The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Paris: A Poem

Paris: A Poem. By Hope Mirrlees. Foreword by Deborah Levy. Commentary by Julia Briggs. Afterword by Sandeep Parmar. Faber & Faber, 2020. x + 59 pp. $14.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Diane Drouin, Sorbonne Université

A new edition of Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem marked the hundredth anniversary of its original publication. This elegant centenary edition was published by Faber & Faber in 2020, with an introductory foreword by Deborah Levy, an afterword by Mirrlees’s biographer, Sandeep Parmar, and commentary by Julia Briggs. The ancillary texts perfectly frame and contextualize Mirrlees’s experimental poem.

Mirrlees, a British poet and novelist (1887-1978), has been known in modernist circles for her fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), but Paris has received little scholarly attention until recently. Following in the footsteps of Parmar’s edition of Mirrlees’s Collected Poems (2011), this new edition of Paris sheds light on an avant-garde gem and makes it available to a wider readership.

Composed in early 1919, while Mirrlees was living on the Left Bank with her partner, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrisson, Paris constitutes a major modernist celebration of the Parisian cityscape. It was originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf and their Hogarth Press in May 1920. Virginia Woolf praised the poem as “obscure, indecent, and brilliant” (54). The Faber & Faber edition reproduces the daring layout of the 175 original copies of the poem Hogarth published, handbound by Woolf herself.

Written and set in the wake of the First World War, the poem evokes the war’s immediate aftermath and brings to life a city to be reinvented, as Paris mourns the dead, heals the collective and personal trauma of war, and embraces the hustle and bustle of modernity. Paris appeared several years before the publication of James Joyce’s brilliant portrayal of Dublin in Ulysses (1922) and Woolf’s celebration of interwar London in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and the poem offers a dazzling poetic account of modern life in Paris. Although published two years before T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), to which it has often been compared, Paris remains in the shadow of its widely acclaimed counterpart. Yet, if Mirrlees’s poem might have influenced these modernist masterpieces and anticipated their poetic approaches to western cityscapes, Paris is a spectacularly innovative text in its own right.

This new edition contributes to the field of modernist studies by providing Mirrlees a renewed and much-deserved visibility. The foreword, commentary, and afterword all provide valuable context to the poem shedding light on its genesis and style. Levy’s foreword highlights how the Hogarth Press brought Paris to life and invites the reader “to imagine this publishing moment at Hogarth House in interwar Britain” (viii). Briggs’s commentary and notes elucidate a number of cryptic references in the poem. Finally, Parmar’s afterword, which brilliantly concludes this new edition, pinpoints the modernity of Mirrlees’s poem and examines why its artistry and aesthetic innovation “evaded a majority of readers.”

In Paris, history converges with a multiplicity of personal impressions and ordinary lives, beautifully coexisting on the page. In the course of a single spring day, the poem follows a peripatetic itinerary through the streets of Paris and the wanderings of the female poetic voice. As Levy points out in her foreword (ix), Mirrlees’s central figure reminds us of the 19th century flâneur, famously staged by Baudelaire or Rimbaud, but with a striking gendered difference. The figure of the Parisian flâneuse, analyzed by scholars such as Deborah Parsons in Streetwalking the Metropolis (2000) and Lauren Elkin in Flâneuse (2017), is often regarded as transgressive because she was freely roaming the city, a space traditionally reserved for men. In Mirrlees’s poem, however, the woman wanderer offers readers a decidedly and unapologetically immersive experience, uncovering the very soul of the city of lights. As Levy, Briggs, and Parmar all discuss in the ancillary materials, the poetic voice is not only wandering the streets of Paris but also wandering linguistically, tracing unpredictable patterns that visually explode on the page.

Mirrlees brings into focus emblematic monuments of Paris, easily identifiable through a subjective gaze. From the Tuileries to the Louvre, from the Grands Boulevards to the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, Mirrlees is re-mapping Paris, hopping from the Left Bank to the Right Bank in just a few words:

The Eiffel Tower is two dimensional
Etched of thick white paper. (15)

Making her way through the crowd, Mirrlees’s speaker gracefully invites us to reinvent and rediscover the city as we know it. In the tight frame of her condensed, twenty-page poem, Mirrlees touches upon themes ranging from the arts to religion, from war to history and mythology. The fast pace of the poem sometimes slows down, giving way to impressionistic vignettes that almost read like haikus:

The wicked April moon.
The silence of la grève*
Rain (14)

Paris seems more eternal than ever, its distinctive landmarks beacons in the rain evoking the melancholy of a post-war spring day: “The Louvre is melting into mist” (14). And yet, rarely has the city been so bustling and alive on the page. As Parmar explains in the afterword, “Paris has an extraordinary way of conveying many superimposed cities at once, implying that, like a ruin, the modern city is merely the aggregate of newness destroyed in perpetuity” (57). We enter a colorful modernist cityscape as the speaker reclaims the streets of Paris and urges us to come along. Walking along the Seine under the towering shadow of Notre-Dame, Mirrlees’s flâneuse witnesses both the sophisticated conversations and the trivial non-events of the Parisian everyday life of the time:

Workers in pale blue:
Barrows of vegetables
Busy dogs:
They come and go. (17)

The cubist aesthetics of fragmentation and collage conjures up the vibrant atmosphere of the city on the threshold of the années folles. Mirrlees offers a series of vivid vignettes, assembling voices and images, combining sound and sight through striking synesthetic effects. Throughout the poem, Mirrlees intertwines French and English idioms to convey the polyphonic rumor of the city in a remarkable intermingling of languages and sounds:

Ouiouioui, c’est passionnant–on en a pour son argent.
Le fromage n’est pas un plat logique
A a a a a oui c’est un délicieux garçon
Il me semble que toute femme sincère doit se retrouver en Anna Karénine. (12)*

The polyphonic effect of the poem is all the more noticeable when skillfully read by Lambert Wilson and Charlotte Rampling in a recording Faber has made available on Soundcloud. These bilingual actors fuse their voices to enumerate the names of métro stations (“Rue du Bac, Solférino, Concorde” [1]), popular advertisements for milk (“Lait supérieur de la ferme de Rambouillet” [9] and apéritifs [9]), or famous paintings on view “in a quiet gallery” (15).

The poem’s twenty pages burst with onomatopoeias, typographical irregularities, line breaks, italics, and capital letters that bring the city to life. At times, Mirrlees’s visual innovations on the page evoke Apollinaire’s Calligrammes (1918), as when Mirrlees spells out the words “there is no lily of the valley” vertically, with just one letter per line, as if mimicking the thin shape of the flower that is traditionally associated in France with the first of May (13). Mirrlees juxtaposes advertisements, scraps of overheard dialogue, half-formulated thoughts, and even a music score to convey a very specific rhythm to the adventures of her poetic voice (18).

Mirrlees’s cosmopolitan flâneuse takes us along as she navigates the streets of Paris to the soundtrack of the city. As we close the book, longing for misty walks along the Seine, Mirrlees’s words resonate with the echoes of 1919 Paris. After a sleepless night, the poem concludes at dawn with these hopeful words:

The sun is rising
Soon les Halles will open
The sky is saffron behind the two towers of Nôtre-Dame.


*Some of Mirrlees's typographic shifts cannot be captured by the platform. Note that "la grève" is italicized in the original, as is the entirety of the passage beginning "Ouiouioui."


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