1887 : Born in Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe) as Marie René Auguste Alexis Leger, son of Amédée Leger, lawyer, and Françoise Renée Dormoy, descendant of a family of planters. The young Alexis Leger and his family spend their time between two houses, “La Joséphine” near the town of Basse-Terre, and “Bois-Debout” near Capesterre.
1899 : Mainly because of the deteriorating political, economic and social situation, in Guadeloupe, Amédée Leger decides to take his family in France . The Leger family (Alexis, his three sisters and his paternal grandmother, Augusta) movesd to Pau. Alexis enters high school.
1902 : Meeting the poet Francis Jammes, the “swan of Orthez”. They share the same nostalgia for Guadeloupe (Jammes’s father was born in Guadeloupe, and his grandfather was buried there) and the same commitment to the poetry of Virgil’s Georgics. Alexis Leger has read his first manuscripts. With Jammes, he meets Gabriel Frizeau, a wealthy man in Bordeaux, who will introduce him to Odilon Redon, Gauguin, Claudel and Gide.
1906 : After his military service, Alexis stidies philosophy and law in Bordeaux. He translates Pindar. Through Frizeau, he meets Jacques Rivière.
1907 : Sudden death of his father. Alexis Leger, at age 20, assumes the heavy responsibility of head of family.
Asked by Jacques Rivière about his possible vocation as a writer, Leger replies firmly that “there is nothinga literary to expect”. Yet he had already composed most of the poems of the future collection Praise and publishes “Images à Crusoé” in the N.R.F. August 1909.
Attends concerts directed by Edouard Brunel and publishes reviews in the Gazette de Pau, feels kinship with the fashionable neo-classical music at the Schola Cantorum.
1911 : Publishes Praise under the signature Leger SaintLeger. The volume includes “Written on the Door”, “To Celebrate growing up”, “Recitation to Praise a Queen” (published in N.R.F. 1910) and “Praise”, a poem in 18 chants.
1912 : Family moves to Paris. Following Claudel’s advises, he chooses the diplomatic career.
1914 : Passes the test for Foreign Service.
1915 : Assigned to the presse corps, founded by Philippe Berthelot, Director of Political Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
1916 : Sent at his request in China where he will serve as third and then second secretary of French legation in Beijing. Staying In a Taoist temple, one hour by horseback from Beijing, he begins to write Anabase.
1920 : Visits Outer Mongolia and the Gobi desert with the sinologist Gustave-Charles Toussaint. Failing to become political advisor to the Chinese government, he is recalled to Paris. Returns via Japan and America.
1921 : Appointed as policy expert at the international conference on arms control issues and the Far East in Washington. Is noticed by Aristide Briand, who promotes him through successive stages of a brilliant diplomatic careerfrom Deputy Director to Director of Political and Commercial Affairs, Chief of Staff of the Minister, and then Secretary General of the Quai d’Orsay between 1933 and 1940 replacing Philippe Berthelot. This rapid ascension earned him many enemies.
1924 : Publication of Anabase (N.R.F.) and “Friendship of the Prince” in Commerce, journal founded by the Princess Bassiano.
The author chooses his permanent pseudonym, Saint-John Perse, shortening it sometimes to St. John Perse. Beyond its enigmatic references, this choice is meant to mark a boundary line between the poet and diplomat.
Until 1940, the diplomat dominates the poet. There are no new publications, only translations of Anabasis in Russian (Adamovitch et Ivanoff, 1926), and German (B. Groethuysen et W. Benjamin, 1929), English (T. S. Eliot, 1930), Italian (G. Ungaretti, 1931) and Romanian (Ion Pillat, 1932).
1940 : The German arrival in Paris causes panic in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose authority had been undermined after the Munich Agreement by disputes between warmongers and pacifists, palace intrigue and the successive resignations of Ministers. Leger is dismised by Paul Reynaud. “Strange place where everyone uses, and where everyone is betrayed at the first opportunity and knows. » (Boyer de Sainte-Suzanne)
Leger refuses a osition at the French embassy in Washington and goes into exile in the United States, via London, where he meets Winston Churchill.
In October, the Vichy government take away his citizenship and removed him from the Legion of Honour.
Shortly after his arrival in the United Satets, he met Archibald MacLeish, poet, playwriter and Director of the Library of Congress, who offers him a position as literary consultant. He refuses any other remunerated activities and talks to his friends about retirement and loneliness.
Thanks to Francis Biddle, he comes into contact with the political entourage of President Roosevelt and play an advisory role in shaping U.S. position toward France.
1941 : During the summer at the Biddle’s beach home on Long Beach Island, he writes “Exile”. He moves to Georgetown, not far from Lilita Abreu with whom he had maintained a connection in Paris and to whom he later dedicated “Poem to a Foreign Lady”.
He refuses to join with other French exiles participating to Free France. At the same topic, he warns the U.S. Government about Vichy.
1942 : “Exile” is published in the journal Poetry (March 1942) and Cahiers du Sud (Marseilles). In Poetry, the poem is followed by a “Note on Alexis Leger Leger” written by Archibald MacLeish in consultation with Saint-John Perse (read this note). Gallimard publishes an illegal print 15 signed copies S.J.P.
Declines a personal invitation from General de Gaulle to come “confer” with him in London. His refusal reflects extreme distrust of the military leader of State.
During many summers, he stays in a private island off the coast of Maine “Seven Hundred Acre Island”. An excellent sailormarin, he sails among the islands of the east coast. These navigations are another rite of summer.
Summer 1943 : “Poem to Foreign Lady”, written in 1942, is published without a dedication in the first issue of the journal Hemispheres. The poem will be perceived by Lilita as “a gift before the rupture”. “Rains” was published in October by Roger Caillois in the journal Les Lettres françaises, Buenos Aires.
July 1944 : “Snows”, dedicated to the poet’s mother, appears in The Lettres françaises. The previously published works are then gathered under the title Four poems 1941-1944, with a foreword written by Archibald MacLeish (first published in Poetry, 1942).
Leger retires from the ambassadoial services.
1945 : A trip through the American West speaks to Leger a passion for geology, fauna and flora. In the long poem Vents (“Winds”), written on « Seven Hundred Acre Island » during the summer, a westward rider summarizes all ages.
1946 : Gallimard publishes Vents (“Winds”).
A generous fellowship from the Bollingen Foundation (founded by Paul and Mary Mellon) enables him to devote his time to writing. Leger gives the Foundation priority in publishing his work into English.
1947 : He declines the post of ambassador to Washington offered to him by President Vincent Auriol. He will do the same with any other proposals to return to politics and will affirm his exile status until 1958.
1948 : The first fragment of a poem dedicated to the sea is published by Jean Paulhan in Cahiers de la Pléiade, under the title “Poem”. It will become the Strophe VIII of Amers (“Seamarks”). The future poem will continue to be published in fragments until 1957.
1950 : Succès au concours des Affaires étrangères.
1957 : Publication of Amers (“Seamarks”) by Gallimard. The poem is a hymn to the sea and a the celebration of love.
In 1962, Saint-John Perse oveseees the publication of a sumptuous edition of the poem published by the Bibliophiles de Provence. Printing is done in Paris in “Romain du Roi” font by Grandjean (1699).
Beginning this year he will divide his time between the United States (winter and spring) and Giens at Les Vigneaux, a home that Mina Curtiss and other American benefactors purchased for him.
1958 : He marries Dorothy Milburn, of an “old American family of English stock”, he writes in the Pléiade biography not without a certain snobbery. He is 70 years old but still very lively.
October 1959 : Chronique in published in the Cahiers du Sud (then in 1960 by Gallimard). “Great Age, here we are … “.
1960 : Nobel Prize for literature. His acceptance speech is published under the title Poetry.
1962 : Publication of Birds, with poems by Saint-John Perse and etchings by Georges Braque.
1963 : From now until 1967, the Legers take a Mediterranean cruise each summer on yacht Aspara belonging to a friend, Raoul Malard. A notebook, written during the 1967 cruise around the Aeolian Islands, miraculously escaped destruction. It was published in 1987 and recently reissued with a new transcription, in Souffle de Perse (November 2012).
January 1969 : Publication in the Nouvelle Revue Française of a short poem, “Sung by One Who Was There”, presented by the poet as “a tribute to Diane Saint-Leger Leger».
September 1971 : Publication in the Nouvelle Revue Française of “Song for Equinox”.
November 1972 : Publication of Saint-John Perse’s Complete Works in the Pléiade edition, composed entirely by him.
January 1973 : Publication in the Nouvelle Revue Française of “Nocturne” : Now they are ripe, these fruits of a jealous fate […] fruits of long concern, they are the fruits of long desire […] We do not find our liking here.
June 1974 : Publication in the Nouvelle Revue Française of “Drought”, the story of the diminishing of poetic inspiration. The mast is painfully ironic : Ape of God, have done with your deceit !
20 September 1975 : Death of Saint-John Perse. He is buried in the small cemetery by the sea in Giens.
Shortly before his death, with instance from his friend Pierre Guerre, the poet gave his papers to the City Aix. The Saint-John Perse Foundation was created in 1976.