In 1920, Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem catapulted its author onto the literary scene. Published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and heralded by the former as ‘a very obscure, indecent, and brilliant poem’, Paris takes the postwar French capital as its setting, making reference to the peace conference held in the city in 1919. Long, fragmentary and allusive, the poem is written as if in a wandering dream state, recording deaths and burials, the mourning postwar metropolis, fleeting conversations, nymphs with soft mouths, the motions of the Seine. It plays on classical myth, is multilingual and typographically innovative, and ends with explanatory notes written by the author herself. Sound familiar? If these qualities call to mind T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, it is worth noting that Mirrlees’s poem predates it by two years, and while there is no conclusive evidence that Eliot read Paris, it is unlikely – as a Hogarth Press author whose Poems were printed by the Woolfs in 1919 – that Eliot was unaware of its existence. Mirrlees, who later became friends with Eliot, refused to speculate on his knowledge of the poem, but whatever Eliot’s familiarity with Paris, this highly inventive poem is one that anticipated later literary experiments, as well as embracing the contemporary Parisian avant-garde.
One of the most compelling aspects of Paris is its wordplay. The reader is made dizzy by multilingual puns, the speaker sauntering through language in much the same manner that she weaves through the city. Midway through the poem we get the