Blog #165: “Paris” by Hope Mirrlees and To the Lighthouse

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I’ve just reread “Paris”, the Hope Mirrlees poem which Hogarth Press published in 1920. To Virginia, “Paris” was “a very obscure, indecent and brilliant poem.” She was deeply, physically familiar with the text, since she not only selected the poem for publication, but also set the type and then hand wrote corrections on 160 copies. In re-reading the poem, I’m struck by several casual seeming parallels between it and To the Lighthouse, parallels which taken individually could well be accidental, yet collectively make a convincing case for deliberate echoes and possible influence.

First and most concrete are references to Macbeth and to Anna Karenina. With reference to Macbeth, Mirrlees has the lines:

They arise, serene and unetiolated, one by one from
their subterranean sleep of five long years.

Like Duncan they slept well.

President Wilson grins like a dog and runs about the
city, sniffing with innocent enjoyment the diluvial
urine of Gargantua.
(lines 122-127)

I find it hard to believe that Virginia would not have thought of these lines when writing the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse. Her passage of time is ten years, not five, but like Mirrlees she links her sleepers to Macbeth (see blog 133, blog 136). The sleepers, even if they are paintings in Mirrlees’ poem, sleep through the war and awake into a post war world, a world in which individuals struggle to assimilate the past and to resume their lives.

In both poem and novel, the sleepers awake into a world troubled by strikes. In “Paris” the strike references are overt, with phrases like “La journees de huits heures, “The first of May,” and the punning “The silence of la greve. There is also Mirrlees’ note to the first of May line:

“The first of May there is no lily of the valley.” On May 1, the Mois de Marie, lily of the valley is normally sold in all the streets of Paris; but on May 1, 1919, the day of the general strike, no lily of the valley was offered for sale.

The 1919 world sketched by Mirrlees in her poem is a world emerging from war, groping towards peace, and troubled by social tensions and fears of labour unrest.

In To the Lighthouse, part of which was written during the General Strike of 1926, the strike references are more oblique. Several critics, however, have called attention to plausible strike traces in the novel. For instance, in Modernism, Labour and Selfhood in British Literature and Culture (2004), Morag Shiach makes a convincing case that the General Strike informs the “Time Passes” section. To Schiach’s argument, I can add the fact that in a draft version of To the Lighthouse, Charles Tansley reads not Ibsen but Sorel. Had Virginia left the Sorel reference in the novel, the strike reference would have been overt, as George Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, published in an English translation in 1914, argues that workers should use strikes and violence as a political tool. As it is, even without the reference there are enough traces of Virginia’s preoccupation with the postwar situation and with the General Strike for Shiach to write that “Woolf’s textual imagining of a future peace is unsettled by images of a waking nightmare.”

The Anna Karenina references don’t, to my mind, generate the same thematic overlap that the Macbeth reference does. Anna Karenina, as I have been arguing, is of huge significance for To the Lighthouse, and Tolstoy’s novel also appears twice in Mirrlees’ poem:

A a a a a oui, c’est un delicieux garcon
Il me semble que toute femme sincere doit se retrouver
en Anna Karenine.
(lines 222-224)

and:

Desoeuvrement,
Apprehension;
Vronsky and Anna
Starting up in separate beds in a cold sweat
Reading calamity in the same dream
Of a gigantic sinister mujik…
(lines 280-285)

As Julia Brigg, in her notes to “Paris,” suggests, desoeuvrement and the mujik connect the reference to labour unrest and the possibility of violent revolution, an area which Woolf does not touch on in her reworking of Anna Karenina themes. For Woolf, the interest of Anna Karenina lies in what it has to say about motherhood, about women’s freedoms, about the meaning of life, and even about storytelling. All the same, Mirrlees’ use of Anna Karenina may have contributed to Woolf’s decision to use Anna Karenina, and certainly she would have been aware and would have appreciated the way in which the Anna Karenina echo would link her novel to Mirrlees’ poem. Once again, as so often in Woolf, we are back to that wonderful, even if awful sounding, word: overdetermination. Too awful sounding! From here on in, I will use “multiplicity” as a substitute.

Another element which links novel and poem is the low culture of posters and advertising. Both Mirrlees and Woolf are fascinated by the way in which marketing shapes perceptions and popular culture. Their works register the rise of department stores and the advertising surrounding corporate brands. Where “Paris” starts with “Zig-zag,” “Lion Noir,” “Cacao Blooker” and moves on to “AU / BON MARCHE” and “LAIT SUPERIEUR / DE LA / FERME DE RAMBOUILLET,” To the Lighthouse starts with the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores and includes the advertising bill of the circus. Woolf’s circus poster, complete with “twenty performing seals,” and Tansley’s response to it can be profitably compared to Mirrlees’ “ouvriers” discussing “The learned seal at the Nouveau Cirque / Cottin….” (lines 164, 165). Multiplicity invites texts to interrogate each other.

A further point where “Paris” and a To the Lighthouse passage come close to touching each other is in the “Time Passes” personification of “the Spring”:

The Spring without a leaf to toss, bare and bright like a virgin fierce in her chastity, scornful in her purity, was laid out on fields wide-eyed and watchful and entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders.

The personification is very close to that used by Mirrlees when she writes:

The lovely Spirit of the Year
Is stiff and stark
Laid out in acres of brown fields,
The crisp, straight lines of his archaic drapery
Well chiselled by the plough…
(lines 83-87)

Beyond bucolic personification, the two passages carry a strong sense of renewal, hope and rebirth, sentiments entirely appropriate for works exploring a world trying to revive itself after the trauma of a devastating war. Also, behind both Mirrlees and Virginia lies Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” with “The Century’s corpse outleant” and the marvellously proleptic “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware,” which Hope could not have read without thinking about herself. Multiplicity invites anachronistic readings and conversations.

The more I interrogate To the Lighthouse the more I see the value of what I’ve variously called polysemy, polyvalence, overdetermination or multiplicity. It rescues the text from rigidity, and forces the reader to become a co-creator. There are wrong readings and preferred readings but there are no absolute readings. Also, for Virginia, this technique leaves room for a great deal of play and private amusement. Links can be made for the the sake of linking, for a kind of crossword pleasure, and not everything need carry deep meaning. Connecting can be its own pleasure. For instance, to the Mirrlees Woolf connections already noted can be added the shared interest in flowers, subways, telephones, milk quality, painters and paintings, and the Crimean war. Some of these shared elements may be completely accidental, some may have thematic significance, and others may be there simply to increase linkages.

To conclude, consider the lilies. I mentioned a shared interest in flowers, but flowers can be white noise. Many like flowers, many write flowers. All the same, there is a profusion of meaningful flowers in both poem and novel. In particular, in “Paris” the lily abounds. In the following passage it even connects to the Virgin and child:

Lilies bloom, blue, green and pink,
The bulbs were votive offerings
From a converted Jap.
(lines 384-386)

Julia Briggs’ illuminating note to these lines reads:

384-386. White (“Madonna”) lilies, the Virgin’s flower. Votive offerings result from a religious promise. The Jap(anese) convert is the painter L. T. Foujita (1886-1968), who painted pictures of the Virgin and Child in soft colors (1917-1918), often in shapes resembling bulbs.

Most dramatic of all the lilies referenced in the poem is Apollinarian calligramme lily of page 13 (lines 235 to 250), whose vertical line of a stem continues onto the following page, even as the stacked letters claim that “There is no lily of the valley.” Through multiplicity, this lily and its line and the Virgin and Child inhere in Lily Briscoe, her painting, and her concluding, central line.

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