instability and turmoil. He accompanied the French Foreign Minister at the Munich Conference in 1938, where the cession of Czechoslovakia to Germany was agreed to. He was dismissed from his post right after the fall of France in May 1940, because he was a known anti-Nazi. In mid-July 1940, Leger began a long exile in Washington, D.C..
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, Director of the Library of Congress and himself a poet, raised sufficient private donations to enable the Library to employ Perse until his official retirement from the French civil service in 1947. Perse declined a teaching position at Harvard University.
During his American exile, Perse wrote his long poems Exil, Vents, Pluies, Neiges, Amers, and Chroniques. He remained in the United States long after the end of the Second World War ended, traveling extensively, observing nature, and enjoying the friendship of, among others, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Attorney General Francis Biddle and his spouse, author Katherine Garrison Chapin. Leger was on good terms with the UN Secretary General and author Dag Hammarskjöld. In 1957, American friends gave him a villa at Giens in Provence, and from that time on, he split his time between France and the United States. In 1958, he married the American Dorothy Milburn Russell.
Honours and awards
In 1960, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the soaring flight and the evocative imagery of his poetry which in a visionary fashion reflects the conditions of our time. After receiving the Nobel Prize, he wrote the long poems Chronique, Oiseaux, 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 titled 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) that 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. Morrison 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)
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.
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OCCUPATION: Poet and diplomat
BORN:31 May 1887
BIRTHPLACE: Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe
DIED:20 September 1975 (aged 88)
DEATHPLACE: Presqu'île de Giens, Provence, France
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