Sherlock Holmes and Poetry
In The Adventure of the Retired Colourman Watson is describing to Holmes “An old home, surrounded by a high sun-baked wall mottled with lichens and topped with moss, the sort of wall –”
“Cut out the poetry, Watson,” said Holmes severely, “I note that it was a high brick wall.”
This unfortunate phrasing on the part of Holmes –“Cut out the poetry, Watson” – set back poetry in general, and English poetry in particular, for a generation. All would have been different had Holmes but said, “Cut out the excessive prose, Watson.” In fact, Watson was speaking prose and not poetry, but the damage had been done. Sherlock Holmes devotees immediately turned their backs on poetry, which from then on was anathema. No matter that some claimed that Holmes was speaking metaphorically. “Not so,” the majority rejoined, “Of all people, Holmes speaks to the point. He said ‘Cut out the poetry,’ and cut out we shall.” And they promptly cut out the poetry from their itineraries in a poetrectomy that would have ornamented one of the medical treatises that Watson so liked to read when Holmes was updating his encyclopedia of cases and references, or engaged in his chemical researches. And all the millions of readers of Homes prompted followed suit.
But even before the above could occur, Watson had of course immediately cut out the poetry himself. We may assume that his taste in poetry had run to Kipling because of their mutual Indian service and Tennyson for the latter’s patriotic and military themes, such as “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” even though Watson finished his military service in the somewhat ignominious position of being thrown over a packhorse by the faithful Murray after suffering a wound from a Jezail bullet at the battle of Maiwand, hardly the fitting subject of a poem.
Holmes had no need to cut out the poetry himself as he had never cut it in – it not being a subject scientific enough to merit his attention. While Watson might have read a bit of poetry in the first-class carriage in which Holmes and he occasionally traveled, Holmes would have had none of it, preferring to click off the telegraph poles in order to calculate the speed of the carriage.
Ironically, and unbeknown to Watson (let alone Holmes), Watson influenced English poetry, and T.S. Eliot in particular, by his chronicling of Holmes’ accomplishments. One need but look at Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to find an astonishing amount of borrowing from the canon.
Watson (source) T.S. Eliot (borrower)
Holmes was lying on the sofa When the evening is spread out against
at 221 B Baker Street that the sky
evening like a patient Like a patient etherized upon a table:
etherized upon a table
when the doorbell rang.
“Let us go then, you and I, Let us go then, you and I,
Watson, to Goldini’s for …”
oyster shells.” And sawdust restaurants with oyster
“Oh, what is it, Watson?” Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
said Holmes, busy with a
A dense yellow fog settled The yellow fog that rubs its
down upon London back upon the window panes
…the opposing windows For the yellow smoke that slides
loomed like dark, shapeless along the street rubbing its back
blurs through the heavy upon the window panes
See how the yellow fog swirls
down the street …
One white arm and hand And I have known the arms
drooped over the side already, known them all –
of the chair, and her arms that are braceleted and
whole pose and figure … white and bare
And his smoke had curled And watched the smoke that rises
up more thickly from his from the pipes
And leaning back in his chair
He watched the blue smoke-rings
as they chased each other up
to the ceiling.
“Malingering is a subject upon Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
which I have sometimes thought
of writing a monograph.”
“That is not it at all, my “That is not it at all,
dear Watson, that is not That is not what I meant, at all.”
what I meant at all.”
In my relationship with Deferential, glad to be of use.
Holmes, I was deferential,
glad to be of use.
“… he will be fluttering in When I am pinned and wriggling on
our net as helpless as one of the wall,
his own butterflies. A pin, a
cork, and a card, and we add
him to the Baker Street
… which was composed of all the To spit out all the butt-ends
plugs and dottles left from his of my days and ways?
smokes of the day before …
Proof of a rock solid nature is lacking, but the possibility is intriguing.
About the Author
Larry Lefkowitz’s stories, poetry and humor have been widely published. His story collection “Enigmatic Tales” is published by Fomite Press.