Born in Saint-Léger-les-Feuilles, Guadelopue, Saint-John Perse spent his adolescence in France and his training at the University of Bordeau, where he received his degree in law in 1910. His earliest poems are from that period.
In 1916, he entered the Foreign Service, and was sent to China, remaining there until 1921. Upon his return to France, he continued to rise in rank in the Service, eventually serving as Secretary General for Foreign Affairs. Throughout this period, he continued to write, without publishing. With the rise of the Nazi-run Vichy government, Saint-John Perse was dismissed from service, and several of his poetic manuscripts were confiscated by the German government.
BOOKS OF POETRY
Élogues (Paris, 1911; revised, 1925); Anabase (Paris, 1924; revised, 1948); Exil (with "Pluies" and "Neiges") in Quatre poèmes, 1941-1944 (Buenos Aires, 1944); Vents (Paris, 1946); Amers (Paris, 1957); Chronique (Marseilles, 1959; Paris, 1960); Oiseaux (Paris, 1962, 1963); Nocturne (Paris, 1972); Sécheresse (Paris, 1974);
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS
Anabasis, translated by T. S. Eliot (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938); Éloges and Other Poems, translated by Louise Varèse (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1944); Selected Poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws (New York: New Directions, 1982).
Pictures for Crusoe
Old man with naked hands,
cast up among men again, Crusoe!
you wept, I imagine, when the Abbey towers, like a tide, the sob of the bells poured over the City....
You wept to remember the surf in the moonlight; the whistlings of the more distant shores; the strange music that is born and is muffled under the folded wing of the night,
like the linked circles that are the waves of a conch, or the amplications of the clamors under the sea....
THE GOASTSKIN PARASOL
It is there in the gray odor of dust under the eaves of the attic. It is beneath the three-legged table; it is between the box of sand for the cat and the unhooped barrel piled with feathers.
Before the hissings of the hearth, numb beneath your flowered wrapper, you watch the soft undulating fins of the flames. ─But a snapping fissures the singing darkness: it is your bow, on its nail, that has burst. And it splits along the whole length of its secret fiber, like the dead pod int he hands of the warrior tree.
You buried it in a flowerpot, the purple seed that had stuck to your goatskin jacket.
It has not sprouted.
And then what a wail in the mouth of the hearth, a night of long rains on their march toward the city, stirred in your heart the obscure birth of speech:
"...Of a luminous exile─and more distant already than the storm that is rolling─how can I, O Lord, keep the ways that you opened?
"...Will you leave me only this confusion of evening─having, for so long a day, nourished me on the salt of your solitude,
"witness of our silences, of your shadow, and of the great blasts of your voice?"
─Thus you lamented in the confusion of evening.
But sitting by the window opposite the stretch of wall across the way, having failed to resuscitate the lost splendor,
you would open the Book,
and letting your worn finger wander among the prophecies, your gaze far away, you awaited the moment of departure, the rising of the great wind that would suddenly tear you away, like the typhoon, parting the clouds before your waiting eyes.
─Translated from the French by Louise Varèse
(from Éloges, 1911, 1925)
In busy lands are the greatest silences, in busy lands with the locusts at noon.
I tread, you tread in a land of high slopes clothed in balm, where the linen of the Great is exposed to dry.
scatters! like a priest torn to pieces...
Such is the way of the world and I have nothing but good to say of it. ─Foundation of the City. Stone and bronze. Thorn fires at dawn
bared these great
green stones, and viscid like the bases of temples, of latrines,
and the mariner at sea whom our smoke reached saw that the earth to the summit had changed its form (great tracts of burnt-over land seen afar and these operations of channelling the living waters on the mountains).
Thus was the City founded and placed in the morning under the labials of a holy name. The encampments are razed from the hills! And we who are there in the wooden galleries,
head bare and foot bare in the freshness of the world,
what have we to laugh at, but what have we to laugh at, as we sit, for a disembarkation of girls and mules?
and what is there to say, since the dawn, of all this people under sail? ─ Arrivals of grain! ...And the ships taller than Ilion under the white peacock of heaven, having crossed the bar, hove to
in this deadwater where floats a dead ass. (We must ordain the fate of this pale meaningless river, colour of grass-hoppers crushed in their sap.)
In the great fresh noise of the yonder bank, the blacksmiths are masters of their fires! The cracking of whips in the new streets unloads whoe wainsful of unhatched evils. O mules, our shadows under the copper sword! four restive heads knotted to the fist make a living cluster against the blue. The founders of asylums meet beneath a tree and find their ideas for the choice of situations. They teach me the meaning and the purpose of the buildings: front adorned, black blind; the galleries of laterite, the vestibules of black stone and the pools of clear shadow for libraries; cool places for wares of the druggist. And then come the bankers blowing into their keyes. And already in the streets a man sang alone, one of those who paint on their brow the cipher of their god. (Perpetual crackling of insects in this quarter of vacant lots and rubbish.) ...And this is no time to tell you, no time to reckon our alliances with the people of the other shore; water presented in skins, commandeering the cavalry for the dockworks and princes paid in currency of fish. (A child sorrowful as the death of apes ─ one that had an elder sister of great beauty ─ offered us a quail in a slipper of rose-coloured satin.)
...Solitude! the blue egg laid by a great sea-bird, and the bays at morning all littered with gold lemons! ─ Yesterday it was! The bird made off!
Tomorrow the festivals and tumults, the avenues planted with podded trees, and the dustmen at dawn bearing away huge pieces of dead palmtrees, fragments of giant wings... Tomorrow the festivals.
the election of harbour-masters, the voices practising in the suburbs and, under the moist incubation of storms,
the yellow town, casque'd in shade, with the girls' drawers hanging at the windows.
...At the third lunation, those who kept watch on the hilltops folded their canvas. The body of a woman was burnt in the sands. And a man strode forth at the threshold of the desert ─ profession of his fahter: dealer in scent-bottles.
Select a wide hat with the brim seduced. The eye withdraws by a century into the provinces of the soul. Through the gate of living chalk we see the things of the plain: living things,
sacrifice of colts on the tombs of children, purification of windows among the roses and consignments of green birds in the courtyards to do honour to the old men;
many things on the earth to hear and to see, living things among us!
celebrations of open air festivals for the name-day of great trees and public rites in honour of a pool; consecration of black stones perfectly round, water-dowsing in dead places, dedication of cloths held up on poles, as the gates of the passes, and loud acclamations under the walls for the mutilation of adults in the sun, for the publication of the bride-sheets!
many other things too at the level of our eyes: dressing the sores of animals in the suburbs, stirring of the crowds before sheep-shearers, well-sinkers and horse-gelders; speculations in the breath of harvest and turning of hay on the roofs, on the prongs of forks; building of enclosures of rose red terra cotta, of terraces for meat-drying, of galleries for preists, of quarters for captains; the vast court of the horse-doctor; the fatigue parties for upkeep of muleways, of zig-zag roads through the gorges; foundation of hospices in vacant places; the invoicing at arrival of caravans, and disbanding of escorts in the quarter of money-changers; budding popularities under the penthouse, in front of the frying vats; protestation of bills of credt; destruction of albino animals, of white worms in the soil; fires of bramble and thorn in places defiled by death, the making of a fine bread of barley and seasme; or else of spelt; and the firesmoke of mankind everywhere...
ha! all conditions of men in their ways and manners; eaters of insects, of water fruits; those who bear poultices, those who bear riches; the husbandman, and the young noble horsed; the healer with needles, and the salter; the toll-gatherer, the smith; vendors of sugar, of cinnamon, of white metal drinking cups and of lanthorns; he who fashions a leather tunic, wooden shoes and olive-shaped buttons; he who dresses a field; and the man of no trade: the man with the falcon, the man with the flute, the man with bees; he who has his delight in the pitch of his voice, he who makes it his business to contemplate a green stone; he who burns for his pleasure a thornfire on his roof; he who makes on the ground his bed of sweet-smelling leaves, lies down there and rests; he who thinks out designs of green pottery for fountains; and he who has travelled far and dreams of departing again; he who has dwelt in the country of great rains; the dicer, the knucklebone player, the juggler; or he who has spread on the ground his reckoning tablets; he who has his opinion on the use of a gourd; he who drags a dead eagle like a faggot on his tracks (and the plumage is given, not sold, for fletching); he who gathers pollen ina wooden jar (and my delight, says he, is in the yellow colour); he who eats fritters, the maggots of teh palmtree, or raspberries; he who fancies the flavour of tarragon; he who dreams of green pepper, or else he who chews fossil gum, who lifts a conch to his ear, or he who sniffs the odour of genius in the freshly cracked stone; he who thinks of the flesh of women, the lustful; he who sees his soul reflected in a blade; the man learned in sciences, in onomastic; the man well thought of in councils, he who names fountains, he who makes a public gift of seats in the sahdy places, of dyed wool for the wise men; and has great bronze jars, for thirst, planted at the crossways; better still, he who does nothing, such a one and such in his manners, and so many other still! those who collect quails in the wrinkled land, those who hunt among the furze for green-speckled eggs, those who dismount to pick things up, agates, a pale blue stone which they cut and fashion at the gates of the suburbs (into cases, tobacco-boxes, brooches, or into balls to be rolled between the hands of the paralysed); those who whistling paint boxes in the open air, the man with the ivory staff, the man with the rattan chair, the hermit with hands like a girl's and the disbanded warrior who has planted his spear at the threshold to tie up a monkey...ha! all sorts of men in their ways and fashions, and of a sudden! behold in his evening robes and summarily settling in turn all questions of precedence, the Story-teller who stations himself at the foot of the turpentine tree...
O genalogist upon the market-place! how many chronicles of amiles and connextions? ─ and may the dead seize the quick, as is said in the tables of the law, if I have not seen each thing in its own shadow and the virtue of its age: the stores of books and annals, the astronomer's storehouses and the beauty of a place of sepulture, of very old temples under the palmtrees, frequented by a mule and three white hens ─ and beyond my eye's circuit, many a secret thing doing on the routes: striking of camps upon tidings which I know not, effronteries of the hill tribes, and passage of rivers on skin-jars; horsemen bearing letters of alliance, the ambush in the vineyard, forays of robbers in the depths of forges and manoeuvres over field to ravish a woman, bargain-driving and plots, coupling of beasts int he forest before the eyes of children, convalescence of prophets in byres, the silent talk of two men under a tree...
but over and above the actions of men on the earth, many omens on the way, many seeds on the way, and under unleavened fine weather, in one great breath of the earth, the whole feather of harvest!...
until the hour of evening when the female star, pure and pledged in the sky heights...
Plough-land of dream! Who talks of building? ─ I have seen the earth parcelled out in vast spaces and my thought is not heedless of the navigator.
─Translated from the French by T. S. Eliot
(from Anabase, 1924)
Now! they are ripe, these fruits of a jealous fate. From our dream grown, on our blood fed, and haunting the purple of our nights, they are the fruits of long concern, they are the fruits of long desire, they were our most secret accomplices and, often verging upon avowal, drew us to their ends out of the abyss of our nights.... Praise to the first dawn, now they are ripe and beneath the purple, thse fruits of an imperious fate. ─We do not find our liking here.
Sun of being, betrayl! Where was the fraud, where was the offense? where was the fault and where the flaw, and the error, which is the error? Shall we trace the theme back to its birth? shall we relive the fever and the torment? ...Majesty of the rose, we are not among your adepts: our blood goes to what is bitterer, our care to what is more severe, our roads are uncertain, and eep is the night out of which our gods are torn. Dog roses and black briars poopulate for us the shore of shipwreck.
Now they are ripening, these fruits of another shore: "Sun of being, shield me!" ─ turncoat's words. And those who have seen him pass will say: who was that man, and which his home? Did he go alone at dawn to show the purple of this nights? ...Sun of being, Prince and Master? our works are scattered, our tasks without honor and our grain without harvest: the binder of sheaves awaits, at the evening's ebb. ─Behold, they are dyed with our blood, these fruits of a stormy fate.
At the gait of a binder of sheaves life goes, without hatred or ransom.
─Translated from the French by Richard Howard
(from Nocturne, 1972)
"Pictures from Crusoe"
from Selected Poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws, trans. by Louise Varèse (New York: New Directions, 1982). Copyright ©1971, 1972, 1982 by Saint-John Perse. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publication Corp.
"II," "IV," and "X" from Anabasis
from Selected Poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws, trans. by T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1982). Copyright ©1974 by Walter Abish. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
from Selected Poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws, trans. by Richard Howard (New York: New Directions, 1982). Copyright ©1974 by Saint-John Perse. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.