In Hope Mirrlees’ poem, Paris, a feminine gaze is cast upon Paris just as France is emerging from a world enveloped by the despair and death resultant from WWI and is transitioning into the Roaring Twenties, a period characterized by economic vitality, and previously unparalleled consumption. The poem captures this moment of uncertainty, and through the art of writing, Mirrlees searches for meaning in the actions of the people, events and objects she observes in the city of Paris.
“And there are pretty things-
Children hung with amulets
Playing at pigeon vole,
And jolly saints…”
is abruptly followed by the following:
The first stanza references children wearing amulets that are reincarnated soldiers as they play pigeon vole, a game which evokes images of pigeons carrying military information in WWI. The red and blue colors described are the colors on the French flag and the blue smocks resemble the blue uniforms worn by French soldiers. The second stanza is an advertisement for Le Bon Marche. The proximity of these stanzas and the boldness of the second stanza visually emphasize Mirrlees’ observations regarding the abrupt change from the collective thoughts of a society concerned with a war to one overwhelmed with thoughts of consumption.
Mirrlees describes the process in which soldiers of war become commodities of consumption when she describes seeing “Poilus (soldiers from WWI) in wedgewood blue with bundles Terre De Sienne camping round the grey sphinx of the Tuileries. They look as if a war artist were making a sketch of them in chalks, to be ‘edited’ in the Rue Des Pyramides (a street where souvenirs are sold) at 10 francs a copy.” Through commemorization and consequent aestheticization of these soldiers are exploited to generate profit. Mirrlees is criticizing the social collision war and death symbolism with topics of less significance such as commercialization.
Mirrlees’ reference to Marne (278), the site of the worst battle for France during WWI, is indicative of the overwhelming sense of melancholy and grief prevalent throughout the poem. In line 286, Mirrlees writes, “Whatever happens, someday it will look beautiful.” She is referencing the possibility of taking, even an occurrence as horrendous as war, and making it appear desirable for the sake of commercialism. Pieces such as Manet’s Messacres des Jours de Juin, David’s Prise de la Bastille, and Poussin’s Fronde capture extremely significant moments in French history but show that artistic aestheticism cannot exist because art which “hangs in a quiet gallery” has been commercialized in that it serves a purpose socially or fiscally.
Mirrlees comments further on the post-war emergence of a consumption oriented culture when she notes the relationship between the Catholic religious practice of communion and the “Waxen Pandoras” (wax mannequins displayed in windows of les Galéries Lafayette, le Bon Marché, and la Samaritaine). Mirrlees uses the phrase “Hold holy bait (281)” to describe the practice of the Grand Magasins in fabricating an association between the tradition of wearing a white gown to one’s first communion and the merchandise in their stores. Mirrlees sees not just people shopping, she observes the application of a marketing strategy that utilizes religion to target young girls and their mothers for financial gain, and makes apparent its opportunistic nature.
Why does Mirrlees continuously emphasize the stark contrast between the emotions and subjects associated with war (fear of death, grief and mourning, loss of faith) and the inner affliction of wanting associated with consumerism? Most likely, because she is constantly inundated with advertisements and displays featuring merchandise while riding the metro or walking past shop windows. Mirrlees includes examples of slogans/by lines in her poem Paris. One for a clothing altering company reads, “Deuil en 24 heures” (276), which literally means “mourning in 24 hours” (292). This play on word association is called “Catacachresis: the application of a term it does not properly denote”. In Julia Briggs notes on the poem, she references MacMillin, who states, “almost every other woman wore mourning” (292). She uses this blatant contrast between advertising (associated with consumerism) and mourning (associated with war) to encapsulate her observations of the current city by which she is surrounded.
Paris serves as an artistic mechanism through which Mirrlees considers the transition period between two starkly different points in French history. Through observations of the city, she attempts to work through the contrast of this dichotomy between social attitudes. Does she come to any conclusions regarding this societal state? From Mirrlees’ perspective what are the implications of this dichotomous transition and how do they influence her from an artistic standpoint?