Secret Library

Modernism’s Other Waste Land: Hope Mirrlees’ Paris

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle discusses the remarkable modernist poem, Paris: A Poem by Hope Mirrlees

‘April is the cruellest month.’ The opening line (although it’s worth remembering that ‘April is the cruellest month’ is not the full line) of T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land is often quoted, especially every time that spring month comes around again. But three years before the publication of Eliot’s poem, a woman named Helen Hope Mirrlees was writing a poem, simply titled Paris: A Poem, which strikingly anticipates many elements of The Waste Land, including the focus on April not as a month of hope and rebirth, but as a time of cruelty and wickedness. Eliot: ‘April is the cruellest month.’ Mirrlees: ‘The wicked April moon.’ A poetic revolution was in the (spring) air.

Before I say any more about Hope Mirrlees’ Paris: A Poem, it’s worth outlining just of a few of the similarities between Mirrlees’ poem and The Waste Land. To start with, there are the many local parallels: their use of multiple languages, their allusive quality, their unconventional typography (which Mirrlees learned from, among others, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau), their focus on the post-war metropolis, soldiers being demobbed, death and burial, vegetation rituals, nymphs, and the parallels between classical and modern, mingling everyday demotic speech with high-flown phrases and literary references. In Paris we are told, ‘In the Algerian desert they are shouting the Koran’, while in The Waste Land we find people shouting snatches of the Upanishads in the desert of the final section. A cock crows in both The Waste Land and Paris. The river is central to both poems: the Thames to The Waste Land, the Seine to Paris. There is a hallucinatory and dreamlike quality to both poems. A crowd of people marked by death pass over a bridge in both: London Bridge in Eliot’s poem, the Pont Neuf in Mirrlees’.

If we did not know better, we would place Mirrlees’ poem later than Eliot’s, identifying it as one of a number of imitations of Eliot’s defining poem such as Nancy Cunard’s Parallax (although, as I discuss in my new book on these poems, Cunard’s poem is far from the ‘simple imitation’ of The Waste Land that early critics such as Laura Riding and F. R. Leavis took it to be). But this is partly because we are so used to viewing Eliot’s poem as the influencer and the originator of much modernist poetic technique, including many of the features just outlined. The fact that Mirrlees came to many of the same conclusions about the modernist experiment, but independently of Eliot and before him, raises important questions about the development of the modernist poem after the First World War. It is almost as if such a long poem were inevitable in the years following the Armistice. Nor do the similarities between Paris and The Waste Land end at their numerous local crossovers and shared motifs and images: the parallels are structural in some respects, too. Both poems are around the same length (Eliot’s is 433 lines, while Mirrlees’ is 445), and both include explanatory notes at the end, notes which confuse as much as they elucidate.

Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922. His poem captured the sense of post-war disillusionment that many people belonging to Eliot’s generation felt at the time: Britain was in the grip of economic crisis and there was a feeling that Europe had ‘committed suicide’ in the First World War. (Arguably, this is what helps to make The Waste Land continually relevant, especially in today’s climate.) But Eliot’s The Waste Land was not the first poem to capture the post-war mood: in spring 1919, a young female British poet was living in Paris, writing a remarkable experimental poem which sought to capture the mood in the city during the months immediately following the Armistice, and at a time when the Paris Peace Conference was ongoing in the capital (this conference would lead to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919). What makes Mirrlees’ Paris so arresting is its innovative use of spacing and typography and its incorporation of snippets of street signs, allusions to literary works such as Shakespeare and ancient Greek comedy, and advertisements from the Paris Metro. Mirrlees’ Paris takes the form of a day’s wanderings around the French capital, from morning until the following dawn, its female narrator or flâneuse preferring to observe rather than judge what she sees. As a result, Paris offers a more optimistic and open-minded take on the post-war mood than Eliot’s later poem. Hope Mirrlees’ Paris is, if you like, more hopeful (or ‘Hope-ful’) than The Waste Land.

It is vital to keep in mind the immediate context of Paris. The poem is exploring Anglo-French relations in the wake of the Great War and during the ongoing peace talks. This is exemplified by the fact that it is an English poem, written by an English (or at least English-raised – Mirrlees’ parents were Scottish) poet, but set in France. Its title is English – the full title is Paris: A Poem – but that title names a French city. Its first line is in English, its second in French, and the ensuing poem jolts and moves uneasily between English and French, both in terms of language and points of reference. When the poem engages with specific French details, English ghosts are also disturbed. And puns, too, are exposed: Paris is a very punning poem.

In her diary in June 1920, Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘Nowadays I’m often overcome by London; even think of the dead who have walked the city’. Such a remark has obvious relevance to The Waste Land, but London was not the only city which might remind one of the dead in the wake of the war. The dead will not stay dead in Mirrlees’ poem. Paris is full of the dead coming back to life, or being unable to take their rest, such as the numerous references to ghosts, like the ‘ghost of Père Lachaise’ who is ‘walking the streets’, as if the whole cemetery had woken from its slumbers. ‘The only things that they can see are ghosts’, we are told of the city’s houses with ‘impassive windows’. ‘They are not like us,’ the narrator of the poem confides, ‘who, ghoul-like, bury our friends a score of times before they’re dead’. This blurs the line between death and life, much as the reference to the ‘eidola’ of the ‘gaillards’ suggests the spiritual and ghostly.

Yet although the poem does not shy away from death, it is first and foremost an affirmation of life in the midst of a time of death and mourning, just after the end of the war. Mirrlees presents Paris as a city in which Eros and Thanatos, life and death, are locked in a struggle, although the positive ending to the poem encourages us to conclude that Eros triumphs over Thanatos. In the year that the poem was published, Sigmund Freud, who figures in the poem, published Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which, like Paris, responds to the events of the First World War by exploring the relationship between the two impulses of Eros and Thanatos. At one point in Paris, Mirrlees tells of a ‘ritual fight’ between ‘two virgins – Mary and the moon’, effectively staging this oppositional tension between the life-giving, maternal, fertile female figure and her counterpart, the ‘wicked April moon’, which threatens to blight crops and inhibit the growth of new life.

Hope Mirrlees’ place in the history of twentieth-century English poetry is only now being acknowledged, after her extraordinary poem was allowed to languish out of print for much of the last century. Now, critics such as Nina Enemark, Zoe Skoulding, and Tory Young are exploring how the poem fits into the modernist landscape of the immediate post-war period. It was first published in 1920 by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, who together had set up the Hogarth Press (which would also publish the British print run of The Waste Land in 1923). The original print run of 175 copies would never be reprinted. Paris is now back in print (as of 2011), thanks to Sandeep Parmar’s edition of Mirrlees’ Collected Poems, and the striking ways in which Mirrlees’ poem anticipates T. S. Eliot’s far more famous poem The Waste Land are now finally being recognised. I discuss Paris, alongside The Waste Land, Nancy Cunard’s Parallax, and other poems written in the wake of the end of the First World War, in my new book, The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem, available now from Bloomsbury.