Saint-John Perse (French: ; also Saint-Leger Leger,pronounced ; 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.
Alexis Leger was born in Pointe–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 Josphine) and the other of sugar (Bois-Debout).
In 1897, Hgsippe Lgitimus, 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 passed the baccalaurat with honours 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 Andr Gide. He wrote short poems inspired by the story of Robinson Crusoe (Images Crusoe) and undertook a translation of Pindar. He published his first book of poetry, loges, in 1911.
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 attach for the government. From 1916 to 1921, he was secretary to the French embassy in Peking. In 1921 in Washington, DC, while taking part in a world disarmament conference, he was noticed by Aristide Briand, Prime Minister of France, who recruited him as his assistant. In Paris, he got to know the fellow intellectual poet Valry, who used his influence to get the poem Anabase published, written during Leger’s stay in China.
While in China, Leger had written his first extended poem Anabase, publishing it in 1924 under the pseudonym “Saint-John Perse”, which he employed for the rest of his life. He then published nothing for two decades, not even a re-edition of his debut book, as 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. He accompanied the French Prime Minister douard Daladier at the Munich Conference in 1938, where the cession of part of Czechoslovakia to Germany was agreed to. He was dismissed from his post right after the Fall of France in May 1940, as he was a known anti-Nazi. In mid-July 1940, Leger began a long exile in Washington, DC