Hope Mirrlees’s “Paris”

Ellen Frankman

Experimental in its structure and driven by movement, Hope Mirrlees’s poem “Paris” is not only an expression of early twentieth century modernism, but also one of the literary avant-garde.  The poem’s deliberately crafted form is what one might find to be the exact opposite of the surrealist’s pursuit of  “automatic writing,” though Mirrlees simultaneously employs all of the facets of modernist writing, a pursuit of play, imagination, and the unitary subject, which lend themselves so naturally to the surrealist style.   “Paris” appears to delve much deeper into the avant-garde however, exploring the conception of the object and the struggle between narrative and subject-as-scenario.
Composed of 445 lines of various lengths, directions, and intents, Mirrlees’s “Paris” appears outwardly to be a poem seeking visual communication and expression, and attempt to evoke literary depth upon the superficial aestheticism of form.  The poem follows a protagonist’s wanderings throughout the time span of a day as she observes and absorbs the city of Paris.  While the subject’s observations in their moment in time may be considered circumstantial or devoid of real intent, Mirrlees transforms the removed physicality of the protagonist by recording her sightings into deliberate forms rife with meaning.  The children aboard the carousel whose hands are “sticky with play” are understood by Julia Briggs as soldiers of World War I, their hands embedded deep in the mud of the trenches [23-26].  It is significant to note that at this moment of the poem Mirrlees returns to a standard prosaic form and the line takes on the character of a narrative; the image of the children spinning round and round is composited onto that of their counterparts, of the likely boyish soldiers fighting “till their heads turn,” existing only in the narrative of the war.
Furthermore, the poem’s structure serves as its primary determiner of movement, overshadowing the movement of the protagonist throughout the city and therefore limiting her role as subject.  As noted by Briggs, Mirrlees’s description of the Tuileries is spaced according to the garden’s own carefully planned design.  The poem’s pace also lessens as a visual shift occurs from a vertical to horizontal reading direction. Apart from the poem’s structure lending depth and movement, it also reflects the intention of the artist/writer in her possible pursuit of the avant-garde.  While the rejection of a standard or traditional form is in itself a function of the avant-garde, Mirrlees also pushes this further by exploiting the precisely developed layout of the Tuileries gardens to her own advantage.  The gardens exist as a product of the Tuileries Palace, a symbol of conformity, destroyed during in the late 19th century during the suppression of the Paris commune.  The author at once replicates and distorts the form so that the gardens the protagonist observes and describes serve to reconstruct the order sought by government and therefore direct her poem according to her authorial intent.
The avant-garde is further reflected in the role of the object in “Paris.”  Though the moving image of the protagonist might be considered the subject of the poem, the wanderer is instead overtaken by the objects she observes, and the poem derives its coherence from its composition of objects as characters.  The poem opens with and is pervaded by specific “things,” including “Lion Noir” shoe polish, “zig-zag” cigarette paper, and “Cacao Blooker” Dutch drinking chocolate.  Though the items listed in Mirrlees’s “Paris” fail to hold quite enough significance to be recognized as the object-as-fetish, they indeed are imbibed with deeper meaning (as mentioned by Briggs who remarks upon the themes of negritude and empire inherent in the things viewed by the protagonist).  There is also frequent mention of the “plastic,” an adjective serving as a description of “secrets,” and later alongside the “scentless lyons’ roses” and the “calamitous moments of history” frozen and made “motionless and plastic” by art [40-42, 110-113, and 286-289].  Here the notion of the plastic is understood in its relation to the avant-garde for the “otherness” it reflects.  If the object existed on a continuum in the realm of art it might read as “object as plastic as movement as art.”  As evidence by the above example, the object can also serve as an impetus to movement or a moment of stillness.  In any case, the object obtains the role of subject, for at its moment of existence within the context of the poem it drives the narrative’s pace, direction, and meaning.  As in avant-garde film, an object observed from a removed or altered perspective derives new life and takes on new form.
In this way Mirrlees’s “Paris,” a poem-as-object, also takes on new meaning by way of the adaptation of an alternative or experimental form.  Visual poetry in itself becomes an alternative means of multiple realms expression and the author’s intentions are at once distorted and clarified by the lens through which she views and expresses her words.

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