Hope Mirrlees’ long poem, ‘Paris’, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1920. Virginia Woolf typeset it herself. Sandeep Parmar, in her introduction to the Collected Poems, describes this process as ‘incredibly frustrating’: not only was the poem technically difficult to set, but it was riddled with spelling mistakes (not all of which Woolf corrected) and Mirrlees was constantly revising it, even at proof stage. Woolf must have felt pretty murderous by the time the book was printed. When I worked as an editor, I occasionally dealt with authors who never stopped making changes, and ‘incredibly frustrating’ is a nice way of putting it. I sympathise with Woolf, while also marvelling: imagine having your poem typeset by Virginia Woolf!
Here is the beginning of ‘Paris’ (not really laid out properly, I’m afraid):
I want a holophrase
Black-figured vases on Etruscan tombs
RUE DU BAC (DUBONNET)
CHAMBRE DES DEPUTES
Brekekekek coax coax we are passing under the Seine
The Scarlet Woman shouting BYRRH and deafening
St John at Patmos
Vous descendez Madame?
QUI SOUVENT SE PESE BIEN SE CONNAIT
QUI BIEN SE CONNAIT BIEN SE PORTE
I must go slowly
When I first read this, I was utterly bemused. What on earth is going on? I recognised a reference to Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs, but really that wasn’t much help in understanding the poem. The Collected Poems includes Julia Briggs’s commentary on the poem and unless you are extremely well-versed in French cultural, social and political history, the French language, the Classics, the geography of Paris and the Bible, you will need it if you’re to understand what is going on in this poem. Without it, the poem veers towards unintelligibility for most of us. In fact, Mirrlees knew very well that her poem wasn’t easy because she included notes to it. She didn’t want to make it easy. Her notes tell us, for instance:
Nord-Sud, one of the underground posters of Paris. Dubonnet, Zig-zag, Lion Noir, Cacao Blooker are posters. Rue du Bac, etc. are names of stations.
If we look at just the opening lines with Briggs to help us, what is going on? For starters, what’s a holophrase? Briggs writes:
‘holophrase’, a single word standing for a phrase, sentence or complex of ideas, and according to Jane Harrison [Mirrlees’ close friend and Classics scholar] characteristic of an early stage of language development [...] . ‘I want’ can also mean ‘I lack’. ‘Holophrase’ puns on ‘hollow phrase’.
So we begin with a need for words or ideas, an implication of a hollowness which requires filling. Then there’s a list of posters, which suggests that the poet is moving through space, specifically on the Paris métro: she’s going on a journey underground. She passes ‘under the Seine’. This reminds her of ‘Brekekekek coax coax’ (pronounced co-ax), the chant of the frogs who live in the river Acheron, which you must cross on your way to Hades. In The Frogs Dionysos, who is travelling to Hades to bring Euripides back from the dead because all modern tragedians are crap, is annoyed by the croaking of the frogs and asks them to stop, but they retort that the Muses, Pan and Apollo all adore their music and they will carry on, thank you very much. Is the poet also going on a quest under the earth, driven by dissatisfaction with contemporary arts?
Briggs tells us that ‘Vous descendez Madame?’ was what you said while trying to leave a crowded metro carriage if you were polite, and ‘Those who weigh themselves [up] often, know themselves well. Those who know themselves well, stay healthy’ was the motto on station scales. Amid the swirl of thoughts about Ancient Greece and art, these observations anchor us to the present and the concrete. They remind us that the poet is not only a consciousness but also a physical body moving through space. She alights at ‘Concorde’ – both a reminder of strife (the Place de la Concorde was where the guillotine stood) and one of peace – concorde means ‘agreement’. Later on, after this opening extract, the poem makes direct reference to the date on which it claims to occur: 1st May 1919. At that time, peace negotiations were being held in Paris to settle the First World War, and Mirrlees refers directly to the war and the peace in her poem. This too grounds us in the present moment but situates it in the shadow of the past conflict.
‘Black figured vases on Etruscan tombs’ alludes again to death and the underworld (black-figure being a style of decoration which flourished in Greece in the 7th to 5th centuries). In the poem’s present there are too many new tombs and an overcrowded underworld. The ‘blackness’ of the painted and incised figures is taken up in the posters, for ‘Zig-Zag’ cigarettes were advertised with a picture of the head of an Algerian soldier, ‘Lion Noir’ was black shoe polish and Cacao Blooker is a Dutch make of drinking chocolate. The poem thus starts pulling in ideas of empire and colonialism, of a world beyond France, Paris, the métro.
In Revelation 17: 3–6 the Scarlet Woman is the Whore of Babylon who appears to St John, but she doesn’t shout ‘BYRRH!’ (Ahem, I initially thought this was an Ancient Greek adjuration!) Actually, Byrrh is, like Dubonnet, a fortified wine, and was advertised in Paris in 1919 by a poster of a woman dressed in scarlet, playing a drum and shouting. The woman looks soldierly, lewd, threatening. The poem has been dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but here the voice of sin and death, that of the Whore of Babylon, ‘deafens’ St John. Perhaps modern culture is challenging old culture but it’s complicated: women against men, advertising and commerce against religion and contemplation, noise against silence.
So what do we have so far? A quest provoked by a lack of words or ideas, by inadequate existing art forms. The quest begins with a descent into the underworld and then rises up onto the streets of Paris. We are shown a series of snapshots of a modern city as observed by the flâneur-poet, overlaid by layers and layers of history, infused with ghosts and ancient cultures. But of course, there is much more of it than these opening lines, you’ll have to read it yourself.
‘Paris’ as a whole is a poem packed with contrasts. Constantly referring to the past, it rejects and rejects and creates itself as a radical new form of poetry. It records fleeting impressions yet demands long, thoughtful analysis; it depicts a city open to everyone yet can itself only be deciphered by those with a privileged, educated background. (Or Julia Briggs’s notes!) It throws up into the air death and life, lasting (Greek vases) and ephemeral (metro posters), art and commerce, women and men, body and mind, the particular and the global, and wants them all. It’s the prototype Modernist poem. That’s what I think, anyway. At the moment. What about you?
(Illustrations: The old and the new in Paris: Eugène Atget, Cour, 7 rue de Valence, 1922, found here; Dionysos and members of his thiasos on a black-figure Attic vase in the Louvre, found here; Byrrh poster found here; photograph of the Tuileries taken in 1919 by Claude Moore, from the Presbyterian Archives Research Centre; found here)