© Hope Mirrlees – Hope Mirrlees Collected Poems – Ed: Sandeep Parmar – published by Carcanet Press – published 2011. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further
Paris: A Poem was written by the British writer Hope Mirrlees in spring 1919. It is a snapshot of post-war Paris, a description of a journey through the city from day to night. Described by one critic as a ‘lost masterpiece of modernism’ (Julia Briggs), it is a daring, experimental avant garde poem. It is in many ways a parallel work to T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, which Paris predates by two years.
This is the first edition, printed by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1919. It was published in 1920, although the title page incorrectly states 1919. Critics suggest that its small distribution of just 175 copies prevented it from being better known.
Paris portrays metropolitan modern life and the emerging modern consciousness. Set on a single day like Ulysses (1922) and Mrs Dalloway (1925), the poem opens with the bold, remarkable line, ‘I want a holophrase’. It conveys Mirrlees’ desire to do away with virtually all language and form in favour of a single word that entirely captures her subject.
Yet this desire is overcome as the speaker heads into the Metro station, bombarded by signs, posters and advertisements. Evoking a roaming camera, the poem takes us through the bustling Parisian streets and its people, architecture, art, and nightlife. Like The Waste Land, Paris is full of fragmented, disparate sounds and voices.
Mirrlees also portrays a city full of reminders of war and death. There are multiple references to ghosts and dreams; to World War One and the 1919 Paris peace conference; to psychoanalysis, Freud, and the unconscious. Yet, unlike The Waste Land’s treatment of London, Mirrlees is ultimately optimistic. Paris embraces the recovering city, showing its damage as well as its dizzying energy.
Paris overthrows the traditional boundaries of poetic form. Influenced by Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘concrete poetry’ (such as Calligrammes, 1918), Mirrlees actively plays with typography and layout. In one section the text is displayed like memorial plaques (pp. 18–19) which sits alongside a musical score (p. 18). The work thereby evokes visual art, while also echoing the syncopated rhythms of jazz.
This formally experimental poem was, therefore, the most ambitious work that the Woolfs had published since establishing their press in 1917. The Woolfs printed the poem by hand, sewed the pages together, and bound it in a harlequin patterned paper in gold, blue and red. There are several errors including spelling mistakes (e.g. ‘leisuerly’, p. 19). Some pages had to be hand-corrected in pencil, such as the insertion of ‘St.’ on p. 3.