Delicious Abyss: The Biblical Darkness in the Poetry of Saint-John Perse
The sequence of allusions to the prayer of Jonah throughout the lengthy poem “Amers” [“Seamarks”] elaborates upon themes taken from the biblical sea-epic. 1 Inspired by semantic as well as prosodical values of the biblical sources (Jonah, chapter II, underlined by the poet), these allusions combine four functions observed in Perse’s use of the Bible: the contrasting perspective, the structured allusion (the form-logic), the repeated motif, and the “collage.” 2
The first example of such intertextual treatment referring to the prayer of Jonah appears in the first part of “Seamarks”, section II (excerpt no. 1 hereafter):
Plus que l’année appelée héliaque en ses milles De millénaires ouverte, la Mer totale m’environne. L’abîme infâme m’est délice et l’immersion divine Ils m’ont appelé l’Obscure et j’habitais l’éclat.(282)
[More than the Year called heliacal in its thousands and millions Of milleniums, open, the total Sea encompasses me. The infamous abyss is delight to me, and immersion, divine . . . . They called me the Dark One and I dwelt in radiance.] 3
While the ancient poet, in the name of Jonah, deplores his condition, “closed in the depth . . . round about . . . in the midst of the sea,” Perse uses the same topoi to express delight, thus reversing the biblical [End Page 195] perspective. However, the biblical reference has further ramifications in Perse’s poem.
-The sea/abyss structure of the original parallelism is perfectly reflected in Perse’s discourse in all variations of the motif, appearing in other sections of “Seamarks.”
-The allusion to the prayer of Jonah is furthermore constantly accompanied by most obvious allusions to Heraclitus, in a multi-dimensional collage combining East-West cultures.
We may ask: how and to what purpose did the poet transform the very words of the Bible so as to create the oxymoron “delicious abyss,” expressing quite the opposite meaning of the sources? The answer is to be found in detailed considerations of the four functions mentioned above.
The Contrasting Perspective
Thematic Aspects: In the allusion to the prayer of Jonah (Seamarks” II, O.C. 282), there is an intersecting of two central themes relating to punishment in the Book of Jonah, both on narrative and theological levels.
These two thematic levels reverse direction in Perse’s typical fashion: the moment of shock and punishment loses its negative aspect; the proximity of the sea symbolizes the removing of chains and the outburst of the life force embodied in man and nature.
In order to demonstrate the inversion performed by Perse in his Biblical sources, let us trace both phases of punishment, underlined by the poet in his personal Bible. The first phase, which figures in the outline story, consists in itself of three counts of punishment (Book of Jonah, chapters 1,3,4).
In chapter 1, Jonah escapes from God towards the sea, thus attempting to refrain from fulfilling his mission, which was to warn and to prophesy punishment upon the population of Nineveh—the “great city.” Then, Jonah himself is immediately punished for his rebellious reaction by the storm threatening his ship in a sort of “pre-punishment.” Jonah’s main punishment is brought about when he is thrown overboard by the sailors, finally being swallowed by “a great fish.” Jonah is now abandoned to the monstrous forces and implores God to save him from the threatening depths. In chapter 3, Jonah’s mission is at last perfectly accomplished: the people of Nineveh do repent from their evil, having been touched by God’s warning. However, in chapter 4, the theme of punishment reappears in yet another momentum: while the frustrated prophet retires outside the city, the gourd under which he has found shade dries up overnight. The universal perception of Divinity is imbedded in God’s words to Jonah; [End Page 196] the care of human beings, God’s creation,is placed in analogy to Jonah’s care for the plant which he “did not even labour at,” yet still regretting it drying up.
Perse underlines in his Bible all the verses dealing with those phases of punishment, with the manifest intention of later twisting their meaning. The escape from Nineveh—similar to the escape from Sodom, hinted at later in “Seamarks” in the allusion to Lot’s wife (O.C. 374)—might symbolize, in Perse’s poem, a positive crisis due to the abandoning of the decadent values of the past. The journey to the sea is the right direction and the storm is an experience of delight and not of punishment.
From Perse’s reserved attitude towards the divine authority, an ironic play of roles is created by the alternation between the strict God, extreme in his zeal, and his merciful and pardoning character. 4 In the Jonah Story (for example, in chapter 3, verses 10 and 11) the dichotomous aspects of the biblical God are in fact encountered in a most prominent manner.
The second phase, the prayer of Jonah, in which the mythological background of the ancient sea-epic is entwined, revolves around the punishmentof the rebellious sea by the all powerful God. The mythological factor emerges in the words of the prayer uttered by Jonah from the belly of the great fish in the midst of the sea (Book of Jonah, chapter 2). Verses 3–4, preceding the borrowed segments quoted above (excerpt no. 1), obviously use the same spatial terms (concerning the depths of the ocean) relating to the ancient myths:
Du ventre du schéol j’ai crié. Vous avez entendu ma voix, vous m’aviez jeté dans l’abîme, Au coeur des mers, Et l’onde m’environnait; tous vos flots et tous vos vagues ont passé sur moi.
[Out of the belly of hell cried I . . . for thou hast cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about; all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.]Jonah 2; 2–3 in King James authorised version.
The narrative of the ancient sea epic, crystalized in structural constants (or fixed parallelisms), has its origins in a pre-Semitic culture. 5 Highly elaborated in the Bible, it traces the struggle between the abyss (or depths [End Page 197] of the ocean) and superior elements (God using thunder and lightning as heavenly weapons).
Perse follows the axis of this narrative, reconstructing, by rather intentional underlinings, as many reminiscenses as possible of the ancient sea-epic, in several sections of the Bible. We find such underlinings in the Book of Psalms, in isolated chapters exclusively devoted to the theme in question. In fact, the poet’s choice is limited to four Psalms (77, 93, 104, 107) among the hundred and fifty psalms otherwise ignored in his reading of Crampon’s volume. Elsewhere, the poet’s underlinings mix with other themes, as in the Latter Prophets, such as Jonah, Nahum or Habakkuk.
Perse traces the appropriate chapters in the Pentateuch as well. Moses’ Sea Song, events of the Deluge and the Creation story are, in this perspective, mere elaborations upon the same ancient theme, describing “Great Waters” tamed by the Almighty. Perse’s underlinings in the texts of the Orientalists’ school juxtapose common elements in Sumerian, Canaanite and biblical myths. Thus, if Isaiah mentions central names of sea deities—such as the arrogant “Rahab,” or the sea/abyss dragons (51: 9, 10)—it is in the study of René Berthelot that Perse underlines the reference to “Rahab” explicitly quoted from “Second Isaiah.” 6 Perse is also informed, in the above-mentioned study, of other biblical antagonists of God, such as Baal, the Canaanite deity of fertility. Underlined here as well, this last reference will later appear (according to the contrasting perspective) in significant refrains of “Seamarks”—glorifying the sea powers. All these deities, systematically suppressed in the Bible, attain a certain degree of rehabilitation in Perse’s discourse.
Chapter 93 in the Book of Psalms and chapter 2 in Jonah (both extensively underlined in Crampon’s Bible) provide the most impressive example of such intertextual activity. Referring to the biblical sea-epic, Perse adopts the model but reverses the contents: if God’s victory over chaotic forces might be considered an offense to nature, Perse would establish another order (or hierarchy). In his discourse the sea regains its titanic forces, blocked by the intervention of the Demiurgus.
Semantic Aspects: These observations concerning the pre-text raise further intertextual problems.
Is there any semantic interaction between the lexical elements taken from the Bible and the modern context neighboring the biblical reference? and if so, how does the biblical stratum influence the semantisation of the poetical discourse?
At this point, it would be of value to refer to Jurij Lotman’s perceptions relating to the structure of the artistic text. 7 According to Lotman, [End Page 198] who uses the example of Lermontov’s poem, “The Prayer,” the speciality of the poetical discourse is based upon the simultaneous existence of several codes taking part in the description, mutually modifying their original signification. Lermontov’s poem illustrates the interaction between two cultural codes. On the one hand, there is the religious or rather Christian code, pointing to conventional spatial oppositions (God/earth; light/dark; life/death; good/sin). Here, as Lotman specifies,
the accompanying epithet “sepulchral” has a dual semantics. The code semantics entails the notion of earthly life as death, a counterpoise to “life eternal” beyond the grave. At the same time, the epithet incorporates the spatial semantics of “the grave,” a deep and closed space (the idea that the world is an abyss in contrast to paradise, and hell is an abyss in contrast to the world).(246)
On the other hand, the poem develops an additional dichotomic chain stemming from the romantic code (juxtaposed to the former one). Here the darkness is situated in the depths of the soul where the “I” celebrates earthly passions which are preferable to the abstract “heavenly light.” Consequently, the same topoi (or spatial terms) once released from the traditional devaluations, indicate a vast inner world, opposed to the Christian “narrow path of salvation.” In Lotman’s words,
the lines—“I love the sepulchral darkness of the earth/with all its passions”—change the picture. They still fit into the general system of the cultural code, . . . but they give the text an opposite orientation: instead of the “Almighty,” the sinful “I” is selected as the point of view. And from this point of view, “The sepulchral darkness of the earth . . .” can end up being an object of love.(247)
Such “dual semantics,” where “sinful” ceases to be an epithet of censure “judged by the extraneous laws of religion and moral,” functions in a similar way in Perse’s discourse (excerpt no. 1 above) concluding with the line: “They called me the Dark One, and I dwelt in radiance.”
We might even adopt Lotman’s further perceptions concerning Dantesque characteristics (equally reversed in Lermontov’s poem) as an additional code applicable to Perse’s poem: “for Dante one’s degree of sinfulness corresponds to the degree of depth and closure, while the degree of holiness corresponds to the degree of elevation and openness” (246). The verse quoted above, excerpt no. 1 (taken from “Seamarks,” O.C. 282), would be another version—or inversion—of Dante’s famous notion of depth (which corresponds to the Hell of Christian thought). [End Page 199]
At this point in our analysis of Perse’s discourse, we must dismiss the possibility of an innocent, connotation-free reading (despite Perse’s own declaration denying biblical allusions in his poetry). 8 The biblical code in its pre-Christian form is indeed well incorporated into the discourse of “Seamarks.” The poet’s underlinings in the Book of Jonah, chapter II—on passages reflecting the pre-Semitic, Canaanite sea-epic—reveal the high degree of correlation between the two texts.
The passage underlined in the poet’s personal Bible—”Les eaux m’avaient enserré jusqu’à l’âme./ L’abîme m’environnait”[“The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; the depth closed me round about”]—is perfectly matched with the lines of “Seamarks”—“La mer totale m’environne/ L’abîme infâme m’est délice” [“the total Sea encompasses me/ -The infamous abyss is delight to me”]—exercising the same metaphors, the same imagery and the same lexemes, albeit for opposing purposes, constituting the main “semantic units” which are common to both texts:
the total sea surrounding the speaker (closure in the Bible/openness in the poem); the emotional reaction (a feeling of guilt in the Bible/a strong excitement in the poem); the deep space, spreading to the dimensions of a mythological abyss(“outside the world,” in the Bible/ “the whole world,” in the poem)
Finally, much like Jonah when coming in contact with the sea, the speaker of “Seamarks” confronts the exemplary theological questions concerning God’s ubiquity. Defining the “immersion” as “divine,” Perse materializes the hyperbolical use of the “God” component, whereas the “I” replaces God in questions of omnipresence.
Actually, in Perse’s discourse, many theophorical genitive-structures (“L’Esprit de Dieu,” “Faveur de Dieu” or “Transgression divine”) refer to the literal sense of the genitive component—expressing something “extraordinarily great or strong,” the sense pointed to by Spinoza in his interpretation of biblical metaphors. 9 Therefore, Perse’s epic (apart from differences of length and genre) mainly differs from the romantic poem of Lermontov in its larger topotogical perspective: here (in “Seamarks”) the abysmal space expands to cosmic proportions, in the very image of the Chaos preluding the act of Creation.
The importance of such intentional treatment of the biblical material by the modern poet lies in the fact that without the imposing code of the Holy pre-text, the effect of the challenge to traditional thinking would [End Page 200] not be as poignant. Supported by Jauss’ development of Lotman’s topological system (“so fertile [because] it renders imaginable the structure of delimited subuniverses”), 10 we may add that it is the final-mentioned spatial archetype, the primordial chaos, “thematized” in Perse’s artistic text, which “gives it the form of a model-like perfection” (277).
The Structured Allusion
Inspired by the biblical parallelism, the poet associates to it the biblical referent (as a typical feature). Perse’s verse is consequently organised, not only in the sense of Classical measures, as demonstrated thoroughly by Emilie Noulet and Henri Meschonnic, 11 but also by isochronic, measurable pulses of tonal parallelisms, thus imitating the biblical “verset.”
Such is the case in the verse in “Seamarks” (282)—excerpt no. 1—containing three pulses on each side of the caesura. As in biblical poetry, governed by the principle of binary form, 12 Perse’s parallelism is symmetrically crafted with discernible equivalent components, divided into two parts or even hemistichs. The discourse referring to biblical sources is further organized by means of rhythmical, phonological and syntactical patterns, superimposed upon each other in interreflective binary relations. This deepens the comparison with traditional pairs (like sea/abyss, sea/rivers, or the void/darkness of the Genesis model). At all events, Perse’s somewhat veiled parallelism, cut or sliced out of a running verse, scarely interrupts the free-verse prosody visibly dominant in his modern discourse. 13 Still, the Poet’s use of biblical parallelism—highly structured, yet rather flexible verse (respecting, above all, the principle of the caesura)—introduces an adequate organizing system into his cummulative over-fragmentary discourse.
Perse’s “long, flexible line, while clearly owing much to precedents in biblical poetry,” as estimated by Peter Baker, “needs to be seen as a response to the breaking of convention in the vers libre movement and a way of re-establishing recognizably modern metrical possibilities” (40). As shown by Baker, the basic structure of isochronic hemistichs also allows the “grafting” of other metrical systems onto the rhythmical line. At this level it becomes possible to count (on each side of the caesura) an equal though undetermined number of syllables rising to “four, six and eight syllables apiece.” To put it in Baker’s words: “As a gesture toward making peace with traditional French versification proponent, I will say that it is quite possible Perse saw his iambs along the model of what Hartman helpfully calls isochrony or a principal of “free verse” that equalizes the time between measures regardless of syllable count or accent” (44). In fact, this special property of Perse’s apparent free verse, controlled [End Page 201] by even pulses—or tonal accents—between separate clauses, produces an effect of equilibrium typical to ancient epic.
The most prominent paradigme, illustrating the final mentioned prosodical values, appears in the final parts of “Seamarks” explicitly hinting to the same reminiscenses of the ancient sea-epic hitherto analysed.
Mer de Baal, Mer de mammon . . .
Mer de Baal, Mer de Mammon—/Mer de tout âge et de tout nom, // O Mer sans âge ni raison, / ô Mer sans hâte ni saison, //
Mer de Baal et de Dagon—/face première de nos songes, // O Mer promesse de toujours / et Celle qui passe toute promesse, //
Mer antérieure à notre chant—/ Mer ignorance du futur, // O Mer mémoire du plus long jour / et comme douée d’insanité //(365)
[Sea of Baal, Sea of Mammon . . .
Sea of Baal, Sea of Mammon—Sea of every age and every name, O Sea without age or reason, O Sea without haste or season,
Sea of Baal and of Dagon—first face of our dreams, O Sea promise of forever and the One who exceeds every promise,
Sea anterior to our song—Sea ignorance of the future, O Sea memory of the longest day, as though endowed with madness]
Departing from the regularity based on two isochronic pulses in the verse-halves of the initial parallelism—
—the rhythm soon spreads to the following sequences, retaining only its main stresses:
Yet against the background of the same semantic parallelismes, the unity of form and sense is reinforced by a classical pattern based on regular tetrameters: [End Page 202]
(The graphical marks indicate the symmetrical pulses of the tonal system —easily replaced by “iambs”, or “trochees” grouped in tetrameters, reflecting syllabic metrics).
The Repeated Motif
The Poet’s repeated underlining of the expressions concerning the sea, the abyss, the “great waters” or the rivers inside the sea—in four psalms and in several chapters of Latter Prophets—produce a similar motif in “Seamarks.” The refrain “la Mer totale m’environne” (282) [“the total Sea encompasses me”]—alternatively succeeded by “la mer égale m’environne” (342) [“The level sea surrounds me”] and further “Mer totale du délice!” (368) [total Sea of delight!]—unifies various sections in the poem. This unifying factor, inspired by the biblical redundancy, also takes part in the rhetorical devices for the creation of a certain ritual incantation characterizing Perse’s discourse. Though located in separate sections of “Seamarks,” these allusions refer to the same archetype of the sea/abyss constant first appearing in “Seamarks” 282 (excerpt no. 1, quoted above).
Reappearing in “Seamarks” sixty pages later, the subsequent passage — excerpt no. 2 below—constitutes a mere variation of the initial parallelism (hence, an additional, though subdued, allusion to the prayer of Jonah).
Excerpt no. 2
La mer égale m’environne . . . .
J’entends battre du sang la sève égale et nourricière—
ô songe encore que j’allaite!(342)
[The level sea surrounds me . . . .
I hear beating in the blood the steady, nourishing sap—
O dream again that I nurse!]
In this new context, the parallel clauses—“La mer égale” / “la sève égale” [“the level sea” / “the steady sap”]—draw a concrete analogy between the outer world (nature; water cycle) and the inner world (human; blood cycle). Connected furthermore by metonymical relations (the blood in the vessels represents the fluid in nature), these motifs illustrate illustrate a central theme throughout the entire poem, devoted to both sea and love (“Amers” echoing “amour”). [End Page 203]
Next appearing as a motif in “Seamarks” 347-48—excerpt no. 3 below—the sea/abyss structure is substituted by the fixed pair sea/river (again using the biblical terminology common to the sea-epic contexts).
Excerpt no. 3
M’es-tu le fleuve, m’es-tu la mer? ou bien le fleuve dans la mer?
M’es tu la mer elle-même voyageuse, où nul, le même, se mêlant, ne s’est jamais deux fois mêlé?(347–48)
[Are you to me the river, are you to me the sea? or indeed the river in the sea? Are you the voyaging sea itself, which no one entering twice has ever twice found the same? . . .]
On the thematic level, the allusion to the ancient motif of “waters within waters” is used to symbolize the fusion between the lovers (the main figures in “Seamarks”), thus enriching the new semantic field with a broader perspective. The process of integration is furthermore strengthened by various figurative devices. Here, the initial phonemes /f/ /m/ /l/ of the sea/river constant—“le fleuve”/ “la mer”—are orchestrated by a multitude of alliterations, thus intensifying their phonological assimilation within the new context. Developing phonological relations within the soft feminine stereotype, these signifiers later fuse within the broader scope of liquid elements, representing the dynamic sea; thus—
f emme / f aîblesse/ f leuve [woman/weakness/river] are replaced by
la m er/le m ême/ m êlant/ m êlé [the sea/the same/melting/melted].
Likewise, the fourth passage—excerpt no. 4 below (“Seamarks” 368)—develops a pseudo-etymological relation between the initial “délice” [delight] on page 282, and the later “délit” [transgression], redoubling their sounds by anaphores, inner rhymes, or simple repetitions.
Excerpt no. 4
En toi mouvante nous mouvant, nous épuisons l’offense et le délit. ô Mer de l’ineffable acceuil et Mer totale du délice.(368)
[In you moving, we move, rejoicing in the offence and the transgression, O sea of the ineffable welcome and total Sea of delight!] [End Page 204]
Retrospectively, it seems as if the segregated parts of the original context—excerpt no. 1—reappear in excerpts no. 2 and 4, complementing one another. Indeed, the distant clauses—“La Mer égale m’environne” / “(ô) Mer totale du délice” [The level sea surrounds me” / “(o) total Sea of delight!”]—reflect the initial parallelism. Appearing as far as sixty, then eight-six (!) pages later (p. 342 and p.368 in “Seamarks”), they “reconstruct” the matrix:
“la Mer totale m’environne. / L’abîme infâme m’est délice”
[“the total Sea encompasses me. / The infamous abyss is delight to me”]
The Multidimensional Collage: Jonah / Heraclitus
A dual allusion to Heraclitus accompanies the biblical code within the poem “Seamarks,” mainly within the context in question, including the allusion to Jonah (excerpt no. 1 above). The new allusions refer to prominent aspects in the personality and the writings of the pre-Socratic philosopher: evidently, the popular approach to Heraclitus is evoked in the rhythmic refrain—“Ils m’ont appelé l’Obscure et j’habitais l’éclat”[They called me the Dark One and I dwelt in radiance]—which appears immediately after the allusion to Jonah (O.C. 282) and in surrounding passages (O.C. 281, 283).
Heraclitus’ well-known epithet, “the dark one,” was attributed to him for his enigmatic and aloof character, “a riddler” speaking in a vague oracular style. As such, he constitutes a natural object of identification for Perse who also, while expressing himself in an authoritative and polished tone, sounds (at first reading, at least) muffled and perhaps even “hermetic”, as some tended to claim regarding his poetry. A more subtle reference to the writings of Heraclitus is encoded at the beginning of the verse in question—“Plus que l’année appelée héliaque en ses milles et milliers de millénaires . . .” [“More than the Year called heliacal in its thousands and millions of milleniums . . .”].
Heraclitus frequently discusses the element of fire and the quality of the ever renewing sun-fire in regard to the Great Year and to the cosmic conflagration, periodically bringing the universe to a catastrophic end: the sun cycle—“the Year called Heliacal,” evoked by Perse—endures for ten thousand years. (According to ancient astronomical speculations, once every 10,800 [360 x 30] years, there occurs a meeting between the sun cycle and five specific planets in the galaxy, indicating the maximal age of the existence of humanity.) 14 This background provided the above-quoted passage of the poem with the indication of time: the Heliacal [End Page 205] year (Helios meaning the sun), though subject to periodical regeneration, designates eternity.
Perse gathers together in one unit the elements of water and fire, the elements of space and time, the cultures of the East and the West. The figurative implications of these curiously juxtaposed cultures (between the biblical and Hellenic worlds) result in a grand metaphor in which distant semantic units belonging to unrelated codes fructify one other in a blending of inter-textual strata. What seemed a simple stylistic use of the collage technique—“patching” an isolated setting of a borrowed syntagma in the poetic language—develops into a more complex effect, finally emerging as a system.
Indeed, as the poem continues, a third allusion to Heraclitean elements arises, once again along with the obvious allusion to the biblical sea-epic. This is demonstrated in the passage numbered excerpt 3 above, dealing with “the river in the sea . . . which no one entering twice has ever twice found the same.” In the final occurrence, Heraclitus provides (upon the biblical code) the element of water (!) by way of his famous dictum: “One cannot step twice into the same river” (or, in a variation: “A man can be said both to step and not-step into the same river”) for “as he steps in, fresh waters ever flow upon him.” 15
However, it seems that the collage combining the Greek/Jewish polarities contains further biblical (mainly Old Testament) elements. As a point of fact, the entire passage in “Seamarks” (282) beginning with the superlative structure—“Plus que” [More than”]—perfectly matches the syntactical structure of Psalm 93:4, using the same hyperbolical style, most preferable for expressing superiority relationships. A mere glance at the biblical source (underlined by the poet in his personal Bible) reveals the high correlation between the two texts: “Plus que la voix des grandes eaux, les vagues puissantes de la mer, Yahweh est admirable dans les hauteurs” [“The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters . . . than the mighty waves of the sea”].
Articulating further intertextual relations with his artistic text, the poet introduces pagan-worship elements into the borrowed biblical structure, in which the monotheistic archetype is replaced by Helios, God of Light and Sun in Greek mythology. Consequently, the “Heliacal Year” of “Seamarks”, referring to eternal time-measures in Heraclitus’ Fragments, bears—on the semiotical level—the additional, though implicit idea of “heavenly light,” soon relinquishing its superiority in favor of the “dark abyss,” “More delicious” in the eyes of the poet.
At this stage of our close examination of the biblical influence on Perse’s discourse, we may realize that the biblical allusions are not meant [End Page 206] to express affinities to Jewish or Christian theology or morals. It would rather seem that they serve mainly for metapoetic purposes.
In fact, the difficulties Perse encounters in introducing the biblical referent into his polyphonic discourse—desiring, at one and the same time, to moderate its imposing effect—become a fertile element for his poetry. Comparisons with Occidental cultures, phonological integration, desecration and parodying stylistics in the new context are, from this perspective (among the various solutions found to the formerly mentioned intertextual problem), mere control mechanisms in the use of biblical references. Yet remains the enigmatic dilemma of the poet’s conflicting—but nonetheless overly-mimetic—borrowings from the Bible.
From a general point of view, we may affirm that by its deconstructive methods, Perse’s discourse reflects the modern poetics representing “the ever renewed attempt of self-definition by rejection of a past” (Jauss 260). However, in light of his specific choice of controversial biblical themes, such poetics take part—on the metapoetic level—in Perse’s broader confrontation with the idea of biblical authority. Supported by the vociferous model of the rebellious Sea (as clearly expressed in Psalm 93), the Poet develops a rival relationship in respect to the Demiurge, based upon the concept of Creation by voice. Perse creates a metatextual dialogue with the Holy Scriptures in their own language—attempting to vivify the verbal experience in a present, non-temporal, rather universal scope.
Confronting the Demiurge, the poet doubts—up to the final verses of his poetical work—his autonomous condition. 16 Is he condemned to imitate God’s Creation or can poetry attain the original powers of abyss and waters, hinted at in the Genesis myths and remanipulated in the discourse of the prayer of Jonah.
1. Saint-John Perse, Oeuvres Complètes (O.C.), Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1982).
2. Perse’s personal Bible, La Bible de Crampon 1923, is extensively underlined by the poet-reader. It was first noticed and analyzed by the writer of these lines in 1979 at the Saint-John Perse Foundation in Aix-en-Provence. This invaluable document—doubled by another edition, that of 1928, and enlarged by the paratex, Crampon’s interpretive remarks—contains approximately 300 pages treated by the poet in a graphical code. In effect, it constitutes the pre-text to a considerable amount of Biblical references used in Perse’s poetry since 1924. See, for example, Judith Kopenhagen-Urian, “La Traduction en Hébreu de la Poésie de St.-John Perse: Quelques Problèmes,” Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts (HSLA) 15 (1988) 28.
3. Saint-John Perse, Seamarks, trans. Wallace Fowlie, Bollingen Series 67 (New York: Pantheon, 1958).
4. Perse’s repeated underlinings of God’s contradictory titles (such as “jealous God”—“Dieu jaloux”—of the Decalogue, repeated in Nahum 1:2) traces the cohesive line of the poet’s creative intention. Most probably inspired by this “frustrating” subject, the poet pronounces his enmity to “jealous God” in the verse “Inimitié au dieu jaloux” (338), referring at the same time to Genesis 3:15 (underlined as well). Perse hints at the primordial sin in a guiltless mood, adapting a rebellious attitude toward spiritual authority by twisting the very words of God’s curse upon nature and mankind.
5. James Lewis Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry (Binghamton: Yale UP, 1981) 24–25.
6. René Berthelot, La pensée de l’Asie et l’Astrobiologie (Paris: Payot, 1938) 21–24.
7. Jurij Lotman, The Structure of the Artistic Text, trans. Ronald Vroon (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1977).
8. Kopenhagen-Urian, “Le ‘rapatriement’ des références bibliques en langue hébraïque,” HSLA 19 (Jerusalem: Magnes P, 1992) 29–30 n.
9. Spinoza, Traité Théologico-Politique, commented upon by Perse in his letters, O.C. 657.
10. Hans Robert Jauss, Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984) 277.
11. Emilie Noulet, “L’octosyllabe dans Amers,” Honneur à Saint-John Perse (Paris: Gallimard, 1965) 316–26. Henri Meschonnic, Critique du Rythme, Anthropologie Historique du Langage (Lagrasse: Verdier, 1982) 359–87.
12. See, for example, Kugel 1.
13. Peter Baker, “Metric, Naming and Exile: Perse/Pound/Genet,” The Scope of Words, In Honor of Albert S. Cook, ed. Peter Baker (new York: Peter Lang, 1991) 39–58.
14. See, for example, Mircea Eliade, The myth of the Eternal Return, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Bollingen, 1954): “According to this doctrine, the Universe is eternal but it is periodically destroyed and reconstituted every Great Year (the corresponding number of millenia varies from school to school); when the seven planets assemble in Cancer (“Great winter”) there will be a deluge; when they meet . . . at the summer solstice of the Great Year the entire universe will be consumed by fire. . . . this doctrine of periodic universal conflagrations was also held by Heraclitus (e.g., Fragment 26B=66D)” 87–88.
15. As paraphrased by Kathleen Freeman, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1946) 114. See also W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1962Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1965) 1: 450, 488–89.
16. Successively apostrophying “Songe de Dieu” and “Singe de Dieu” [“God’s dream”; “God’s ape:] O.C. 1400.