Paris: A Poem

by Ruth Gilligan

Born in 1887 in Kent and raised in Scotland and South Africa, Hope Mirrlees attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before going to Newnham College, Cambridge, to study Greek. One of her tutors there, prolific classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, soon became Mirlees’s close friend and later collaborator as the two lived together from 1913 until the elder’s death in 1928. They divided their time mainly between the UK and France, learning languages, working together on Russian translations, and, in Mirrlees’s case, writing novels, the most famous of which, Lud-in-the-Mist, is the high-fantasy work for which she is still best known today.

‘Paris’ and Its Journey

Despite her legacy in the novel form, it is one of Mirrlees’s poetic works, ‘Paris: A Poem’, which is most significant in terms of the development of Modernism. The poem has avoided much critical attention, despite Julia Briggs (one of the few who has kept any sort of interest in the work alive), describing it as ‘modernism’s lost masterpiece, a work of extraordinary energy and intensity, scope and ambition, written in a confidently experimental and avant-garde style’.[1] It offers a description of the city in Spring 1919, where the themes of Paris mourning its war-dead as well as those of religion, art and literature, both past and present, can be found beneath the assembled fragments of street advertisements, overheard conversations and generally chaotic metropolitan impressions. Indeed, this juxtaposition of allusions has led it to be compared with Eliot’s later masterpiece, The Waste Land, the similarities between the two drawn by critics such as Bruce Bailey, who yet lament their respective fates:

Paris, of course, never raised the sort of critical turmoil which swept around The Waste Land. Mirrlees’ poem is undoubtedly a slighter work than Eliot’s, but this great and unfortunate difference in reception would seem to be accountable mainly to the vagaries of distribution.[2]

For although published by the Woolfs in 1920, only 175 copies were produced. And then, after Harrison’s death in 1928 and Mirrlees’s subsequent conversion to Roman Catholicism, the poet herself forbade the work to be reproduced, owing to some of its more blasphemous passages. Then, despite editing it for republication in 1973, Mirrlees’s journal of choice folded after only a few issues, thus yet again condemning ‘Paris’ to be lost.

Within the poem itself, there is also the sense of getting lost as we embark on a journey through the city as proffered by the second line ‘NORD-SUD’. The Nord-Sud metro line opened in Paris in 1910, though was not fully functional until 1916. It started in Montmartre and ended in Montparnasse, thus corresponding with the general migration of the artistic community from Montmartre to the Left Bank. The sights which we pass mesmerize us from all directions, and yet we are encouraged to keep moving, ‘And on and on…’ (line 59), the repeated ellipsis throughout pushing us forward, into phrases such as ‘And yet…quite near / Saunters the ancient rue Saint-Honore’ (lines 66-67). But here it is not a person who saunters, but the street itself, a street which runs from East to West through the city, parallel with the River Seine. Thus a new direction has been taken, corresponding with the poem’s third line ‘ZIG-ZAG’, despite it actually denoting a Metro sign advertising a brand of cigarette papers. Already the allusions are multiplying.

The Flaneur and The Peace Conference

This idea of wandering through the streets of Paris calls to mind one of the fathers of Modernism, and his notion of the Flaneur: Charles Baudelaire. He is alluded to within the poem through a reference to his own 1857 work ‘Le Voyage a Cythere’ (line 29), thus instilling his characterization as a journeyman. In his essay of three years later, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, he describes the Flaneur as a man of the world who yet has the impressions of child since the sum of his experience is involuntarily amassed by the external world he observes whilst ambling.[3] ‘The lover of universal life’, he writes, ‘moves into the crowd as though into an enormous reservoir of electricity. He [..] may also be compared to a mirror as vast as this crowd; to a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, which with every one of its movements presents a pattern of life, in all its multiplicity, and the flowing grace of all the elements that go to compose life.’[4] Thus the flaneur plays a double role; simultaneously part of and apart from city life, combining sociological, anthropological, literary and historical notions of the relationship between the individual and the greater populace.

The greater populace of Paris 1919 necessarily corresponds to that of Europe as a whole, owing to the presence of the Postwar Peace Conference within the city. The conference itself is alluded to within the poem, such as in the image of President Wilson who ‘grins like a dog’ (line 125), or the mention of ‘Thick halting speech’ (line 234). But the work itself contrives to form its own European-ism or polyglot community through its combination of languages and allusions from throughout the continent. Though written mostly in French and English, Mirrlees’s knowledge of Greek features in the quoted ‘Brekekekek coax coax’ (line 10), the noise made by the frogs in Aristophanes’ so-titled play. This combines not only a pun on the French/frog stereotype, but the play’s own concern with a descent into underworld as the sound is here paired with the line ‘we are passing under the Seine’; a journey below of our very own, denoted by this multi-layered transposition of the train carriage’s rattle. Furthermore, the OED cites the most recent usage of this Greek animal noise in 1656, when John Trapp is writing about the Jesuits, accusing their religious ceremony of sounding like gibberish, thus bringing about the theme of religion and religious decay which is found throughout.

The theme of literature also asserts itself through this polyglottal vocabulary, as we hear in a passage of recorded (and seemingly overheard) French dialogue, of the book ‘Anna Karénine.’ (line 224). The Russian title has been translated into French within this predominantly English poem, while the characters of the novel feature some pages later; just another pair of faces in the bustling cosmopolitan crowd (line 282). Elsewhere, puns between languages occur to necessarily combine yet distinguish them, such as ‘the silence of la greve’ (line 263,) which plays on the English cliché ‘the silence of the grave’, while the word greve also means a strike (as here described), or a riverbank (where the itself strike took place).

Dug up from their own grave, or ‘subterranean sleep of five long years’ (line 123), are the paintings of the Louvre which, having been stored underground for the duration of the war, were rehung in 1919. Reminding the reader of France’s war-dead who, by contrast, can never arise from their ‘slumber’, the list of artistic works here given form instances of high culture which the poem then places alongside those of the very lowest/everyday variety; the metro advertisements. This combination of high and low art forms creates a democracy which corresponds back to the Peace Process itself, whilst also introducing the theme of the visual with which Mirrlees seems so concerned throughout the work.

The Visual

Not only does Mirrlees vary greatly the sources of the impressions she includes herein, but also the way in which they are presented on the page. Thus in lines 139-148 we are given a long list of advertisements in different font sizes, suggesting the various scales of the posters themselves, or perhaps the different levels of volume of the voices which call out these slogans. Even when we first board the metro, we are told of ‘The Scarlet Woman shouting BYRRH and deafening / St. John at Patmos / Vous descendez Madame?’ (lines 12-14). ‘BYRRH’ here sounds like a nonsense word akin to the aforementioned amphibious carriage rattling, but was actually a brand of French aperitif, advertised by posters featuring a woman in red dress. Thus the invitation to descend, whilst in the form of a common polite way to get off metro oneself, could be addressed to us, the reader, the flaneur, or indeed the woman in the poster herself.

Some lines later we are told of the Tuileries which ‘are in a trance / because the painters have / stared at them so long’ (lines 20-22), the placement of the words on the page corresponding to the layout of the Tuileries Palace gardens with the gaps left for the many basins. But it is the painters who are ‘spaced out’ (pun intended), thus projecting their state onto that which they see, just as towards the end of the poem we are told of artists again drawing the Tuileries to be sold as cheap souvenirs (lines 275-279). This comes soon after the lines about the workers’ strike which took place on May 1, 1919, which, the poem’s footnotes inform us, precluded the usual May Day selling of lilies. The section itself forms the image of a lily upon the page, the stem comprising of the single-lettered vertical progression ‘Thereisnolilyofthevalley’ (lines 236-250). This disruption to the poem’s order mirrors that of the strike itself to the city, whilst also denoting the lines of strikers themselves here upon the page.

Elsewhere we are also presented with eight bars of music (lines 343-345), the transposition of the tombstones of France’s great writers (lines 354-365), and the word ‘Taxi’ repeatedly lined up on the page, just as the vehicles themselves would be on the street (lines 416-418), all affirming Mirrlees’s obsession with the visual aspect of her work, which is again confirmed by the three proof sheets which still survive of the poem in progress, consisting of extremely detailed instructions for adjustments in the typesetting.

The Influence of Apollinaire

Published in 1918, Guilluame Apollinaire’s poems Calligrammes are subtitled ‘Poems of War and Peace, 1913-1916’ and noted for their typeface and spatial arrangement of words on the page. This was described as ‘concrete poetry’, and by the poet himself as followed:

The Calligrammes are an idealisation of free verse poetry and typographical precision in an era when typography is reaching a brilliant end to is career, at the dawn of the new means of reproduction that are the cinema and the photograph.[5]

The example here given takes the stereotypical symbol of Paris itself, and fits within it the words which roughly translate to: ‘Hello world, of which I am the eloquent tongue which your mouth, O Paris, will forever stick out at the Germans.’ The tower itself is desribed in Mirrlees’s poem as ‘two dimensional, / Etched on thick white paper’ (lines 273-274) and Apollinaire’s etching of the tower’s very shape undoubtedly influenced her composition.


Furthermore, Apollinaire’s 1912 poem ‘Zone’ also paved the way for Mirrlees’s ‘lost masterpiece’. Set in Paris too, the work is concerned with modernity and an overlap with and separation from antiquity, while questions of cosmopolitanism and religion feature strongly also. The typography of the poem is not of note here, save for the absence of punctuation which contributes to the sense of Apollinaire creating a world without borders or divisions. But taking again the quintessential image of the capital, the poem opens by combining the pastoral with the modern city scape: ‘Shepherdess O Eiffel Tower this morning the bridges are bleating’ (line 2).[6] Like Mirrlees’s poem, the advertisements in the streets articulate themselves while not only placed alongside works of literature, but suggested as replacements for them entire:

Flyers catalogues hoardings sing aloud
Here’s poetry this morning and for prose you’re reading the tabloids
Disposable paperbacks filled with crime and police
Biographies of great men a thousand various titles (lines 11-14)

Like ‘Paris’, different nationalities are brought together, predominantly through the combination of birds from different countries that fly through the air, while a sense of wandering through the city is also present. However, Apollinaire’s ‘you’ is then cited in other countries too, dispelling the sense of a continuous journey and forming rather a picture scrapbook of miscellaneous travel snapshots: ‘You in Marseilles among the watermelons / You in Coblenz at the Hotel Gigantic / You in Rome beneath a Japanese tree’ (lines 106-108). Thus it seems the Baudelarian Flaneur has been replaced by an (even more) modern jet-setter.

The Objective, the Subjective and Other Dichotomies

Apollinaire’s ‘you’, which seems at times to represent a past projection of the present narrative ‘I’, also sets ‘Zone’ apart from ‘Paris’ since, despite Mirrlees’s opening line: ‘I want a holophrase’, this first person pronoun is wanting for most of the rest of the poem. Baudelaire described the flaneur as a ‘mirror’ for the city, and the images here offered are distinctly lacking a protagonist – a someone behind the looking glass. But Mirrlees does not abstract herself entirely. For she ends her poem with seven stars – the constellation of the Great Bear which was also the tailpiece to her the novels and a coded dedication to Harrison. The poem also ends with the address of the hotel where Mirrlees regularly stayed in Paris, and which corresponds with the work’s earlier lines: ‘From the top floor of an old Hotel, / Tranced, / I gaze down at the narrow rue de Beaune.’ (lines 319-321). It is no longer the Tuleries which are spaced out, nor the painters, but the narrative ‘I’ which is suddenly making itself known, only to remain absent again for the rest of the poem.

Furthermore, it is this ‘remaining’ which presents another problem, for the vantage point of the hotel window looking down to the street below necessarily contradicts the notion of the wandering flaneur. This combination of stasis and movement then corresponds to the more general dichotomy of permanence and flux – the traditional works of art and the posters of the now – the events specific to 1919, and the allusions back to the classical: ‘The unities are smashed, / The stage is thick with corpses…’ (lines 181-182). Whilst at once alluding to both Aristotle and Shakespeare, Mirrlees here yet manages to suggest that the war has brought about a break with tradition, enforcing once more a sense of overall juxtaposition.

Some lines later, she then offers a distinct image for these clashes:

There was a ritual fight for her sweet body
Between two virgins – Mary and the moon
The wicked April moon. (lines 260-262)

As outlined in the preface to her first novel, Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists, to Mirrlees, the Virgin Mary was not only a religious symbol, but also one of the fixed and determined world of art; ‘the province of fate’, while ‘the Wicked April Moon’ represented the flux or chaos of life; ‘the province of free-will’.[7]

This brings back to mind the father of modernism with whom we began our journey through the poem, as Baudelaire wrote elsewhere in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ of the importance of contemporary fashion illustrations despite, and precisely in fact because of, their being deeply rooted in a specific time:

To establish a rational and historical theory of beauty, in contrast to a theory of a unique and absolute beauty, and to show that beauty is always inevitably compounded of two elements.[8]

These two elements were the eternal/invariable and the relative/circumstantial, reminding us once more of his location of the flaneur amidst ‘the fleeting and the infinite’ of the crowd, and Mirrlees’s subsequent embodiment of these beliefs.

Thus is seems that, in composing this great poem, Hope Mirrlees drew on Baudelaire, adopted his theories, his wandering, and his city, picking up a few Frenchmen along the way to create this ‘lost masterpiece’ in which we yet find a richly textured snapshot of Paris 1919, that took a mere three years to morph into a Waste Land not so far away.

  1. ↑ Julia Briggs, ‘Hope Mirrlees and Continental Modernism’, Gender in Modernism, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott (Illinois, 2007), p.261
  2. ↑ Bruce Bailey, ‘A Note on The Waste Land and Hope Mirrlees’ Paris’, T. S. Eliot Newsletter (vol. 1, no. 1, Spring: 1974), p.4
  3. ↑ Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, trans. P.E. Charvet, in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. Kolocotroni, Goldman, Taxidou (Edinburgh, 1998), pp.102-108
  4. ↑ Baudelaire, p.105
  5. ↑ Guillaume Apollinaire, quoted in the Preface by Michel Butor, Calligrammes (Éditions Gallimard, 1995), p.7
  6. ↑ Alcools, trans. Donald Revell (Wesleyan University Press, 1995), pp.2-11
  7. ↑ Hope Mirrlees, Preface to Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansensits (London, 1919)
  8. ↑ Baudelaire, p.103

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