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The Correspondence between Saint-John Perse and Calouste Gulbenkian

p. 52

Notes de la rédaction

Source: La lettre, no. 36, May 2013

Texte intégral

Calouste Gulbenkian shortly before 1900

1Vasco Graça Moura is one of the greatest Portuguese writers of our time. He is the author of a poetic work, partially translated into French, which is considerable in terms both of size and importance. He is also the author of narratives, novels, essays, and translations of Dante, Shakespeare, Villon and Rilke. Since joining the Carnation Revolution, he has also become a leading public figure. He has held important posts: he was twice a cabinet minister and was a long-serving member of the European Parliament. Today, he is Director of the prestigious Cultural Centre of Belém.

  • 1 Saint-John Perse, Calouste Gulbenkian. Correspondance, 1946-1954, Text established, annotated and p (...)

2Like Saint-John Perse, Vasco Graça Moura is at once a poet and a participant in his country’s political life. Among other posts, he was Director of Services of the Gulbenkian Foundation, and thus in a particularly good position to edit the correspondence between Saint-John Perse and Calouste Gulbenkian1. It is to this correspondence that he dedicated the lecture which he gave at the Collège de France on 21 February 2013, after having given a talk the evening before on “Self-Allusion in the Work of a sixteenth-century Portuguese Poet: Luis de Camões” within the framework of Michel Zink’s seminar in relation to his lecture series entitled “What is the Poet’s Name?”.

3It was in Paris, where Gulbenkian lived from 1920 and where he built a superb mansion on the Avenue Iena, that he became friends with the diplomat Alexis Léger (Saint-John Perse). However, apart from a brief exchange in 1946, they did not engage in a regular correspondence until 1948, that is to say, after the war and the period during which the former General Secretary of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs lived in exile in America, an exile which he deliberately prolonged, as he chose not to return to France when it was liberated. It is only through Léger’s expressions of gratitude that we understand that Gulbenkian helped the writer’s mother during the war.

4Gulbenkian also supported Saint-John Perse himself. In 1948, when financial necessities were about to force him to accept a post as a lecturer in provincial America – a perspective which horrified him –, the financier offered him a regular and fairly substantial salary, which he tactfully presented as payment for analytical reports on the international situation that the writer was to send him periodically. The correspondence, which largely consists of this kind of informal report, is therefore more that of Alexis Léger than that of Saint-John Perse. Amongst clear and often penetrating considerations on the political and economic strategies of the great powers during those years when the world was entering the Cold War, only a few brilliant, laconic and grandio­se statements, a few confidences and a few lines dedicated to the account of a journey or the description of nature allow the voice of the poet to be heard or guessed.

5Saint-John Perse was the obliged party and Gulbenkian the benefactor. It is easier to make a good impression in the latter position than in the former. The diplomat’s long letters betray a certain affectation. Those written by the oil tycoon, which are less numerous, shorter and typewritten, seem more natural, and convey spontaneous warmth and genuine admiration.

6When one reads this correspondence and listens to Vasco Graça Moura’s attractive presentation of it, one reaches the conclusion that Saint-John Perse was decidedly a dis­con­certing man. The stubborn grudge he bore against the Général de Gaulle and Paul Reynaud is no surprise. What is more unexpected is, for example, the discovery that he was so very preoccupied with his health and the risks that the climate, the bad air and various infections might make him run. One would not have suspected him to be a hypochondriac. Allowing these small details to be revealed, however, is precisely the point of publishing such correspondence.

The Faculty invited Mr Vasco Graça Moura upon Prof. Michel Zink’s proposal.

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1 Saint-John Perse, Calouste Gulbenkian. Correspondance, 1946-1954, Text established, annotated and presented by Vasco Graça Moura, Paris, Gallimard, 2013, Cahiers Saint-John Perse 21, p. 335.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Calouste Gulbenkian shortly before 1900
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Vasco GRAÇA MOURA, « The Correspondence between Saint-John Perse and Calouste Gulbenkian », La lettre du Collège de France, 8 | 2014, 52.

Référence électronique

Vasco GRAÇA MOURA, « The Correspondence between Saint-John Perse and Calouste Gulbenkian », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 12 août 2015, consulté le 27 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Writer, President of the Belém Cultural Centre Foundation, Lisbon

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