The opening lines of Hope Mirrlees’s poem Paris plunge the reader in place and personal experience. “I want a holophrase”, it begins, and perhaps that is what the whole work is trying to be, for a holophrase is a single word that stands for a complex idea. Paris, a single word, encapsulating the history and romance of this city. Capital letters, italics, parentheses and found phrases are scattered across the page: advertisements for drinking chocolate, aperitifs and cigarettes, stations on the Métro. “I can’t/I must go slowly”, the first page ends, prompting the reader, too, to take a breath, to consider the work with which she is being presented.
Paris was first published one hundred years ago by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press – two years before those great landmarks of male modernism, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses. As the poet and scholar Sandeep Parmar writes in her afterword, there have been several attempts to reintroduce the poem to readers over the course of the past century, attempts that were (largely) unsuccessful. Faber & Faber has now released an elegant – and useful – edition of the poem, which comes equipped with Parmar’s contextual essay, detailed notes by the Woolf scholar Julia Briggs, and a vivacious foreword by the novelist Deborah Levy. As Levy writes, this remarkable poem is an “immersive polyphonic adventure”, an intense echo of a day and a night spent walking through Paris in 1919. The slaughter of the First World War was over; the world was being remade, along with language, art and culture.
Mirrlees was determined to be one of those who effected the transformation. She was 32 in 1919; from April to July she lived with her companion, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, at the Hôtel de l’Elysée, on the left bank of the Seine. The pair had met when Mirrlees was a student at Newnham College, Cambridge, and Harrison her teacher; there was a 40-year age gap between them. On the final page of the poem is printed the constellation Ursa Major, the great bear. It is a reference, perhaps, to “The Old One”, the couple’s “totemic” teddy bear, described by Parmar as “a kind of shared husband” – Grayson Perry’s childhood bear Alan Measles is called to mind.
Across Mirrlees’s lifetime – she died in 1978 – she published three novels and one volume of a biography of the 17th-century antiquarian Sir Bruce Robert Cotton, whose extraordinary manuscript collection included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the sole surviving copy of Beowulf.
In 1919, just before she set off for Paris with Harrison, her publisher-to-be Virginia Woolf wrote a sketch of Mirrlees in her diary, describing her as “a very self-conscious, wilful, prickly and perverse young woman, rather conspicuously well dressed and pretty, with a view of her about books and style, an aristocratic and conservative tendency in opinion, and a corresponding taste for the beautiful and elaborate in literature”. The poem itself might be described as wilful, and perhaps self-conscious, but it is neither elaborate or beautiful – and that is a strength, not a weakness. This is vivid, vigorous work.
Paris is often compared to The Waste Land – and Mirrlees and Eliot became good friends. Eliot lodged with Mirrlees and her mother in Surrey during the Second World War, at their house in Shamley Green. The parallels are interesting: the Seine runs through Mirrlees’s poem as the Thames does through Eliot’s; both come equipped with an armature of footnotes, though Mirrlees’s notes are much less extensive than Eliot’s; Mirrlees’s nymphs in the Tuileries (“These nymphs are harmless,/Fear not their soft mouths”) seem to anticipate those departed nymphs of “The Fire Sermon”.
Yet there is a wonderful wildness in Paris that belongs wholly to Mirrlees. In her fine book Flâneuse, the essayist Lauren Elkin considered the challenges and transgressions inherent in being a woman who walks the streets: if a woman is called “a streetwalker” the meaning is clear. A flâneur is a man, whose freedom to be where he likes, when he likes is unquestioned and unquestionable. But the jazz rhythms of Paris dance through this poem, through the vision of a city Mirrlees describes as “a huge home-sick peasant,/He carries a thousand villages in his heart.”
The clamour of Paris ancient and modern leap out from these pages. Far from Paris – and wondering when I shall ever return – my senses absorb the atmosphere of the city from the poem: “It is pleasant to sit on the Grand Boulevards – /They smell of/ Cloacae/Hot indiarubber/Poudre de riz/Algerian tobacco”: nothing has changed in a century.
At the poem’s close, “The sky is saffron behind the two towers of Nôtre-/Dame”: that line break an eerie anticipation of the great cathedral’s near-destruction by fire last year, the sky saffron as the flames rose high. But Paris persists, as this poem will: “JE VOUS SALUE PARIS PLEIN DE GRACE” runs Mirrlees’s last line. A grace for all time, in city and poem both.
Erica Wagner’s books include “Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)
Paris: A Poem
Faber & Faber, 72pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt