1960 : Saint-John Perse

1960 : Saint-John Perse

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“for the soaring flight and the evocative imagery of his poetry which in a visionary fashion reflects the conditions of our time”



May 31, 1887

Place of birth


Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe



20 September 1975

Place of death


Provence, France







Notable award(s)


Nobel Prize in Literature 1960


Saint-John Perse (actually Marie-Rene-Alexis Saint-Leger) (born May 31, 1887, death September 20, 1975) was a French author and diplomat. He was born on an island of Guadeloupe, West India and educated to a diplomat in France. In 1940 he broke with Vichy regime and settled down in the United States. In 1960 he received the Nobel Prize in literature. Saint-John Perse debuted early 1900s, under its own name (Eloges, 1911). It is the release Anabase (1924) that he first signs St.-J. Perse. But the same year he was appointed to the state in the French Foreign Ministry, and thus he decides not to be the author. His next work will not be until 1942, and if he writes something in the meantime (rumors would have it that the Germans burned his manuscripts to the seven major dikt works), he fits well that no one knows about it. In 1940 violates the Vichy regime as much with Saint-John Perse as he violates it. Regime fratar him not only the French ?reslegionen, but also his French citizenship. Poet travels to the United States and get a job in the Library of Congress. Now that he is no longer of State, he again takes up his poet-I, and starts to give out dikt again. Now Exil (1942), Pluies (1943), Neiges (1944) and Vents (1946). Later, he gives out large dikt works as Amer (1957), Chronique (1960), Oiseaux (1963) and chant pour un equinoxe (1971). In 1972 he co-editor (!) Of the prestigious Pleiades edition of his collected works. Some of Saint-John Perse early dikt is translated into English by Audun Boyson. Two of the major poems were released together as Anabasis / Eksil (2003).


Works in French:

  • Eloges – Paris: Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 1911

  • Amitie du prince – Paris: Ronald Davis, 1924

  • Anabase – Paris: Gallimard, 1924 – Edition revue 1948

  • Poeme pour Valery Larbaud – Liege: A la Lampe d’Aladdin, 1936

  • Exil : poeme – Marseilles : Editions Cahiers du Sud, 1942

  • Pluies – Buenos Aires: Les Editions Lettres Francaises, 1944

  • Quatre poemes, 1941-1944 – Buenos Aires: Les Editions Lettres Francaises, 1944 – Republished as Exil, suivi de Poeme a l’etrangere ; Pluies ; Neiges (Paris: Gallimard, 1945)

  • Vents – Paris: Gallimard, 1946

  • Amers – Paris: Gallimard, 1957

  • Chronique – Marseilles: Cahiers du Sud, 1959

  • Poesie : allocution au Banquet Nobel du 10 decembre 1960 – Paris: Gallimard, 1961

  • Hommage a Rabindranath Tagore – Liege : Editions Dynamo, 1962

  • L’ordre des oiseaux – Paris: Societe d’Editions d’art, 1962 – Republished as Oiseaux (Paris: Societe d’Editions d’art, 1962)

  • Valery Larbaud; ou, L’Honneur litteraire – Liege : Editions Dynamo, 1962

  • Silence pour Claudel – Liege : Editions Dynamo, 1963

  • Au souvenir de Valery Larbaud – Liege : Editions Dynamo, 1963

  • Pour Dante – Paris: Gallimard, 1965

  • Chante par celle qui fut la … – Paris : Privately Printed by Robert Blanchet, 1969

  • uvres Completes – Paris : Gallimard, 1972

  • Chant pour un equinoxe – Paris: Gallimard, 1975

  • Lettres a l’etrangere / textes reunis et presentes par Mauricette Berne – Paris: Gallimard, 1987

  • Correspondance Saint-John Perse-Jean Paulhan : 1925-1966 / ed. etablie, presentee et annotee par Joelle Gardes-Tamine – Paris: Gallimard, 1991

  • Correspondance 1955-1961 / Alexis Leger, Dag Hammarskjold ; textes reunis et presentes par Marie-Noelle Little – Paris: Gallimard, 1993

  • Lettres d’Alexis Leger a Gabriel Frizeau : 1906-1912 / introd., ed., notes et index par Albert Henry – Brussels: Academie Royale de Belgique, 1993

  • Correspondance 1942-1945 : Roger Caillois, Saint-John Perse / textes reunis et presentes par Joelle Gardes Tamine – Paris: Gallimard, 1996

  • Courrier d’exil : Saint-John Perse et ses amis americains, 1940-1970 / textes reunis, trad. et presentes par Carol Rigolot – Paris: Gallimard, 2001

  • Lettres atlantiques : Saint-John Perse, TS Eliot, Allen Tate, 1926-1970 / textes reunis, traduits et presentes par Carol Rigolot – Paris : Gallimard, 2006

Translations into English:

  • Eloges and Other Poems / translated by Louise Varese ; introduction by Archibald MacLeish – New York: Norton, 1944

  • Anabasis / translated, with an introduction, by T. S. Eliot. – London : Faber, 1930

  • Exile and Other Poems / translated by Denis Devlin – New York : Pantheon, 1949

  • Winds / translated by Hugh Chisholm – New York : Pantheon, 1953

  • Seamarks / translated by Wallace Fowlie – New York : Pantheon, 1958

  • Chronique / translated by Robert Fitzgerald – New York : Pantheon, 1961

  • On Poetry by St.-John Perse, Speech of Acceptance upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature Delivered in Stockholm December 10, 1960 / translated by W. H. Auden – Bollingen Foundation, 1961

  • Birds / translated by Robert Fitzgerald – New York: Pantheon, 1966

  • Birds by Saint-John Perse / translated by J. Roger Little – Durham, U.K. : North Gate Press, 1967

  • St.-John Perse : Collected Poems / translated by W. H: Auden and other– Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971

  • Song for an Equinox / translated by Richard Howard – Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977

  • Letters : St.-John Perse / translated and edited by Arthur J. Knodel – Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979

  • The Poet and the Diplomat : The Correspondence of Dag Hammarskjold and Alexis Leger / edited by Marie-Noelle Little ; translated by Marie-Noelle Little and William C. Parker ; with a foreword by Brian Urquhart – Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press, 2001

Literature (selection):

  • Frederic, Madeleine, La repetition et ses structures dans l’oeuvre poetique de Saint-John Perse – Paris : Gallimard, 1984

  • Ostrovsky, Erika, Under the sign of ambiguity : Saint-John Perse/Alexis Leger – New York : New York Univ. Press, 198

  • Winspur, Steven, Saint-John Perse and the imaginary reader – Geneve : Librairie Droz, 1988

  • Crouy-Chanel, Etienne de, Alexis Leger, ou, L’autre visage de Saint-John Perse – Paris : Picollec, 1989

  • Clerc, Gabrielle, Saint-John Perse ou de la poesie comme acte sacre. – Neuchatel : Baconniere, 1990

  • Caduc, Eveline, Index de l’oeuvre poetique de Saint-John Perse – Paris : Champion, 1993

  • Ventresque, Renee, Les Antilles de Saint-John-Perse : itineraire intellectuel d’un poete – Paris : L’Harmattan, 1993

  • Sterling, Richard L., The Prose Works of Saint-John Perse : Towards an Understanding of His Poetry. – New York : Lang, cop. 1994

  • Gardes-Tamine, Joelle, Saint-John Perse ou La strategie de la seiche – Aix-en-Provence : Univ. de Provence, 1996

  • Gallagher, Mary, La creolite de Saint-John Perse – Paris : Gallimard, 1998

  • Gardes-Tamine, Joelle, Saint-John Perse : les rivages de l’exil : biographie – Croissy-Beaubourg : Editions aden, 2006


1960: Nobel Prize in Literature.

Presentation Speech:

Presentation Speech by Anders Osterling, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.

The Nobel Prize laureate in literature for this year bears a name of unusual sound, which he chose at first to protect himself from the curious. Saint-John Perse is the poet’s name that was to be made internationally famous by a private man who in civil life is called Alexis Leger and, as such, was to acquire great prestige in another domain of public life. Thus his life is divided into two periods, one of which has ended whereas the other is continuing: Alexis Leger, the diplomat, has been transformed into Saint-John Perse, the poet.

Considered as a literary personage, he presents a biography remarkable in many respects. Born in 1887 in Guadeloupe, he belonged to a French family that came to settle there as early as the seventeenth century. He spent his childhood in this tropical Eden of the Antilles, all rustling with palms, but at the age of eleven he left for France with his family. He was educated at Pau and at Bordeaux, decided to take a degree in law, and in 1914 entered upon a diplomatic career. Sent first to Peking, he next found himself entrusted with increasingly important assignments. As Secretary General for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for several years, with the rank of Councillor of State, he assumed major responsibilities during the political events that were the prelude to the Second World War.

After the defeat of France in 1940 he was abruptly suspended and went into exile, was considered a dangerous adversary by the Vichy regime, and was even deprived of his French citizenship. He found refuge in Washington, where he occupied a position as literary adviser to the Library of Congress. The French state was soon to reinstate him in his full rights, but the exile firmly refused to reenter diplomacy. In recent years, however, he has repeatedly returned to France for private reasons.

Here is a career which opens vast vistas and which presupposes in the one who succeeds in it a breadth of perspective acquired under many conditions, combined with a spiritual tone of uncommon dynamic quality. This international versatility, the hallmark of the great traveller, constitutes moreover one of the themes often repeated in the poet’s work. He owed his first success to the cycle of poems entitled Pour feter une enfance (To Celebrate a Childhood), 1910, whose dazzling imagery evokes in the golden dawn of childhood memories the exotic paradise of Guadeloupe, its fabulous plants and animals. From China he brought back an epic poem, Anabase (Anabasis), 1924, which relates, in a form suggestive and hard as enamel, a mysterious warlike expedition into the Asian deserts. The same, uncompromisingly dense form, in which verse and prose are united in a solemn flow blending Biblical verse with the rhythm of the Alexandrine, is found again in the collections of poems which followed: Exil (Exile), 1942, and Vents (Winds), 1946, both written in America. They constitute an imposing statement of the uninterrupted cycle of degeneration and rejuvenation, while Amers (Seamarks), 1957, celebrates the sea, the eternal dispenser of power, the first cradle of civilizations.

These works are, it is true, of marked singularity, complicated in form and thought, but the master who created them is anything but exclusive, if one means by that that he immures himself in a satisfied autonomy and is interested only in himself. Quite the contrary; his dominating quality is the wish to express the human, seized in all its multiplicity, all its continuity; the wish to describe man, forever the creator, struggling from century to century against the equally perpetual insubordination of the elements. He identifies himself with all the races who have lived on our stormy planet. “Our race is old”, he said in a poem, “our face is nameless. And time knows much about all the men that we may have been… the ocean of things besets us. Death is at the porthole, but our route is not there”.

In this exaltation of man’s creative power, Saint-John Perse may sometimes recall the hymns of the German poet, Holderlin, who also was a magician of speech, filled with the grandeur of the poetic vocation. It is very easy to treat this sublime faith in the power of poetry as a paradox in order to belittle it, especially when it seems to assert itself with a force inversely proportional to the need of arousing an immediate response to the thirst for human communion. On the other hand, Saint-John Perse is an eloquent example of the isolation and estrangement which in our era are a vital condition for poetic creation when its aim is high.

One can only admire the integrity of his poetic attitude, the lofty insistence with which he perseveres in the only mode of expression that allows him to realize his intentions, an exclusive but always pertinent form. The inexhaustible luxuriance of the picturesque style of his rhapsodies is intellectually demanding and may weary the reader of whom the poet demands such efforts of concentration. He takes his metaphors from all disciplines, from all eras, from all mythologies, from all regions; his cycles of poems call to mind those great sea shells from which a cosmic music seems to emanate. This expansive imagination is his strength. Exile, separation – evocations whose voiceless murmur gives his poetry its general tonality; and through the double theme of man’s strength and helplessness a heroic appeal can be perceived, an appeal which is perhaps expressed more distinctly than before in the poet’s latest work, Chronique (Chronicle), 1960, filled with a breath of grandeur, in which the poet recapitulates everything, at the end of the day, while making veiled allusions to the present state of the world. And he even makes a prophetic appeal to Europe to have it consider this fateful moment, this turning point in the course of history. The poem ends with these words: “Great age, here we are. Take measure of the heart of man”.

It is, then, correct to say that Saint-John Perse, behind an apparent abstruseness and symbols frequently difficult to grasp, brings a universal message to his contemporaries. One has every reason to add that in his own way he perpetuates a majestic tradition in French poetic art, especially the rhetorical tradition inherited from the classics. In short, this honour awarded to him only confirms the position he has acquired in letters as one of the great leaders in poetry.

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