The life and works of Hope Mirrlees
have been something of a passion and a hobby for me for quite some time. Mirrlees has two separate claims to fame -- the extraordinary fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist
and the poem that Julia Briggs called "modernism's lost masterpiece," Paris, a Poem
. Each is totally unlike anything else she ever wrote.
Mirrlees's fans break into two camps, admirers of the book and admirers of the poem, without a great deal of crossover. Part of the reason for this is that the poem is extremely daunting . . . On my first reading, I will confess, I could not make heads or tails of it.
Still, after many readings, I came to the conclusion that the academics were right. It's a major work. So I've written a set of annotations to help the reader encountering the poem for the first time. You can find a PDF download of of at Hope Mirrlees on the Web (click here
) and my complete annotations below.
After I posted this, I discovered that the annotations exceed Blogger's maximum. So I'll post the second half of this on Monday.
A Pilgrim's Guide to Paris
Of necessity, I make no claims of completeness or depth of insight for these notes. They are provided only for the reader’s aid in comprehension of a poem which at first glance can be dauntingly referential, to say nothing of bilingual. A more comprehensive set of annotations was provided by the late Julia Briggs in Gender in Modernism (Bonnie Kime Scott, ed.), to which the scholar and completist are referred.
A NOTRE DAME DE PARIS EN RECONNAISANCE DES GRACES ACCORDEES: Roughly, “To Our Lady of Paris, in gratitude for graces accorded.” Whether you read “Notre Dame de Paris” as being the titular church, the city proper, the Virgin, a particular individual, or some combination of them all depends entirely upon your interpretation of the poem.
1919: The original chapbook of Paris, a Poem was published by Hogarth Press in1920. Given the extreme care taken with the typography, including Virginia Woolf’s hand corrections of the typos, this is not likely to have been a mistake. Rather, it was an artistic decision and an indicator that the poem takes place at a specific point in time.
holophrase: Literally, a single word that expresses a whole phrase or combination of ideas. By extension, this poem is a holophrase of Paris itself. By further extension, it is a statement that the physical city of Paris is a poem. Hence, the title.
NORD-SUD: An underground railway connecting Montparnasse and Montmartre, and also the name of a Dadaist journal edited by Pierre Reverdy.
ZIG-ZAG: A brand of cigarette papers. This, Lion Noir (shoe polish), Cacao Blooker (cocoa), and the many Dubonnets (aperitif) are posters on the walls of the underground station.
Black-figured vases in Etruscan tombs: A particular interest of Mirrlees’ companion, Jane Ellen Harrison. Brian Attebery points out that they represent traces of the past beneath the surface of the present, a thematic concern of both Harrison and Mirrlees.
RUE DU BAC: A station stop near the rue de Beaune, where Mirrlees had rooms with Harrison. Solferino and Chambre des Desputes are also Metro stops.
Brekekekek coax coax: Part of the chorus from Aristophanes’ The Frogs, here meant to evoke not frog-song but the sound of wheels on rails.
we are passing under the Seine: The first of several passages across water or into the earth (here, both), indicating the beginning of a spiritual journey. The pilgrim’s unnamed companion is referred to directly only once more in the course of the poem.
The Scarlet Woman: A scarlet woman is, of course, a prostitute; but the identity of the Scarlet Woman in the Book of Revelations is the cause of much speculation. The conventional reading is that she represents corrupted religion, and many Protestants interpret her as referring to the Church of Rome. Since Mirrlees did not alter this line after her conversion to Catholicism, it is doubtful she had the latter interpretation in mind.
BYRRH: Founded in the 1860s by the brothers Simon and Pallade Violet in Thuir, France, Byrrh Vin Tonique (a blend of red wines and quinine, aged in oak) is one of France’s best-known apéritifs. It was heavily advertised on posters with a picture of a woman in red beating a drum and shouting its name in large capital letters.
St. John at Patmos: St. John supposedly wrote the Book of Revelations while in exile at Patmos, and the image of him drawing inspiration for his writing from the ruins of ancient Greece became a Renaissance commonplace, one with which many classics scholars, Mirrlees included, identified. This is an early indicator of the visionary nature of this poem.
Vous descendez Madame?: “Are you getting off here, madame?” Here, the poet is invited to descend into the underworld. The rest of the poem can be read as a contemporary enactment of the Eleusinian mysteries.
QUI SOUENT SE PESE BIEN SE CONNAIT/QUI BIEN SE CONNAIT BIEN SE PORTE: Roughly, “Who weighs oneself often, knows oneself well; who knows oneself well stays healthy.” The motto on scales found in the Metro, and a possible rationale for this voyage of self-discovery.
CONCORDE: A station stop and, I believe, the one nearest the Louvre. It fits well with Mirrlees’s thematic intentions that its name means “Peace.”
The Tuileries: A spacious formal garden surrounded by the Louvre to the east, the Seine to the South, the Place de la Concorde to the west and the Rue de Rivoli to the north. It was designed by landscape architect Andre Le Notre in 1664. This introduces the notion that the entire poem occurs during a trance, a vision. The spacing of the words here is meant to suggest the layout of the garden.
Little boys ... ride round and round on wooden horses: They are on a carrousel in the Tuileries. The merry-go-round recurs in Lud-in-the-Mist, where the Crabapple Blossoms are held captive on one in Fairyland. The most common reading of this line is that it is an evocation of the boys-turned-soldiers who were lost in the first World War. Which would make this image an evocation of the Medieval concept of the Great Wheel and a comment on the eternal recurrence of war.
Le départ pour Cythère: The Embarkation to Cythera (sometimes translated as The Pilgrimage to Cythera) is a painting by Watteau. Cythera is the Island of Love, for which pilgrims embark but never arrive. Again, the poet equates the crossing of water with the start of a voyage of discovery, this time explicitly evoking passionate love.
Pasteur: Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine against rabies.
Against the bite of Nymphs: Julia Briggs rather brilliantly writes, “The Nymphs’ soft mouths also suggest female genitals (‘nymphae,’ labia minora); their ‘bite’ may refer to venereal disease.”
Gambetta: A grandiose monument to this French political hero stood in front of the Louvre, with his statue, surrounded by allegorical figures, standing at the foot of an obelisk top which was a nude figure riding a winged lion, representing “the Genius of France.” The bronze elements, including the lion and the nude, were melted down by the Vichy government in 1941 and the remainder disassembled in 1954.
tutoiment: The use of the informal tu and toi rather than vous, usually as a form of endearment.
Mais c’est logique: But it is logical, it makes sense.
The Esprit Francais: The aforementioned Genius of France.
plastic: Not the material, but the adjective, meaning “alterable.” The plastic nature of life, under the ceaseless drip of event was an underlying theme for all of Mirrlees’s work.
the XIIIth Duchess of Alba: This was Goya’s Duchess of Alba.
Fathoms deep in haschich: This is Mirrlees’s second evocation of a dreamy, trancelike state in the poem, and it will be far from her last.
Pointing invisible Magi to a little white Maltese: The purpose of this blasphemous slight-of-hand, substituting a dog for the Christ child is not immediately clear.
Lysistrata: Eponymous heroine of the comedy by Aristophanes, who ends a war between Sparta and Athens by convincing the women of Athens to withhold sex until peace is achieved.
the Arc de Triomphe: This famous monument honors those who died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In the year following the poem’s composition a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWI was created beneath it.
Julius Caesar: When Caesar conquered Paris in 52 B.C., it was a fishing village on the Île de la Cité. Under the Romans the town spread to the left bank and grew considerably more important.
Salle Caillebotte: A room in the Musée de Luxembourg containing impressionist art.
the Etoile: A large intersection, the meeting point of twelve straight avenues (which is why it is called "Star Square") including the Champs-Élysées. At the center of the Place Etoile stands the Arc de Triomphe.
The Bois: The Bois de Boulogne is a park on the western edge of Paris. It was created under Napoléon III in the second part of the 19th century, and is a favorite destination of walkers, bicyclists and equestrians.
Tortoises with gem-encrusted carapace: A reference to Huysman’s A Rebours, where a tortoise expires under the weight of its jeweled decoration.
A Roman boy picking a thorn out of his foot: A bronze sculpture, and one of only a few to survive from antiquity. Very influential on Italian Renaissance artists, it was later confiscated by Napoleon. After his defeat, the Spinario, as it is called, was returned to the Capitoline Museums of Rome.
Madame Récamier: Madame Récamier presided over the most fashionable salon in Paris during the Napoleonic era. She was widely admired for her beauty, intelligence, and character. David’s portrait of her is perhaps the most famous, but there are many more.
the Chateaubriand de nos jours: The Chateaubriand of our times. François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, is considered the founder of Romanticism in French literature.
rue Saint-Honoré: An old street running parallel to the Seine, on which Chateaubriand lived.
Grand Seigneur: Great lord.
Brittany: The westernmost region of France. Auvergne is the mountainous region of central France.
Do do do miii: A cock-crow in musical notation. The rooster is a symbol of France.
Hesiod: Greek poet, best known for the Theogeny and a work of didactic advice for farmers, Works and Days.
Acheron: Literally, “river of woe,” one of five rivers in Hell. In Greek mythology, Charon ferries the dead across the Acheron, though the Romans had him plying his trade on the Styx.
Spirit of the Year: In mythology, the Goddess’s son and lover, whose life, death and resurrection are continually being enacted. This poem can be read as an enactment of the year-myth.
Pigeon vole: “Fly pigeon,” a French children’s game, similar to Simon Says.
AU BON MARCHE ACTUELLEMENT TOILETTES PRINTANIERES: At Bon Marché, Spring Outfits Available Now. Le Bon Marché is a department store located at 5 rue de Babylone.
jeunesse dorée: Literally, “gilded youth.” Fashionable and wealthy young people. Here, the trees’ buds.
mauve veils: During Passiontide, the latter two weeks of Lent, the statues and crucifixes in Catholic churches are covered with purple cloths. Mirrlees is here evoking Christ as another exemplar of the Spirit of the Year.
Chionodoxa: Not really the Princess in a Serbian fairy-tale, but “Glory of the Snow,” a flower prized by gardeners for its early blooming. Serbia is, it goes without saying, where World War One began.
The goldsmith’s chef d’oeuvre – lily of the valley: A chef d’oeuvre is, of course, a masterpiece. In a playful twist, Mirrlees has here figuratively gilded the lily. Note that the lily of the valley is in French Mois de Marie, “month of Mary,” thus continuing her thematic evocation of the Virgin.
Dog-roses: Rosa canina, a prickly wild rose native to Europe, the stylized rose of medieval European heraldry. In the language of flowers, “The pleasure is worth all of the pain.”
wanes: Variant spelling for wains, wagons. It’s worth noting that the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is also known as Charles’ Wain, after Charlemagne.
Ingres: According to Briggs, Ingres did not in fact paint Madame André. Edouard André and his wife Nélie Jacquemart bequeathed their mansion and art (including one of the finest collections of Italian art in France) to the Institut de France as a museum. The Museé Jacquemart André, billed as “the most sumptuous residence in Paris,” opened to the public in 1913.
The Pieta of Avignon, etc.: The Pieta is a medieval oil of Christ in the arms of his grieving mother, variously attributed, from Villeneuve-lès-Avignon; L’Olympe is Edouard Manet’s Olympia; Giles as Poirrot is a painting by Antoin Watteau; Mantegna’s Seven Deadly Sins is properly titled, Minerva Chases the Vices from the Garden of Virtue; and the Chardins are works of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, a painter renowned for his portraits of domestic life.
unetiolated: Not drawn and pale.
one by one from their subterranean sleep of five long years: The paintings mentioned were restored to the Louvre in 1919, after being stored underground to protect them during the Great War.
Like Duncan they slept well: A reference to the murdered king in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
President Wilson: Woodrow Wilson was in the city for the Paris Peace Conference, which established the terms for the defeated Central Powers.
diluvial: Of or related to a flood.
Gargantua: A giant, here representing Old Europe. Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel chronicled the satiric adventures of Gargantua and his son.
the cyclic Grand Guignol of Catholicism: This line was removed from the expurgated version of the poem reprinted in the Virginia Woolf Quarterly, the only reprint during Mirrlees’s lifetime. The performances at the Grand Guignol theatre are still famed for their sensationalistic representations of violence.
Shrieks, Lacerations, Bloody sweat: Ritual self-flagellation was a feature of Good Friday processions.
Le petit Jésus fait pipi: “Baby Jesus made peepee.” This line was one of several cut from the poem after Mirrlees’s conversion to Catholicism.
SPRING IS SOLOMON’S LITTLE SISTER; SHE HAS NO BREASTS: Almost certainly a reference to the Song of Solomon, 8:8: We have a little sister and she has no breasts. Earlier in that same book of the Bible, 2: 11-17, is the passage: For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
LAIT SUPERIEUR DE LA FERME DE RAMBOUILLET: Quality milk from the Rambouillet Farm. Julia Briggs points out that the Queen’s Dairy in Rambouillet was where Marie-Antoinette and her ladies played at being milkmaids and also that the Hôtel de Rambouillet in Paris, the first great French literary salon, featured in Mirrlees’s novel Madeleine.
ICI ON CONSULTE LE BOTTIN: “Consult Phone Directory Here.”
CHARCUTERIE: A charcuterie lies somewhere between a butcher shop and a delicatessen. “Comestibles de Ire Choix” translates as Best Quality Cold Cuts
APERITIFS ALIMENTS DIABETIQUES: Aperitifs (and) Food for Diabetics.
DEUIL EN 24 HEURES: Mourning in 24 Hours – clothes dyed black in 24 hours. A frequent necessity for those who had recently lost loved ones.
Messieursetdames: Gentlemenandladies. Later in the poem it is established that this is the plea of women collecting money for victims of the war.
Little temples of Mercury: A temple to Mercury once stood in Montmartre at the highest point of the city, where the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (completed in 1914, but formally dedicated in 1919) now sits. It seems likely Mirrlees is using the term as slang, however, for something else. Briggs suggests either the kiosks or the public pissoirs.
templum: Latin for a holy space.
A golden drop of Harpagon’s blood: Harpagon was the title character of Moliere’s play, The Miser. Hence, a golden drop of his blood would metaphorically be a coin, money.
Great bunches of lilac among siphons, vermouth, Bocks, tobacco: The color of Lent is omnipresent, among the seltzer, drinks, and smokes of the bars.
NE FERMEZ PAS LA PORTE S.V.P.LE PRIMUS S’EN CHARGERA: Please don’t close the door, the Primus [an air device] will take care of it.
ouvriers: Workmen, craftsmen, or mechanics.
La journée de huit heures: The eight-hour day, a favored cause of labor unions.
Landru: Between 1915 and 1919, the infamous Henri Landru profited greatly by marrying and then murdering ten separate women he met by advertising for a wife in the newspapers. He disposed of their remains by incinerating them in his kitchen oven. For his crimes, he was guillotined on February 25, 1922.
the learned seal: The Nouveau Cirque was a circus specializing in lavish water pantomimes. The tireless Julia Briggs managed to track down a program dated May 2, 1919 and determined that the learned seal was named Bichette and her trainer was Capitaine Juge.
Cottin: Six weeks before the poem takes place, an anarchist named Louis Emile Cottin attempted to assassinate Georges Clemenceau, the French president and chairman of the Peace Conference.
Bossuet: Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) was a celebrated bishop, a prolific writer, and a pulpit orator who was, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “greater than Chrysostom and greater than Augustine; the only man whose name can he compared in eloquence with those of Cicero and of Demosthenes.” He was, moreover, closely associated with Jansenism, a Catholic heresy (though Bossuet is not considered a heretic) of particular interest to Mirrlees at that time.
méticuleux, belligerents, hebdomadaire, immonde: Meticulous, aggressive, weekly, foul. Snippets, apparently, from newspaper headlines, possibly about the Landru case.
The Roman Legions: Julius Caesar famously came, saw, conquered, and, like the more recent Germans, his occupying forces eventually departed.
Père Lachaise: A cemetery, opened in 1804, on land once belonging to Louis XIV’s confessor, Father Francois de La Chaise d’Aix, known as “Le Père de La Chaise.” Molière, La Fontaine, Abélard, and Héloïse were reburied there, but it is best known today for containing Jim Morrison’s grave.
the Letter H: In French, pronounced ash.
Rousseau: Henri Rousseau, at that time a newly popular artist. Since he worked for the Paris Customs Office, he was often called Le Douanier, the Customs Official.
The unities are smashed/The stage is thick with corpses: Here the Grand Guignol theatre is evoked to describe the horrors of World War One.
gaillards: Big fellows.
eidola: Images, spirits, ghosts. Also a reference to the common practice of placing a photograph of the dead in a frame on the gravestone.
MORT AU CHAMP D’HONNEUR: Died on the Field of Honor, killed in action.
Le pauvre grand!: “The poor man!” The use of grand, like galliard, suggests a big man.
petits bourgeoises: Lower middle class women, here collecting money for war victims.
the ruined province of Picardie: Picardie lies in northern France and was the location of the Battle of the Somme, which resulted in over one million casualties.
the Marne: The Battle of the Marne resulted in half a million dead or wounded, and stopped the German push for Paris, after which both sides settled in for four years of trench warfare.
the Grand Boulevards: A favorite locale for strolling. From here to partway through page 13 is a description of the Grands Boulevards.