Guest review: Dixon On Parmar's Mirrlees

Oliver Dixon reviews
Hope Mirrlees: Collected Poems
edited by Sandeep Parmar

T.S. Eliot’s assertion, in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', that genuinely new works of art force us to readjust our sense of the whole tradition that lies behind them, so that “the past (is) altered by the present as much as the present is altered by the past”, is equally true of genuinely innovative editions of non-contemporary poets, jostling our preconceptions about a period or movement and obliging us both to reassess what we assumed we knew of literary history and to question the criteria by which that history has been formulated.  Peter Robinson’s illuminating Complete Poetry and Translations of Bernard Spencer (Bloodaxe) from early last year was one such edition, reshuffling our awareness of mid-century English poetry ( all too often dominated by what might be termed the Auden supremacy) by elevating a figure whom Edward Lucie-Smith once described as “the type of the excellent minor poet” to definite major status.

Sandeep Parmar’s enthralling Hope Mirrlees: Collected Poems(Carcanet) forces a similar re-evaluation of in fact several different areas of critical interest. Mirrlees’ long experimental poem Paris (1920) is perhaps the nearest any English poet has come to negotiating the vortex of continental High Modernism, yet prior to this edition the text has been all but unknown despite its startling, kaleidoscopic brilliance and its presaging of both The Waste Land and Mrs Dalloway. It also jolts us into a reappraisal of the role of female authors in the inception of Modernist advances, contra the well-established tradition of lauding Joyce, Eliot and Pound as heroic, exiled pioneers. Paris may be located within a context of other ‘vers libre’ poets like HD and Mina Loy (on whom Parmar has also written), the non-linear, ‘stream-of-consciousness’ prose of Dorothy Richardson,  Katherine Mansfield and Gertrude Stein and the intellectual endorsement of Mirrlees’ friends Jane Harrison and Virginia Woolf, who with her husband Leonard first published the poem under their Hogarth Press imprint.

The fact that, after Paris, Mirrlees didn’t publish another full-length book of poetry until 1976 - just two years before her death and  written in a far more traditional, formal style - might be seen to point towards the seemingly anomalous nature of her Modernist experiment but equally begs questions about the hostile reception its publication was met with and the poem’s subsequent burial from any sort of readerly access – ironic, when only two years later The Waste Land (also published by Hogarth) found acclaim from within the literary establishment Eliot was already a part of.

Such questions, among others, are amply addressed in Parmar’s lengthy and insightful Introduction. Careful to locate Paris “within the context of (Mirrlees’) wider oeuvre, her life, and her networks of influence”, Parmar examines the biographical backdrop to the poem, detailing her progression from Classics undergraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge, to sometime member of the Bloomsbury set. Indeed, prior to this edition, more readers will be familiar with Mirrlees’ name from footnotes to the Diaries or Letters of Virginia Woolf than as a writer and one wonders if the association with Bloomsbury (often slighted for what has been seen as its dilettantism and snobbery) might be another factor in Mirrlees’ later critical neglect.

It was at Newnham that Mirrlees first met the anthropologist and “first woman intellectual” Jane Harrison, who was originally one of her tutors but who rapidly became the key influence in her development.  Parmar is tactfully circumspect about addressing the nature of their relationship, although by revealing the private codes the couple used when talking about each other (eg. Elder and Younger Wife, both betrothed to a totemistic Bear-figure) she leaves us in little doubt that there was what Virginia Woolf called a “Sapphic” element to their long-standing co-habitation. But equally it was an intensely intellectual partnership, with the two women learning Russian, attending academic conferences and travelling throughout Europe together.

Harrison’s ideas about the primacy of ritual as a bridge between Art and Religion, derived from her study of Ancient Greek culture, powerfully inform the structure and movement of Mirrlees’ long poem from the use of Harrison’s anthropological term “holophrase” in the opening line onwards.  Paris can be read as an improvisatory striving to discover an underlying ritual within the flux of quotidian urban life: “I want a holophrase” (defined by Parmar as “a primitive linguistic structure that expresses a complex concept in a single word or short phrase”, a description which tellingly resonates with Pound’s characterising of “ the image” as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”) signals an attempt to encapsulate the teeming diversity of a single Paris day into a patterning of imagistic and linguistic flotsam inclusive enough to dismantle poetic hierarchies and find as much value in adverts, street-talk and signs as in the official high culture of the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe.

As such, Paris is both marvellously attuned to the cross-currents of pre-1920s Modernist movements – its collage of disparate perspectives and registers seeming to point towards the Cubist principles of Braque and Picasso, its enthusiastic embrace of urban multiplicity holding parallels with Futurism and Vorticism – and also astonishingly prescient of later open-form poetries, particularly the kinds of “process-poems” which attempt to plot unstable ontologies across both a timed duration and the typographic space of the page, from the psychogeographic London-forays of Iain Sinclair right up to the disjunctive Language poetry of Armantrout, Silliman and Howe. Sandeep Parmar and Carcanet Books can only be congratulated for making widely available for the first time this seminal, groundbreaking poem, a suddenly-recovered piece in the Modernist jigsaw.

Based on her research into the Mirlees archive, Parmar does a good job of tracing some of the other, less obvious intertexts for Paris, such as two French poets Hope was acquainted with personally – Madame Duclaux (also known as Mary Robinson) and Anna de Noailles – both salonnieres and interesting re-interpreters of the flaneuse-figure in their poems. Parmar also cites Cocteau and Mayakovsky as plausible influences. Her own persuasive reading of the poem is as an assertion of the individual, female voice – “the breaking down of identity and individual experience in favour of the life of the city that threatens to destroy the ‘I’” – attempting to find itself within the conflicting onrush of modern Paris (both Classical and demotic, filled with symbols of Religion and Art but also the ‘dreck’ of the contemporary) and ultimately – paradoxically - discovering that “Paris liberates the speaker from individual life and experience...The self returns to its private, secret tongue.” (Julia Briggs’ Notes at the end of this edition are also invaluable signposts for elucidating Paris.)

After participating in the exhilarating dérive of Paris, it feels like quite a jump to turn the page onto Hope Mirrlees’ 1976 collection Moods and Tensions, so different in form, tone and subject-matter as to seem written by another poet. While it might be futile to entertain the “If only...” hypothesis of wondering what kind of work Mirrlees might have produced had she built on the style of Paris, there must surely be a sense of loss involved in considering that such an exciting and momentous poetic masterpiece – moreover, by a female English poet – remains a one-off, a youthful tour de force by a writer who later turned to novels, biographies and academic essays, as well as these technically-conservative late poems.

However, Parmar is alert to this kind of denigrating of Paris as a mere flash-in-the-pan period-piece and argues for meaningful links between the early poem, the later ones and the prose-works. She posits that the major turning-point of Mirrlees’ life was the death of Jane Harrison in 1928 and her subsequent conversion to Catholicism, entailing a long-term repudiation of the life she had previously lead, including perhaps the intellectual daring and iconoclasm that had engendered Paris. The late, overtly academic poems – rhymed and metered in most cases, and heavily reliant on literary and Classical allusions – often pivot on the opposition between the resolved stasis of Christian faith (associated with cultural tradition and book-learning) and the enticingly sensuous but less than worthy (or at times “pagan”) appeal of love and desire: an opposition also apparent in a Victorian poet Mirrlees sometimes here resembles, Christina Rossetti. There is a significant passage in ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’- a poem which begins “I have no wish to eat forbidden fruit” – where the strategy of Classical reference seems to encode more worldly sexual temptations :

        “I can watch the droves of little singing maids

         (They are so close, just out of reach!)

         Turning Aeolian lyres upon the Lesbian beach”

Old-fashioned and generic as these poems undoubtedly are, there are enough well-crafted, resonant lines (“Unharrassed by the voracious dead”, for example, reminds me of early Geoffrey Hill) to make their wistfully ironical tone of reminiscence work effectively. 

 Equally, the essays which Parmar places at the end of the book often find Mirrlees both brooding over the past and postulating why she is so drawn to do so – in ‘The Religion of Women’ she concludes that, more than men, “women are the slaves of Time” through being more physically attuned to seasonal cycles. Yet her memories are not necessarily regretful ones: ‘An Earthly Paradise’ is a lively, witty recounting of part of her time in Paris with Jane Harrison and affords a glimpse into the colourful swirl of new experience which fed into Paris the poem. In ‘Listening In to The Past’, again a ludic piece rather than a plaintive one, Mirrlees confesses to being “haunted by the Past” and explores how history can be made to live again through imagination. Her final, brilliant image for this process, of a kind of “ kaleidoscope of sounds” containing one’s own “collection of scraps”, brings us back to the pattern-making ritual of Paris where history and the here-and-now are so strikingly conjoined.

Oliver Dixon is a poet and writer based in London whose poems and reviews have appeared in PN Review, the London Magazine, the Wolf, Frogmore Papers, Long Poem Magazine, Blackbox Manifold, the BowWowShop (forthcoming) and other places. His debut volume is forthcoming from Penned in the Margins. He runs the literary blog Ictus.


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