‘It is very good of you to throw a pound into our jaws, when you know nothing of what you may get out of them. Mr Eliot is an American of the highest culture, so that his writing is almost unintelligible; Middleton Murry edits The Athenaeum, and is also very obscure. I mean you’ll have to shut your door and give yourself a quiet few days—not for Kew Gardens, though; that is as simple as can be. Roger Fry has done covers for Eliot’s and mine’ (8 May 1919).
In this extract from her letter to a longstanding friend, Violet Dickinson, Virginia Woolf seems to decry their second printed flyer, An Announcement of the Publications of the Hogarth Press that they had sent out to their friends and acquaintances in May 1919. The flyer invited the recipients to send a deposit of ‘10s., or £1’ in advance for copies ‘at low prices’ of ‘short works of merit, in prose or poetry, which could not, because of their merits, appeal to a very large public’. The Woolfs’ wording in this advertisement shows their understanding of the Bloomsbury literati and cognoscenti who prided themselves on their ability to appreciate the ‘new’ in literature, as well as on their recognition that ‘limited editions’ might grow in value over time. The idea that the general public would not be attracted to buy or read ‘works of merit’ seemed also to be part of the Bloomsbury world-view.
After publishing their own Two Stories in 1917, followed by Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude in 1918, Virginia and Leonard Woolf decided to issue three books simultaneously: Virginia’s vignette, Kew Gardens, T.S. Eliot’s Poems, and J.M. Murry’s long poem, The Critic in Judgment, appeared together on 12 May 1919. The Woolfs immediately sent review copies of these three new books, as well as, belatedly, Mansfield’s 1918 Prelude to The Times Literary Supplement. Reviewers’ responses were varied: Kew Gardens fared best, attracting a ‘rush of new orders’ almost immediately from booksellers and readers. Harold Hannyngton Child’s anonymous review of Kew Gardens on 29 May 1919, commended Virginia’s booklet of ten pages as a ‘work of art … a thing of original and therefore strange beauty’ with its own ‘atmosphere, its own vital force….’ In order to meet the sudden increase in demand for Kew Gardens subsequent to this review, the Woolfs employed a professional printer, Richard Madley, ‘to print a second edition of 500 copies’ in order to supplement the 170 copies of their own first edition. All Hogarth Press copies of Kew Gardens had been sold by 1920; and this work was then reprinted in her collection of stories, Monday or Tuesday in 1921.
In contrast with Child’s positive review of Virginia’s book, Arthur Clutton-Brock in his anonymous TLS review of John Middleton Murry’s The Critic in Judgment and T. S. Eliot’s Poems, more or less damns both works (‘Not Here, O Apollo’, 12 June 1919). Clutton-Brock considers Middleton Murry’s poem to be almost meaningless in its derivativeness: ‘His metre, blank verse, sways him with its memories of past masters: Shakespeare, Milton, Browning, Tennyson. They seem almost to dictate to him what he is to say, so that, as we read, we fade out of one poet into another, aware only of changes of manner, the matter itself escaping us.’ In a contrasting condemnation, Clutton-Brock describes T. S. Eliot’s method of ‘composition’ as ‘an incessant process of refusing all that offers itself, for fear that it should not be his own. The consequence is that his verse, novel and ingenious, original as it is, is fatally impoverished of subject matter.’ He concludes with a dismissive generalization: ‘If they [Murry and Eliot] were nothing, it would not matter; but they are something, and they are very laboriously writing nothing.’
Murry seemed to take this anonymous review to heart, according to Virginia Woolf’s diary entry on 14th June 1919: ‘A very severe review of Murry, a severe review of Eliot, appeared in the Lit. Sup. on Thursday. Considering their general slackness, I don’t see why they choose to come down so hard upon Murry; & I wish they hadn’t. I attribute the extreme depression of him and Katherine [Mansfield] at least partly to this. And I felt gorged & florid with my comparative success [with Kew Gardens]. Poor Murry pretended not to mind, but much like a small boy sticking it out that caning doesn’t hurt. A poem is a very sensitive part to be beaten.’ Virginia’s sympathy, not to mention her self-interest in selling Hogarth Press titles, extended to her agreeing to Murry’s request that she review anonymously The Critic in Judgment together with T.S. Eliot’s Poems for The Athenaeum, which Murry edited.
When Eliot later wrote to Virginia to enquire whether she had written The Athenaeum review (20th June 1919), she replied, ‘I have to confess that it was not I who reviewed your poems in The Athenaeum but my husband. (I don’t think I told Murry this.) We felt awkward at reviewing our own publications and agreed to share the guilt: he reviewed you and I reviewed Murry [in that same review]’ (letter to Eliot, 28 July 1920).
Did Leonard contribute much to The Athenaeum review of Eliot? The reviewer’s use of metaphors throughout the commentary on both Eliot’s and Murry’s poems is essentially that of Virginia. In relation to Middleton Murry, she avoids a direct answer to the challenging ‘Is this poetry?’ of the review’s title. Instead, she describes her reading of ‘this sunless poem’ metaphorically as ‘a springless jolt over the cobbles’, with now and then ‘the glow and heat that we require’ of poetry. Eliot receives a more fulsome enconium: ‘The poetry of the dead is in his bones and at the tips of his fingers: he has the rare gift of being able to weave, delicately and delightfully, an echo or even a line of the past into the pattern of his own poem. And at the same time he is always trying for something new…’ She then cites the final two stanzas of ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’ which show ‘the poetry in Mr Eliot’. Virginia’s review of these Hogarth Press publications might have boosted sales to some extent, as well as Eliot’s self-regard, but not Middleton Murry’s amour propre.
To find out the names of authors of anonymous reviews in periodicals at that time was almost impossible. Virginia supposed the TLS reviewer of Kew Gardens to be Logan Pearsall Smith: ‘All these [new] orders—150 about, from shops & private people—come from a review in the Lit. Sup. presumably by Logan, in which as much praise was allowed me as I like to claim. And 10 days ago I was stoically facing complete failure!’ she wrote in her diary on 10 June 1919. Virginia Woolf never found out that Harold Child was the author of this review.
One of the effects of her incorrect supposition was that she seemed to think that she had an obligation to commission Logan Pearsall Smith’s Stories from the New Testament—retold Bible tales that she at first seemed to dislike—for publication by the Hogarth Press. On 18 May 1919, she implied in her diary that his ostensibly social visit was a means of manipulating the Woolfs into printing ‘some new works of his … he welcomed the invitation to submit them; & he lavished offers of help, & suggestions for increasing our sales; & altogether took the Hogarth Press in hand…’ On 18 June 1919, she related that he brought them ‘More stories, a little less carefully told & so more to my liking … & he read us his stories from the bible’. His reading did not encourage her to come to a decision immediately about his entire manuscript, however, because she waited until the 7 October to read it, and presumably gave him her decision on 15 October when he and Clive Bell came to dinner with them: ‘We have undertaken to get Logan’s stories printed’ she wrote in her diary four days later on 19 October 1919.
Logan Pearsall Smith’s Stories from the Old Testament appeared in 1920 at the same time as Hope Mirrlees’ modernist poem, Paris, and E. M. Forster’s run-of-the-mill The Story of the Siren. Virginia Woolf’s diary entry (18 May 1920) shows her negative reaction to Pearsall Smith when his book did not sell: ‘Logan came on Sunday, & amused me for an hour. Told us about Christ, & his travels—but if you’re not amused by Logan, you’re irritated. So, alas, we begin to find; since his book flags & we run risk of losing money by it. A bad review in the Times, another in [The] Athenaeum; no rush of orders’. Leonard Woolf’s accounts at that time show that Pearsall Smith increased the number of sales by buying twenty copies himself.
If Virginia had allowed her misplaced gratitude for Logan Pearsall Smith’s supposed review of Kew Gardens to influence her judgement in relation to publishing his Stories from the New Testament, she showed her editorial nous in choosing to print Hope Mirrlees’s innovative free verse poem, Paris. Virginia had initially suggested to Mirrlees that she submit a story to their Press, but Mirrlees submitted her free verse tour de force instead. In a letter of 30 July 1919, Virginia invited Mirrlees to spend the weekend with them at their house in Asheham so that Virginia could ‘discuss the bringing out’ of Paris. In her subsequent letter to Margaret Llewellyn Davies, Virginia praised both her new author and her poem: ‘Last weekend, however, we had a young lady [Hope Mirrlees] … she knows Greek and Russian better than I do French: … and has written a very obscure, indecent, and brilliant poem, which we are going to print.’
The first edition of Paris had two misprints in a run of 160 copies, which Virginia Woolf corrected by hand; the second of these was the date of publication—actually 1920—but Woolf replaced 1916 with 1919, the date of the poem’s completion, perhaps because ‘1919’ demanded only one handwritten alteration, not two.
In this innovative work, Mirrlees creates the interior monologue of an unnamed narrator who crosses from one side of Paris to the other on the day of the General Strike there on 1 May 1919, which was also the Christian public holiday in honour of the Virgin Mary. Her modernist technique makes demands on the reader to follow imaginatively the narrator’s shifts of thought as she cogitates on what she observes; for example, the 1 May feast day is noted for the sale of lilies of the valley, but in 1919 ‘There was no lily of the valley’. Mirrlees highlights this allusive statement by printing it vertically in the centre of the page, signalling to readers the out-of-kilter nature of that particular day. Throughout the poem, her layout provides a series of signposts to readings of her juxtapositions of images that make up the fabric of the whole. This poetic method of expecting readers to respond to a seemingly disordered arrangement of discrete poetic images perhaps reflects an influence on Mirrlees of the work of French poets such as Apollinaire or Jean Cocteau. In both form and content, Paris is a free verse poem of exceptional originality, which the critic Julia Briggs brought to twenty-first century readers’ attention in her essay that included a definitive edition of Paris with accompanying notes, ‘Hope Mirrlees and Continental Modernism’.
Mirrlees expects readers to have some knowledge of the French language as well as Parisian topography, history, and the city’s museums, art galleries, monuments and statues, but her own sparse ‘Notes’ give a few details such as the names of Metro stations as well as poster advertisements and shop signs of the day. Julia Briggs’s detailed commentary on Mirrlees’s Paris provides additional information for readers; for example, she gives definitions and provenance for words such as ‘BYRRH’, which is the name of a wine-based aperitif invented in 1866, and initially sold as a health tonic in pharmacies. Mirrlees’s apt metaphors such as ‘Paris is a huge home-sick peasant, He carries a thousand villages in his heart’ are many; and extend to the scatological such as her allusion to the US President’s presence at the 1918 Peace talks: ‘President Wilson grins like a dog and runs about the city, sniffing with innocent enjoyment the diluvial urine of Gargantua’.
Sales of Paris were not fostered by contemporary reviews; for example, The Athenaeum, in an unsigned brief review, praises Mirrlees’s use of French idiom and ‘clear, witty vision’ but then deplores her ‘quite superfluous pedantry which so often comes shutting down, heavily and darkly, across it’. A second brief unsigned review in the TLS describes how in Paris Mirrlees uses a ‘method’ by which she ‘peppers the pages with spluttering and incoherent statements displayed with various tricks of type … it is certainly not a “Poem”….’ Apart from the first English publication of The Waste Land and Virginia’s later succession of experimental modernist novels, however, Mirrlees’s Paris was the final work of the ‘brilliant’ and the ‘new’ that Virginia selected for production by the Hogarth Press.
By 1920, the Woolfs had begun to veer away from the practical tasks of editing, typesetting, commissioning woodcut illustrations, printing and binding every work that was published under the Hogarth Press imprint. Even Virginia’s own collection of stories, Monday or Tuesday, was farmed out to a commercial printer, although Virginia did its binding. This turn towards commercial printers inaugurated the beginning of Leonard Woolf’s transformation of the Hogarth Press into a successful business operation. Its years in which Leonard and Virginia had some extraordinary achievements in the publication of a few modernist works of fiction and poetry by out–of-the-ordinary authors for their discriminating readers were over by 1923.
Jennifer Breen is the author of In Her Own Write: Twentieth-Century Women’s Fiction, and co-author of Romantic Literature. She edited the two ground-breaking anthologies, Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832 and Women Romantics, 1785-1832: Writing in Prose. She is also the editor of Wilfred Owen: Selected Poetry and Prose, reissued by Routledge in 2014.