It’s taken me a while to get through Hope Mirrlees’ Collected Poems, perhaps because it confounded my expectations (which were admittedly a bit confused). Eager readers of Mirrlees’ work or those interested in her life should, of course, pick up a copy, as it is contains the best short biography of the poet currently available,1 but poem themselves – well, they do not disappoint, but they … confound. One remains constantly aware of their construction, of their being written products of a human hand – and they feel perhaps more significant as writing than as works to be read. The volume contains Mirrlees’ early work as well as some of her later poems. ‘Paris, a poem’, first published by the Hogarth Press in 1920, is solid modernist stuff, and as such is interesting, I suppose. The later poems vary in quality, but are mostly rather bad (as poems), though amusing – see, for instance, the opening of ‘Heaven is Not Fairyland’:
Heaven is not Fairyland (alas!)
This world seen in a magic glass;
Gingerbread houses but without the witch;
The joyful bark of my dead dachshund bitch;
A glut of carbo-hydrates that never make you fat –
No, Heaven, they say, is not like that.
I want to be amused by this, because it is so deeply silly, but I admit that I am disappointed: I wanted something more than Catholic-stained poetastery. The blighted anticipation perhaps makes me think the poems are worse than they are – but the prissy sanctimony of poems such as ‘Gulls’ and ‘Jesus Wept’ render them so devoid of humane feeling or true sympathy that they become convincing arguments in themselves for avoiding any sort of dogmatism.2 Perhaps I will find them less distasteful at some later date, when I am in a better humor.
- Swanwick’s Hope-in-the-Mist, in addition to being out of print, is more of an appreciation than a biography proper; one is, of course, eagerly awaiting Parmar’s full-length biography of Mirrlees which is, one hears, in the works.
- I will not quote them, because they made me angry and I don’t think my teeth could stand all the gnashing.