In the spring of 1919, Hope Mirrlees, a novelist, classicist and friend of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, wrote a poem called Paris, a 600-line journey through the city where she lived before and after the Great War. Virginia and Leonard Woolf published it the same year: it was acclaimed, dismissed and then forgotten. In the twenty-first century it has been rediscovered and reassessed as an early modernist masterpiece, anticipating a poem published by the Woolfs a few years later: The Waste Land.
T. S. Eliot was Francophile even before he arrived in Paris as a student in 1910. ‘What France had meant to me was, above all things,’ he wrote later, ‘Poetry.’ In 1908, while still at Harvard, he discovered Baudelaire, and through him Laforgue, Corbière, Rimbaud and Mallarmé. Under their influence Eliot began to write his first great poems, arriving at full maturity in 1911, after a year in Paris, with ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. His encounter with Paris and his encounter with French literature were essential to the style and atmosphere of his first two collections, the poetry that led up to The Waste Land.
The evening told the story of Paris the poem by way of Paris the city – as seen by two poets either side of the Great War.