“Obscure, Indecent, and Brilliant.”   Virginia Woolf, Hope Mirrlees and Modernism’s Lost Masterpiece

If modernism was the language that lit up the early twentieth century, it seems to be that Hope Mirrlees, aged twenty-six, stepped into that light and flipped a switch of her own.

So wrote Deborah Levy, novelist playwright and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, in her foreword to Faber & Faber’s new edition of Hope Mirrlees (1887-1978) modernist poem ‘Paris’, originally published in 1919 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press  (you can see the First Edition on the British Library website here).

The quote I have used in the heading about obscure and indecent, is Woolf’s own.   Mirrlees’ poem was written to reflect a single night wandering the streets of Paris, a city savaged by the first world war  – of which the work contains constant reminders.

The unities are smashed
The stage is thick with corpses

Mirrlees poem pre-dates Eliot’s book length modernist poem The Waste Land by two years.   ‘…so many / I had not thought death had undone so many’,  Eliot wrote about the war dead.     Yet where he saw no reason for hope,  Mirrlees finds much to hope for.  This is not a poem that makes you despair – far from it.  It is celebratory.  And I wish I’d found it years ago.

The wicked April moon.
The silence of la grève
The Louvre is melting into mist
It will soon be transparent and
Through it will glimmer the mysterious island
Gardens of the Place du Carrousel.

The Seine, old egotist, meanders imperturbably towards the sea.

Described as “… experimental and avant-garde…” the poem plays with typography and layout, uses vertical text, musical notation,  concrete (shaped) poetry and other effects to achieve its aims.  And what are those aims? Cinematic I would say.  Upbeat definitely. Hopeful.  Beautiful.  In terms of producing the work itself, It’s worth remembering that it was not a straightforward matter for a woman to walk round Paris at night on her own in 1919 – to do so would mean immediately mean being labelled as a prostitute.     Only 175 copies  of the Hogarth Press edition were ever produced – apparently the bindings were hand sewn by Virginia Woolf herself –    so if you have a copy hang on to it because it’s going to be worth a fortune.    Luckily for the rest of us it is a simple matter to acquire this new Faber edition.

Critics have said that the piece would be better known if there had been more copies produced originally.  I agree.  But I think too it would be better known if it had been written by a man.

Ironical perhaps but appropriate, for Eliot’s own publishing house to bring this lost masterpiece back from the realms of obscurity, to the sunlight where it rightfully belongs.



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As well as an avant-garde poet, Mirrlees was also a novelist,  penning another book which – in my opinion –  urgently needs to be un-forgotten.  Despite being written as a fantasy,  this work feels sharply relevant with its theme of fear of ‘the other’.

Without a hobbit in sight, Lud-in-the-Mist is a prosperous country town peopled by sturdy folk and set where two rivers meet: the Dawl and the Dapple.  The Dapple springs from the land of Faerie, beyond the Debatable Hills, from where the good burghers of Lud believe springs the source of all that is evil and unspeakable.  So much so, that the place is never spoken of and to eat the fruit of that hapless land brings madness and degeneracy.  What is law affects every aspect of our beliefs and culture.

…fairy was delusion… so was the law.  At any rate it was a sort of magic, moulding reality into any shape it chose.

Lud’s High Seneschal (also the chief character of the book) is called Nathaniel Chanticleer.  A wise leader but a somewhat casual family man in his relationships with his children,   it is only when the land of faerie intervenes in unforeseen ways with the simple life of Lud-in-the Mist and threatens Nathaniel’s children, does he realise that matters can no longer be brushed under his carefully woven carpets.

There is allegory here a-plenty, but the book can also be read as simply a good adventure story.  A high point for me were the names Mirrlees gives her characters: Endymion Leer, Willy Wisp, Ambrose Honeysuckle, Dame Jessamine, Primrose Crabapple,   as if in a meeting between Shakespeare and Beatrix Potter.

Neil Gaiman has described Lud-in-the-Mist  as:

The single most beautiful and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century.

I would not be one to disagree.