Saint-John Perse

For other people with the same name, see Leger (disambiguation).
Alexis Leger
Born Alexis Leger
(1887-05-31)31 May 1887
Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe
Died 20 September 1975(1975-09-20) (aged 88)
Presqu'île de Giens, Provence, France
Pen name Saint-John Perse
Occupation Poet, diplomat
Alma mater University of Bordeaux
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Literature

Saint-John Perse (French: [pɛʁs]; also Saint-Leger Leger,[1] 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.


Early life

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 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.[2] 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.

Diplomatic service

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 Leger's stay in China, published. Leger was warm to classical music, and knew Igor Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger, and les Six.

Saint-John Perse attends the negotiations for the Munich Agreement, on 29 September 1938. He stands behind Mussolini, right.

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. 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.[3] He accompanied the French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier 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..


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, 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.

In 1960, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. 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,[4] which was published with the text of Perse's Oiseaux by Au Vent d'Arles'.[5]

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.


See also

Notes and references

  1. During his lifetime, he wanted to make believe that Saint-Leger Leger was his real name.
  2. These and other intellectual friendships over the course of his lifetime are attested to by the correspondence published in his Œuvres Complètes.
  3. May, Ernest Strange Victory, New York: Hill & Wang, 2000 page 150.
  4. GRIMES, WILLIAM (January 29, 2009). "Aldo Crommelynck, Master Printer for Prominent Artists, Is Dead at 77". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
  5. Mellby, Julie L. (November 30, 2011). "L'ordre des oiseaux". Highlights from the Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton University Library. Retrieved 2012-05-27.

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{{Nobel Prize in Literature Laureates 19511975}}

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