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I was overcome with a sense of familiarity, intermingled with strangeness

Beth James reflects on the forgotten female modernist poet, Hope Mirrlees

In 1920, The Hogarth Press, founded by eminent modernist writer Virginia Woolf and her husband, published Paris: A Poem by Hope Mirrlees. This was the Hogarth Press’s fifth ever publication and appeared three years before the publication of TS Eliot’s seminal poem The Wasteland, now often considered the centrifugal force of the entire Modernist movement and indeed, modern poetry in its expansive entirety since.

While first reading Paris, I was overcome with a sense of familiarity, intermingled with strangeness. It was like rediscovering a book or film from childhood, which stirs a feeling of half-remembering when something fictional has become so much a part of you that parameters of what is real and fictional are so porous that they bleed into each other and cease to exist at all. I felt that I had read this poem before and yet knew that it was impossible – its voice was singular and yet flashes of resonance permeated the poem, in lines such as “the Seine, old egotist, meanders imperturbably towards the sea”, or, “through his sluggish watery sleep come dreams/ They are the blue ghosts of king-fishers.” An appellation to a river and its ghosts? Snippets of conversation, song, colloquialisms suffusing the verse? All contained within a poem that is at once a paean to, and a lament of, a sprawling, modern metropolis? I was remembering, of course, The Wasteland.

The more I read about Mirrlees’s life in Sandeep Parmar’s introduction to her Collected Poems, the more evident the intersections of Mirrlees’s and Eliot’s lives became. Eliot boarded with the Mirrlees family during the Second World War and while staying with them, wrote Four Quartets, and Mirrlees was close friends with Eliot’s wife, Valerie. The similarities between their poems began to seem less and less coincidental and increasingly like a cross-fertilization of ideas – it seems an unlikely coincidence that one of the most striking lines of Paris refers to “The wicked April moon” and that Eliot’s Wasteland should commence in the “cruellest” month of April.

Both Mirrlees’s and Eliot’s poems chart the experience of walking the streets of Paris and London, respectively, in the early twentieth century. In Paris, we accompany the persona as they flâneuse the streets of the city, ascending metros, “[wading] knee-deep in dreams”, until the eventual disintegration of the individual carves open the poem, and its city, “Into something beautiful – awful – huge”. The poem is captivating for its novelty, and the typesetting and spatiality make it a slippery reading experience, which anticipates the extreme experimentalism of form by later modernists. Her vision of Paris is one that wades back through memory, past the seventeenth century as it lies “exquisitely dying”, dragging the “jeunesse dorée of the sycamores” into the present. The poem is constantly reimagining and remembering Paris through the paintings in the Louvre, or as a “huge home-sick peasant” ravaged and glorified through its history, or through the eyes of President Woodrow Wilson, who “grins like a dog and runs about the city”. Eliot’s Wasteland also pushes back past the cacophony of modernity, “Jug-Jug[ing]” into a memory of the past, along the “Sweet Thames”, dredging up the ghost of Stetson, and half-remembering a childhood in Germany “at the arch-dukes”.

Both poems are processes of remembering, and their treatment of time is so confused, so cyclical, that past and present, the classical and modern, the real and unreal merge together and confuse us with their simultaneous familiarity and strangeness. Eliot’s work is so deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness – as a young teenager, before even having read the poem, I had some vague notion of The Wasteland as extremely important, extremely clever, ascending an indistinct, nigh inexplicable but unquestioned rung of Genius. But how is this so, and yet I, and so many others, have never heard of Hope Mirrlees and her poem Paris? This is, at least in part, due to Mirrlees’s complicity in the forgetting of her own work. She edited relentlessly, and the complexity of the poem’s typesetting made mass production impossible. A very limited run was published by Hogarth press and the majority of editions had to be corrected by hand by Virginia Woolf. Moreover, when Mirrlees returned to Paris in the late 1970s for its second publication, the development of her Catholic faith changed her attitude towards the poem. She attempted to distance herself from it, and redacted and abolished chunks of the poem she considered blasphemous. However, it is also worth considering the reception of Mirrlees’s poem by the literary establishment – the TLS dismissed it as an “incoherent statement” – while The Wasteland, similarly experimental, was lauded as a rebirth of poetic form. Could the gendered reception of these poems have prejudiced reviewers and readers against Paris, accelerating its descent into obscurity?

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