One often hears a cock

Do do do miii

Only a cock stood on a rooftree

Co co rico co co rico

These few lines come from poems published just three years apart. Both present an apocalyptic vision of a war-ravaged European city, both make extensive use of experimentation in form, language, and imagery, and both mention crowing cocks. Both rely on a cursory knowledge of the classics, various religious scriptures, a selection of foreign languages, and draw from a dizzyingly complex body of literary inheritance and influence. Indeed, both provide notes to assist with their more obscure references, something rare and exceptional at the time. The authors, as it happens, were very close personal friends.

However, one of these poems became revered, canonised and treated as an indispensable element of the curriculum. The other was savaged in contemporary reviews and has since lain in a forgotten and dimly lit nook of literary niche.

Hope Mirrlees’s extraordinary long poem Paris, from which the first quotation is taken, was published in 1919 by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, something of a cottage enterprise that nonetheless gave desperately needed circulation to much of the Bloomsbury set during the early twentieth century. The second quotation is taken from T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Waste Land, published first in Eliot’s own journal The Criterion in 1922 to immediate and unceasing critical and popular acclaim.

The only existing archive of Hope Mirrlees’s biographical material, including letters, essays and other unpublished writings, is jealously guarded by her alma mater, Newnham College Cambridge. Sandeep Parmar was the first scholar to gain access to these materials a decade ago, culminating in the publication of Collected Poems in 2011 – it has since done comparatively little to stir substantial critical or popular interest in the woman or her work. Even the poems contained within that volume were, most of them, discovered in the papers in draft form, remnants of a fragmented and incomplete oeuvre by a consummately gifted, playful and inventive poet whose oscillating morals resulted in a lifetime of dedicated self-censoring. Mirrlees was, as we ritualistically say, a wasted talent.

Her conversion to Catholicism in the wake of Jane Ellen Harrison’s death (the formidable and far more famous classicist who became her long-term companion) led to a decades-long silence, redactions and edits to ‘blasphemous passages’ in previously published work, particularly Paris, followed by a timid re-emergence, this time adopting a highly formal, mannered verse form. Her early poetry, however, is profound and urgent, retaining its sense of the ‘new’. In its scarcity, it is a precious window into the tensions that preceded the rise of high modernism.

Privately, Mirrlees garnered praise from her publisher, Woolf, who deemed Paris “obscure, indecent, and brilliant”. Publicly, its review in the Times Literary Supplement could scarcely have been more caustic. The reviewer considered the experiment “spluttering and incoherent”, and “certainly not a ‘Poem’”, concluding:

To print the words “there is no lily of the valley” in a vertical column of single letters might be part of a nursery game. It does not belong to the art of poetry.

This opinion has not aged well – anyone who has encountered her work has to treat it as a serious contribution to modernist poetry. Crucially, the similarities between Paris and The Waste Land can hardly be dismissed as coincidence with any seriousness.

Mirrlees said that, in Paris, “I attacked a whole of a civilisation, instead of just a part of it”. Eliot, too, attacks civilisation: the Imperial dream that had reached its zenith and logical conclusion in the Great War. There is a finality in Eliot’s conclusions, an ultimately pessimistic tone that reminds us of the inevitability of civilisation’s decline and eventual fall, the eventuality to which we are all being drawn day by day.

Mirrlees’s attack on civilisation in Paris is more personal, less abstracted than Eliot’s but every bit as effective. Its last lines turn our attention away from visions of ghostly soldiers, polluted rivers and graves, and towards “manuring white violets” – in manure, the process of fertilisation, growth and renewal, feeding the white violets that symbolise the innocence we associate with new life. Where Eliot imagines a fallen city, Mirrlees imagines a city scarred but still standing, engaged in a constant metamorphosis. For it is ultimately this newness, this sense of continuing and ever-evolving values, that underpins the entire poem. Paris was one of the first poems that endeavoured to translate into poetry the seismic shifts of cultural and political values post-armistice, not least of which was the institution of poetry itself. Much like its successor The Waste Land, it at once relies upon, yet attempts to dismantle, the very fabric of tradition.

Ironically, a key example of this is the quote picked out in that caustic TLS review. The “lily of the valley”, which in its departure from traditional form inspired so much contempt from the reviewer, in fact constitutes a neat marriage of form and meaning. In the notes that Mirrlees provides, indicating this is not a point she would like us to miss, she explains that 1919 marked the absence of the lily of the valley from the Parisian streets due to the general strike, traditionally, offered for sale to mark the day of the Virgin Mary, and designed to symbolise happiness and good fortune for the coming year. The general strike, a symptom of this emerging ‘new world order’, disrupted this tradition. Mirrlees mirrors this by upsetting the established credos of poetic form, marrying the significance of the phrase with the significance of its presentation, a practice that would become a hallmark of high modernist poetry, taken up by Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and of course Eliot.

In this way, Paris presents us with a democratised aesthetic, one able to find beauty in the ordinary, creating a kind of poetic vernacular. Posters, subway signs, graffiti – all of these can be beautiful, and build, in the mind of Mirrlees, at least, the vibrant fabric of the “cradle of modernism” – the city of Paris itself. Mirrlees and her poem may, at present, lie forgotten – but the forms and ideas that it helped pioneer have rippled a great distance, and their echoes can still be felt in poetry written today, even if their author wished them silenced.