Saint-John Perse's speech at the Nobel
Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1960
I have accepted in behalf of poetry the
honour which has been given to it here and which I am anxious to
restore to it. Without you poetry would not often be held in
esteem, for there appears to be an increasing dissociation
between poetic activity and a society enslaved by materialism.
The poet accepts this split, although he has not sought it. It
would exist for the scientist as well, were it not for the
practical uses of science. But it is the disinterested thought of
both scientist and poet that is honoured here. In this place at
least let them no longer be considered hostile brothers. For they
are exploring the same abyss and it is only in their modes of
investigation that they differ.
When one watches the drama of modern science discovering its rational limits in pure mathematics; when one sees in physics two great doctrines posit, the one a general theory of relativity, the other a quantum theory of uncertainty and indeterminism that would limit forever the exactitude even of physical measurements; when one has heard the greatest scientific innovator of this century, the initiator of a modern cosmology that reduces the vastest intellectual synthesis to the terms of an equation, invoke intuition to come to the aid of reason and proclaim that «the imagination is the true seed bed of science», going even so far as to claim for the scientist the benefit of a true artistic vision: is one not justified in considering the tool of poetry as legitimate as that of logic?
In truth, every creation of the mind is first of all «poetic» in the proper sense of the word; and inasmuch as there exists an equivalence between the modes of sensibility and intellect, it is the same function that is exercised initially in the enterprises of the poet and the scientist. Discursive thought or poetic ellipsis - which of these travels to, and returns from, more remote regions? And from that primal night in which two men born blind grope for their ways, the one equipped with the tools of science, the other helped only by the flashes of his imagination, which one returns sooner and more heavily laden with a brief phosphorescence? The answer does not matter. The mystery is common to both. And the great adventure of the poetic mind is in no way secondary to the dramatic advances of modern science. Astronomers have been bewildered by the theory of an expanding universe, but there is no less expansion in the moral infinite of the universe of man. As far as the frontiers of science are pushed back, over the extended arc of these frontiers one will hear the poet's hounds on the chase. For if poetry is not, as has been said, «absolute reality», it comes very close to it, for poetry has a strong longing for, and a deep perception of, reality, situated as it is at that extreme limit of cooperation where the real seems to assume shape in the poem. Through analogy and symbolism, through the remote illuminations of mediating imagery, through the interplay of their correspondences in a thousand chains of reactions and strange associations, and finally, through the grace of a language into which the very rhythm of Being has been translated, the poet invests himself with a surreality that cannot be that of science. Is there among men a more striking dialectic, one that engages them more completely? Since even the philosophers are deserting the threshold of metaphysics, it is the poets's task to retrieve metaphysics; thus poetry, not philosophy, reveals itself as the true «daughter of wonder», according to the words of that ancient philosopher to whom it was most suspect.
But more than a mode of perception, poetry is above all a way of life, of integral life. The poet existed among the cave men; he will exist among men of the atomic age, for he is an inherent part of man. Even religions have been born from the need for poetry, which is a spiritual need, and it is through the grace of poetry that the divine spark lives forever in the human flint. When mythologies vanish, the divine finds refuge and perhaps even continuation in poetry. As in the processions of antiquity the bearers of bread yielded their place to the bearers of torches, so now in the domain of social order and of the immediacies of human need it is the poetic imagination that is still illuminating the lofty passion of peoples in quest of light. Look at man walking proudly under the load of his eternal task; look at him moving along under his burden of humanity, when a new humanism opens before him, fraught with true universality and wholeness of soul. Faithful to its task, which is the exploration of the mystery of man, modern poetry is engaged in an enterprise the pursuit of which concerns the full integration of man. There is nothing Pythian in such poetry. Nor is it purely aesthetic. It is neither the art of the embalmer, nor that of the decorator. It does not breed cultured pearls, nor does it deal in semblances and emblems, and it would not be satisfied by any feast of music. Poetry allies itself with beauty - a supreme union - but never uses it as its ultimate goal or sole nourishment. Refusing to divorce art from life, love from perception, it is action, it is passion, it is power, and always the innovation which extend borders. Love is its hearth-fire, insurrection its law; its place is everywhere, in anticipation. It wants neither to deny nor to keep aloof, it expects no benefits from the advantages of its time. Attached to its own destiny and free from any ideology, it recognizes itself the equal of life, which is its own justification. And with one embrace, like a single great, living strophe, it clasps both past and future in the present, the human with the superhuman planetary space with universal space. The obscurity for which it is reproached pertains not to its own nature, which is to illuminate, but to the night which it explores, the night of the soul and the mystery in which human existence is shrouded. Obscurity is banished from its expression and this expression is no less exacting than that of science.
Thus by his total adherence to that which is, the poet maintains for us a relationship with the permanence and unity of Being. And his lesson is one of optimism. For him the entire world of things is governed by a single law of harmony. Nothing can happen that by nature could exceed the measure of man. The worst upheavals of history are nothing but seasonal rhythms in a much vaster cycle of repetitions and renewals. And the Furies that cross the scene with lifted torches light only a fragment of the long historical process. Ripening civilizations do not die in the throes of one autumn: they merely change. Inertia is the only menace. The poet is the one who breaks through our habits. And in this way the poet finds himself tied to history despite himself. No aspect of the drama of his times is foreign to him. May he give all of us a clear taste of life in this great age. For this is a great and new time calling for a new self-appraisal. And, after all, to whom would we yield the honour of belonging to our age?
«Do not fear», says History, lifting one day her mask of violence, and with her hand making the conciliatory gesture of the Asiatic divinity at the climax of her dance of destruction, «Do not fear nor doubt, for doubt is sterile and fear servile. Listen instead to the rhytmic beat that my high innovating hand imposes on the great human theme in the constant process of creation. It is not true that life can renounce itself. There is nothing living which proceeds from nothingness or yearns for it. But neither does anything ever keep form or measure under the incessant flux of Being. The tragedy lies not in metamorphosis as such. The true drama of the age is in the widening gap between temporal and eternal man. Is man illuminated on one side going to grow dark on the other? And will his forced maturation in a community without communion be nothing but a false maturity?»
It is up to the true poet to bear witness among us to man's double vocation. And that means holding up to his mind a mirror more sensitive to his spiritual possibilities. It means evoking in this our century a human condition more worthy of original man. It means, finally, bringing the collective soul into closer contact with the spiritual energy of the world. In the face of nuclear energy, will the poet's clay lamp suffice for his purpose? Yes, if man remembers the clay.
Thus it is enough for the poet to be the bad conscience of his age.
Prior to the speech, B. Lindblad, President of the Royal Academy of Sciences, made the following comment: «Mr. Saint-John Perse - With sublime intuition you know how to describe in brilliant metaphors the reaction of the soul of humanity to a world of inexhaustible richness. Your poetic opus covers past, present, and future with its wings; it reflects and illuminates all at once the genesis of our universe. You are one of the powerful defenders of the right of modern poetry to be recognized and accepted as a living force acting upon the emotional basis of the tumultuous world in which we live.»
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1960