Preface to Anabasis: A Poem by St.-J. Perse, with a Translation into English by T. S. Eliot
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132 ] Preface to Anabasis: A Poem by St.-J. Perse, with a Translation into English by T. S. Eliot London: Faber & Faber, 1930. Pp. 75; Preface, 7-11.1 I am by no means convinced that a poem like Anabase requires a preface at all.2 It is better to read such a poem six times, and dispense with a preface. But when a poem is presented in the form of a translation, people who have never heard of it are naturally inclined to demand some testimonial. So I give mine hereunder. Anabase is already well known, not only in France, but in other countries of Europe.3 One of the best Introductions to the poem is that of the late Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which forms the preface to the German translation.4 There is another by Valéry Larbaud, which forms the preface to the Russian translation.5 And there was an informative note by Lucien Fabre in the Nouvelles Littéraires.6 For myself, once having had my attention drawn to the poem by a friend whose taste I trusted,7 there was no need for a preface. I did not need to be told, after one reading, that the word anabasis has no particular reference to Xenophon or the journey of the Ten Thousand, no particular reference to Asia Minor; and that no map of its migrations could be drawn up. Mr. Perse is using the word anabasis in the same literal sense in which Xenophon himself used it.8 The poem is a series of images of migration, of conquest of vast spaces in Asiatic wastes, of destruction and foundation of cities and civilizations of any races or epochs of the ancient East. I may, I trust, borrow from Mr. Fabre two notions which may be of use to the English reader. The first is that any obscurity of the poem, on first readings, is due to the suppression of “links in the chain,” of explanatory and connecting matter, and not to incoherence, or to the love of cryptogram .9 The justification of such abbreviation of method is that the sequence of images coincides and concentrates into one intense impression of barbaric civilization.10 The reader has to allow the images to fall into his memory successively without questioning the reasonableness of each at the moment; so that, at the end, a total effect is produced.11 Such selection of a sequence of images and ideas has nothing chaotic about it. There is a logic of the imagination as well as a logic of concepts.12 [ 133 Preface to Anabasis People who do not appreciate poetry always find it difficult to distinguish between order and chaos in the arrangement of images; and even those who are capable of appreciating poetry cannot depend upon first impressions. I wasnotconvincedofMr.Perse’simaginativeorderuntilIhadreadthepoem fiveorsixtimes.Andif,asIsuggest,suchanarrangementofimageryrequires just as much “fundamental brain-work” as the arrangement of an argument, it is to be expected that the reader of a poem should take at least as much trouble as a barrister reading an important decision on a complicated case.13 I refer to this poem as a poem. It would be convenient if poetry were always verse – either accented, alliterative, or quantitative; but that is not true. Poetry may occur, within a definite limit on one side, at any point alongalineofwhichtheformallimitsare“verse”and“prose.”Withoutoffering any generalized theory about “poetry,” “verse” and “prose,” I may suggest that a writer, by using, as does Mr. Perse, certain exclusively poetic methods, is sometimes able to write poetry in what is called prose. Another writer can, by reversing the process, write great prose in verse. There are two very simple but insuperable difficulties in any definition of “prose” and “poetry.” One is that we have three terms where we need four: we have “verse” and “poetry” on the one side, and only “prose” on the other. The other difficulty follows from the first: that the words imply a valuation in one context which they do not in another. “Poetry” introduces a distinction between good verse and bad verse; but we have no one word to separate bad prose from good prose. As a matter of fact, much bad prose is poetic prose; and only a very small part of bad verse is bad because it is prosaic. But Anabase is poetry. Its sequences, its logic of imagery, are those of poetry and not of prose; and in consequence – at least the two matters are verycloselyallied...


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