“I want a holophrase.”
So begins “Paris: A Poem,” written by Hope Mirrlees and published by the Hogarth Press, run by Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, in 1919. It's a provoking way to start a poem. I want a holophrase. (For those who don’t know, a holophrase is a single word which expresses a complex idea.)
It’s an opening line that speaks directly to what readership looks for in a poem. Meaningful simplicity. Words married to grand ideas in a comfortable, comprehensible union.
In “Paris: A Poem,” Hope Mirrlees, the minor and nearly forgotten British poet who lived from 1887-1978, acts as officiator between Francophilia and the psychology of being a flâneur. Meaning, someone who takes up walking not as a hobby but as a lifestyle choice. Much like being a writer/poet in the Bloomsbury set that dominated English culture a century ago, you either committed to it as an identity, completely, or you didn’t. Mirrlees made it her business to be, and express, both life as a flâneur and an author.
Like Lost Generation authors’ James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, other key texts of the literary modernist movement, the aim of “Paris: A Poem” is to capture the essence of a single day in a very specific place and time period. Joyce reconstructed pre-war Dublin with longing nostalgia from afar. Virginia practically filmed her beloved London using long, flowing sentences that ran continuously like film reels. Mirrlees takes the readers on a bizarre, gloom-tinged tour of interwar Paris that in every way rejects the conventions of a typical travel guide.
The narrator does not aim to tell the readers about Paris, but rather have them experience Paris, in the year 1919, on a day where life is casually chaotic in the way only a major city can be. “Paris: A Poem” interweaves advertisements, shouting and conversations in French, regular human interactions, and the narrator’s own casual observations in the dizzying tornado of what it is to be an overwhelmed wanderer, with perhaps too much free time and no particular destination to go to. They are out, and everything outside is internalized.
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The poem is not straightforward in its style. It darts around, bounces from idea to idea to event to event, mimicking the thought process and most people’s short attention spans. It is just like how the simple act of walking down a crowded street is not straightforward. All at once, the walker consumes sounds and sights, polluted air, and posters always trying to sell something that will give the consumer a hasty, temporary jolt of pleasure. To walk is to live. We process emotions, question our place in this harrowing existence, and wonder where the other people are going and what they’re thinking of. That is exactly what Mirrlees recreates in her poem, and it is profoundly modernist. It challenges the conventional, rigid stanza poetry of the Victorians in that it has few rhymes and no set pattern or structure. In a way, it resembles Paris itself. Resilient in its build, but free and ruthless in its spirit.
That the narrator belongs to Paris is unquestionable. Mirrlees, being a writer closely associated with early twentieth-century bohemianism, shared the community’s appreciation for the city as a setting for freedom of expression and experimentation. Yet she pairs this love with a melancholy tone. The narrator does not seem overly impressed with much of what they absorb during their walk, and yet they do not stop walking, and they don’t consider leaving the city. Paris is their home, and they will walk through it regardless of the grime, everyday tediousness, and leftover grief from the war.
They are also highly sensitive to Paris’s landmarks, architecture, statues, and artwork, exploring their role as the sturdy backdrop for an extraordinary present, a time where things are happening. They are also always mindful of the bloody history of this setting. Paris has just freshly emerged from war but still bears the scars of older traumas and revolutions. Paris in the post-War I era was very much a city populated by both the dead and the alive. This one except from the poem is especially haunting. The narrator’s constant awareness of how much death there has been in Paris is something of a curse.
“The ghost of Pierre Lachaise,
Is walking the streets;
He is draped in a black curtain embroidered with the
He is hung with paper wreaths,
He is beautiful and horrible and the close friend of
Rousseau, the official of the Douane.
The unities are smashed,
The stage is thick with corpses…” (Mirrlees, pg. 11)
This work is often compared with T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in terms of content and style, but the well-versed reader can also see the influence of Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrams, or shape poetry. Words and phrases in “Paris: A Poem” are arranged to resemble streets, people spaced out, buildings, the river Seine, and rain dripping downwards. There is a short score of music included as well, as an absurd break in the text meant to remind the readers that Paris is never quiet; every moment of reflection has a soundtrack to accompany it.
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Advertisements are in all-caps as a way to express how loud and obnoxious the narrator thinks they are. They would like the city to be a bit purer and more untarnished, but this is an impossible hope. When they pause to regard the city as a whole, there is a sense of reluctant acceptance of its many imperfections.
“From the top of an old Hotel.
I gaze down the narrow rue de Beaune.
Hawkers chant their wares liturgically;
Hatless women in black shawls
Carry long loaves—Triptolemos in swaddling clothes:
Workmen in pale blue:
Barrows of vegetables:
They come and go.
They are very small.” (Mirrlees, pg. 16).
Readers of the poem should have their French-to-English dictionary nearby, ready to do translations of the French portions of the poem if they are not already familiar with the language. They should also approach the poem with a level of patience and open-mindedness. It’s a strange poem. Baffling, assertive, and astute. One understands that this poem was something Mirrlees wrote as a therapeutic exercise rather than for commercial gain.
And the Hogarth Press didn’t seem too interested in selling it—only 175 copies were printed. Though attempts were made to revive it, the poem never took root in canon, supplanted by more monumental works by better-known authors. It is now available online for anyone wishing to give this obscure masterpiece a chance. This writer would suggest talking a walk afterwards, to ponder and involve yourself into what Mirrlees was trying to achieve.
Featured photo: Tobias Stonjeck / Unsplash