Hope Mirrlees was born on 8 April 1887 in Kent. She studied classics at Cambridge and was skilled in language studies, as she “developed her knowledge of French, Latin, and classical Greek; further languages she would later learn included Spanish, Arabic, Persian, and Icelandic” (MAPP). She was friends with Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, and also “moved in modernist circles, with close connections to Bloomsbury and to the Parisian avant-garde and Russian expatriate communities” (Connor).
There was a time in which Eliot temporarily lived with Mirrlees and her mother, “while he wrote the third and fourth sections of his ambitious Four Quartets: Dry Salvages and Little Gidding” (MAPP). In spite of her famous friends, Mirrlees’ work remains canonically and (somewhat) contemporarily lost. Along with her long, Modernist poem Paris, she wrote three novels: Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists, The Counterplot, and Lud-in-the-Mist. She is more known for her 1926 novel, Lud-in-the-Mist, but her passing, at the age of 91, wasn’t even marked by an obituary.
However, Bonnie Kime Scott writes that Paris, published in 1919, is “modernism’s lost masterpiece” (Scott). Scott goes on to question why Paris hasn’t been literarily excavated. Scott faults Paris’ limited printing, capped at 175 by Woolf’s the Hogarth Press, as impacting the poem’s influence during its time. The British Library’s website states that
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. (British Library)
Compared to The Waste Land, Paris contains an amalgamation of music, advertisements, conversation in French, the names of statues and other Parisian sights and shops. Aside from the poem’s substance, its structure is characteristically Modernist; some lines are centered, while some words are capitalized, exaggeratedly spaced apart, and vertically placed. Though the first word of the poem is “I,” who or what the speaker is remains unclear. The poem begins, “I want a holophrase,” implying that both the word and city of Paris equally embody a multitude of meaning and significance. The last two lines on this first page of the poem hold “I,” too: “I can’t / I must go slowly” as if the speaker conceptualizes that the city, in its wholeness, must be visually and psychologically imbibed.
Aside from the speaker, not only are The Tuileries in “a trance / because the painters have / stared at them so long,” but there is a ghostly undertone to the poem, as if the city itself is haunted by the ghosts from Père Lachaise (the biggest cemetery in Paris). The supernatural tone continues as Parisian landmarks are stripped of their solidity: “the Louvre is melting into mist” and “the Eiffel Tower is two-dimensional.” The discombobulation of the poem’s structure mirrors the disorder of the city itself. Rather than meticulously detail each sight, Mirrlees simply notes the weather — “rain” — or the time of day — “DAWN.” The poem closes with the line, in all capital letters, “JE VOUS SALUE PARIS PLEIN DE GRACE.” The final phrase roughly translates to: “I greet/salute you, Paris, full of grace.” Thus, the holophrase of “Paris” is just a label for all it contains.
British Library: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/paris-by-hope-mirrlees
Connor, John T. “Hope Mirrlees and the Archive of Modernism.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 37, no. 2, 2014, pp. 177–182.
Scott, Bonnie Kime. Gender in Modernism: New Geographies, Complex Intersections. University of Illinois Press, 2007.
*The University of Pennsylvania has digitized the original 1919 version of Paris: http://hopemirrlees.com/texts/Paris_Hope_Mirrlees_1920.pdf