Christopher's Reviews > Anabasis
by Saint-John Perse, T.S. Eliot
For some weeks, Leger traveled on horseback through China's rural provinces and the Gobi Desert, which inspired this great poem of migration, ten cantos narrated by a Conqueror glorying in his victories, but driven ever onward to new lands. But in drawing inspiration from the Asian cultures around him, Perse does not refer to their peculiarities, to what sets them apart from his own, but rather he distilled from his experiences a collection of human universals. Anabase is a saga could be set anywhere, whether Homeric Greece, the ancient Central Asian steppes, or even the Age of Discovery. The geographical setting is unspecified but similarly universal, ranging from the shores of the sea to high elevations, from fertile soil to barren sands.
Perse's poetry is centered around a humanist outlook. It is up to Man to create meaning for his existence through great deeds. Amers, a later poem by Perse, includes the line "We who one day, perhaps, will die proclaim man immortal in the flaming heart of the moment", a statement that concisely captures his philosophy, which was already fully fledged in Anabase. There is no Providence in this plot, no hidden metaphysical reality. References to religious rites abound, but they serve merely as ethnographic colour, for the universal traits of Mankind through the ages that Perse depicts include propitiation of deities and often bloody sacrifice, even if Perse himself is a sceptical modernist.
Giving representative quotations of this work for the sake of a review is difficult, as ANABASIS is a ceaseless flow of images in prose poem form, and though the details are fine and innumerable, it is the whole overwhelming effect that makes this such a special work. But here's a bit from the introductory canto:
So I haunted the pure city of your dreams and I established in the desolate markets the pure commerce of my soul, among you / invisible and insistent as a pure fire of thorns in the gale. / Power you sang on our roads of splendour... 'In the delight of salt the mind shakes its tumult of spears... With salt I shall revive the dead mouths of desire! / Him who has not praised thirst and drank the water of the sands from a sallet / I trust him little in the commerce of the soul...' (And the sun is unmentioned but his power is among us.
Men, creatures of dust and folks of divers devices, people of business and leisure, men from the marches and those from beyond, O men of little weight in the memory of these lands; people from the valleys and uplands and the highest slopes of this world to the ultimate reach of our shores; Seers of signs and seeds, and confessors of the western winds, followers of trails and of seasons, breakers of camp in the little dawn wind, seekers of watercourses over the wrinkled rind of the world, O seekers, O finders of reasons to be up and be gone, / you traffic not in a salt more strong than this, when at morning with omen of kingdoms and omen of deadwaters sung high over the smokes of the world, the drums of exile waken on the marches / Eternity yawning on the sands.
T.S. Eliot's translation sometimes strays from the strictest rendering of Perse's poem for the sake of dazzling English effect, but in the main it is faithful and serves well as a guide for readers who can't easily read Perse's original. This edition contains a brief but helpful preface by Eliot, as well as translations of the introductions which Larbaud. Hoffmanstahl and Ungaretti wrote for the Russian, German and Italian translations respectively. My only complaint is that this is now a print-on-demand title on lesser quality paper and the biographical details of the poet were never updated after the second edition in 1949. Still, this is a great poem, an ample work that one can curl up with and slowly get to know, and I highly recommend it.
(If your French is very good, I'd recommend getting the Perse OEUVRES COMPLETES volume in the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade series, which beyond gathering most of Perse's works in deluxe paper and binding, also contains the correspondence he wished to preserve, and among that we find discussions between Eliot and Perse on the creation of this English translation of Anabase).