Alexis Saint-Léger Léger


Alexis Saint-Léger Léger (1887–1975) – pen name Saint-John Perse – poet and diplomat. Scion of a Bourgignon family, he passed his early years on an island near Guadeloupe in the West Indies, but the family returned to France in 1899. After studying law at the University of Bordeaux, he joined the French Foreign Office as an attaché and worked for six years as Secretary at the French Legation in Peking: his poem Anabase was inspired by aspects of his life and observations in China, which included a journey to Outer Mongolia. In 1921, at a conference in Washington, DC, he was recruited by Aristide Briand, Prime Minister of France, as his chef de cabinet; and after Briand’s death in 1932 he retained high office, serving as Sécretaire Générale of the Foreign Office, 1933–40. Dishonoured by the Vichy regime (he was a Grand Officier of the Legion of Honour), he spent the years of WW2 in the USA (serving for a time as a ‘consultant’ to the Library of Congress); and he went back to France only in 1957 (he had formally closed his diplomatic career in 1950, with the title of Ambassadeur de France). His publications include Eloges (published with help from André Gide, 1911), Anabase (1924; translated by TSE as Anabasis, 1930); Exil (1942), Pluies (1943), Vents (1946), Amers (1957), Oiseaux (1962). In 1924 he had published in Commerce a translation of the opening section of ‘The Hollow Men’. He was made Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1960.

In a copy of Anabase (Paris: Librairie Gallimard/ Éditions de La Nouvelle Revue Française, 1925: limited edition copy no. 160), Saint-John Perse wrote: ‘A T. S. Eliot / dont j’aime et j’admire l’oeuvre / fraternellement / St. J. Perse.’ (TSE Library)

In 1960 TSE was to recommend Saint-John Perse for the Nobel Prize. When requested on 10 Mar. 1960 by Uno Willers, secretary of the Svenska Akadamiens Nobelkommitté, to ‘write down a more detailed motivation for your suggestion’, TSE responded on 23 Mar. 1960:

My interest in the work of Saint-John Perse began many years ago when I translated his Anabase into English. This task gave me an intimacy with his style and idiom which I could not have acquired in any other way. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me still, that he had done something highly original – and in a language, the French language, in which such originality is not easily attained. He had invented a form which was different from “free verse” as practised in France to-day, and different from the ‘prose-poem’ in which some French writers, anxious to escape the limitations of the conventional metrics of their language, take refuge.

He is the only French poet among my contemporaries, with the solitary exception of [Jules] Supervielle, whose work has continued to interest me. With some of my contemporaries writing in other languages I feel a certain affinity – with [Eugenio] Montale, for example, and with [Giorgios/George] Seferis so far as I can judge from translations – with Perse, I have felt rather an influence which is visible in some of my poems written after I had translated Anabase

My remarks are, of course, to be taken as confidential, as I am always careful never to express in public my opinions of the relative value of the works of poets who are my contemporaries or my juniors.

See also Richard Abel, ‘The Influence of St.-John Perse on T. S. Eliot’, Contemporary Literature, XIV: 2 (Spring 1973), 213–39.