“Anabase” by St-John Perse

The book in question is T.S. Eliot’s translation of this 1920 French poem, with the original text on facing pages. Also included are several prefaces and forewords from other editions, all translated into English. I bought it many years ago because of Eliot’s name on the front, and, I think, read it, but not much stuck. For a time I thought Eliot had himself written the French, and then made up St-John Perse as a bit of a joke, but he (Perse) does have his own entry in Wikipedia, and, apparently, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so if it is a hoax it’s an elaborate one. But perhaps he is made up: “Perse” could (wittily) refer to the Persians Xenophon was marching for (see below), or (even more subtly) Latin “per se” “by himself” (geddit?). Mmmm…

Now I’ve read it one and a half times, or more accurately and confusingly both several times and no times, as I’ve picked my way painfully through the pathless briars, sometimes going slowly enough to make a clear way through – mainly by rereading many of the lines – and, when this fails, just blundering through picking up nothing but scratches and a general sense that I’ve got somewhere, and that it was hard-going, but not at all sure where I’ve got.

In his introduction Eliot recommends reading it five or six times, presumably in French, so I am, on his terms, perhaps a fifth of the way towards being qualified to comment on the poem…, in the wrong language.
The title is the French form of the Greek αναβασις, literally a “going up”, or a “journey inland.” Its most familiar use is as the title of Xenophon’s account of an expedition of Greek mercenaries hired by a Persian faction; the phrase “The sea! The sea!” is what his men shout when they finally, abandoned and forced to find their own way home, make out in the distance the waters of the Black Sea. In this poem, Perse uses the word to describe an unnamed steppe-ruler’s desire for further conquest, further lands. So the poem (in ten sections, preceded and ended with a song) sets out different stages of the ruler’s thoughts as his imperial desires kindle and are achieved.

But I’ve so far left out the most important aspect of the poem: its opacity. It’s often really hard to work out what’s going on, or even what the sentences mean: Perse assembles words, descriptions, questions and exclamations into vast impressionistic canvases. It’s in the first-person, but has many sections of direct first-person speech with no indication that the speaker is changed (or the same). It’s exciting (when you feel that you’re following some of it), and really annoying when you don’t – it’s perhaps now clear why I’ve read it one and a half times… it’s very put-downable: you have to work at it. Various of the introduction writers in this edition address this, particularly Lucien Fabre, thus [my emphasis]:

“The prevailing tone … is one of mystery. … So could it be such ‘mysteriousness’ is a tradition? Or, what is worse, a contrived affair?
There are two considerations which put it beyond dispute that there is no question of contrivance. The first is this, that the obscurity of these poets is only apparent, and a privileged élite or cultivated readers can pierce the veil and move freely behind it! not only effortlessly but with positive and immediate enjoyment. I know many scholarly people for whom L’Après-midi d’un Faune and La Jeune Parque had the force of thunderbolts; at their first reading they fathomed all the secrets. The second refutation is supplied by the poets themselves, who disclaim this charge of deliberate obscurity with an equanimity which is bound to convince:
[Paul Valéry]: “This is the moment, perhaps, for us to question the poet’s right to expect sustained mental effort and alertness of perception from his readers. Does the writer’s art, then, consist of nothing more elevated than diverting his fellow-men with enigmas and setting their minds to work without taking into account any resistance they may be inclined to offer. We need not seek long for the answer: there is no difficulty whatsoever. Every mind is, within its own confines, its own master, and it easily rejects that which repels it. Do not be afraid to close the covers of our books. Let them slip from your fingers.
But for some this is not enough. They bristle, they complain, they go even further. Although I am acquainted with no first-rate work that has not incurred their anger, and has not been strengthened by their scorn, I still cannot reproach them, for I know what compels people to belittle, condemn and scoff at that which they cannot comprehend. They are preserving, to the best of their ability, their mental integrity, and thereby enabling their intellect to “save its face”. It seems to me a remarkable indeed, a praiseworthy thing, that men cannot bear to admit to any inadequacy of mind or spirit, or to endure in solitude the imputation that it exists: so they invoke the support of others like themselves, as if there need only be enough mirrors…”

He then goes to explain, well, the first stanza, but doesn’t enjoy doing do:

But I am ashamed to labour these points, for it goes without saying that the receptive reader will find my comments idle: he deduces meaning, and pleasurably, from each word, and does not ponder, so remarkably potent are the ‘tone’ and the words themselves.

This is pure Carey on Modernism – the idea that, as a response to universal education (the masses now had access to culture), the cultural elite sought to exclude them again by ‘making it difficult’. Larkin goes on similarly about modern jazz, as do teachers, and of course they have a point, but when you can’t understand something and an ‘expert’ says it’s easy if you’re clever enough, it’s bloody irritating.

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