Born in 1887, Mirrlees was a poet, novelist, and translator who is best known for her fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), and an influential modernist poem, “Paris” (1920). After graduating from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1913, Mirrlees came to Paris where she eventually settled and was joined by her former tutor and great friend, Jane Ellen Harrison, well-known as one of the first women academicians and someone whose books on the function of ritual I've long treasured.
In the 1920s, Mirrlees was part of the Bloomsbury group, friends with Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, Roger Fry, Mary MacCarthy, and Lady Ottoline Morrell. In Paris she became friends with Gertrude Stein, Bertrand Russell, and André Gide.
“Paris” chronicles a day's trek through that city, starting in the underground, wandering the streets, and finishing up at dawn in her room on the hotel's top floor. At the start, this experimental poem puts us on the metro with Mirrlees. We see the ads; we hear the clacking of the wheels. As writers we are told to select our details carefully to support the story. Mirrlees does this brilliantly, even with the ads deep in the metro tunnels:
I recognised the name of the cigarette paper and love the way it foreshadows her trek through Paris. I didn't know the other two products, but “noir” and “cacao” both call up the idea of darkness, not just the darkness of the underground tunnel, but the metaphysical darkness to be explored.
We come up to the Place Concorde, famous as the site where the guillotine did its grisly work but also as the setting for Pound's poem, “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;?
petals on a wet, black bough.
As she walks the streets, Mirrlees crafts her impressions and meditations into a vivid portrait of the city. The sights and sounds coalesce the way the planes of a Cubist painting merge into movement. We get moments out of history: a flâneur's cape, a Roman boy, Saint-Honoré and the Duchess of Alba. We get glimpses of other parts of France in references to people and architecture.
An Auvergnat, all the mountains of Auvergne in
every chestnut he sells . . .
Paris is a huge home-sick peasant,
He carries a thousand villages in his heart.
Further study pays off, though. I appreciated the Notes by Julia Briggs included in this edition which helped me to grasp some of the more esoteric references and jokes. For example, the “Brekekekek coax coax” that perfectly mimics the rattling of the carriage wheels is also a quote from the chorus of the frogs in Aristophanes' play of the same name, when they are in the underworld.
Her fragmentary, stream of consciousness style was new to British poetry when Hogarth Press published “Paris”. She acknowledged the influence of Jean Cocteau's poem “Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance”, and her poem became a bridge between French experimental poets and British writers. Her erudite references and use of footnotes are believed to have influenced her close friend, T.S. Eliot, in “The Wasteland” which he began the following year. He was a long-time friend of her wealthy family and lived with them during WWII; he wrote “Four Quartets” at their home. It's hard to believe her theme of a day-long stroll through a city didn't influence Joyce's Ulysses which was published in 1922.
After “Paris”, though, she did not publish poetry again until the 1960s. Although she continued her intellectual life in Paris and later Capetown, South Africa, she was reclusive, retaining only a reduced circle of friends. In the 1960s she began publishing poetry again, but instead of continuing her experimental work, her later poems are formal. I enjoyed them as well, though some seem more successful to me than others. And she certainly did not lose her sense of humor, as evidenced by this sweet poem:
A Doggerel Epitaph for My Little Dog, Sally
Here lies the dust of my small peke.
She had no need to learn to speak,
For tongues will sometimes tell you lies,
But never will a doggy's eyes.
She had no need of printed book,
For she could read my every look.
She owned but little: harness, ball,
Her basket and my heart, that's all.
And if I hear in death's dark valley
A distant bark, I'll know it's Sally.
In the intervening decades, she worked on a biography of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, one volume of which was published in 1963. I had never heard of this 17th century Member of Parliament, but he is famous for amassing what is known as the Cotton Library, a huge collection of ancient manuscripts. Mirrlees passed away in 1978.
I recommend “Paris”, this rediscovered modernist masterpiece. Take your time with it.