Tuesday, 14 January 2014

"Oh Sherlock, Sherlock, He's In Town Again": Sherlock Holmes in Poetry

Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson as portrayed by Sidney Paget

If you have any interest in detective/spy stories and shows, television, modern updates of old stories, popular culture, or just a famous character named Sherlock Holmes, you may have heard that the latest series of the BBC's Sherlock series has just wrapped up. As Sherlock's big brother Mycroft once said to Watson, "I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler": the current Watson's chronicles appear in blog form, not in the Strand magazine, but not a lot has really changed. Sherlock Holmes is once again the talk of the town, but for me he never really goes away; he and Watson are always around, just a little more in or out of focus at different times. While Jeremy Brett, along with his Watsons David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, will probably always be my favourite screen Holmes and Watsons, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are superb and entertaining and the modern update is incredibly clever. (And yes, in case you're wondering - I totally heart Benedict.) 

I have devoted quite a few conscious and subconscious hours to the mystery of why Sherlock Holmes is so important to me and I have essentially concluded that I am a bit too close to him to ever be able to really puzzle it out. I suppose we have some early influences that become so deeply woven into our lives that there's no way to really discern their exact nature, and in my case some of those influences were always going to be literary. I think I was seven when Holmes entered my life, both in the original stories and in Jeremy Brett's version. I was particularly obsessed through my teens, and it's all returned full force with years of living in London and with his recent upsurge in popularity; it's kind of nice that more of my friends "get it" at the moment. I know that when I was younger I both identified with Holmes (perhaps the fate of a few angsty misfit teenagers with a love of English literature) and had a crush on him; later on I realised that I actually identified more with Watson - less hyper-intelligent, emotionally locked up and rude; more loyal, anxious and both down-to-earth and adventurous. However, I think even now I probably alternate between identifying with Holmes and identifying with Watson, depending how I'm feeling. (Watson is the healthier option.) They could represent two sides of one personality, I suppose.

I do know that my Holmes is very much the guardian spirit of a place, London. Even when he goes out to the countryside, which he often does, he somehow represents London. I suspect that the intensity with which Holmes has remained in my life has a lot to do with place, perhaps more than anything else. The success of the current series, set very firmly in our modern day but also in London, tells me that place is more important for Holmes and Watson as convincing characters, than time. "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside," Holmes comments one lovely morning as they head out to the countryside to investigate the sinister Copper Beeches (thus totally ruining Watson's fun day out on the train.) Spoken like a true Londoner, is all I can say.

Rather to my surprise, I've gradually realised that although there is a fair amount of cute-but-painful Holmes-related doggerel out there, there is also some genuinely beautiful and thought-provoking poetry inspired by the great detective, as well as some that is really funny and clever. I wrote some time ago about T S Eliot's 'Macavity, the Mystery Cat', which is a real classic and based on Holmes's arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. A less-known but also extremely funny work, written for Holmes's original miraculous return from the dead more than 100 years ago, is P G Wodehouse's 'Back to His Native Strand' (1903):

Oh Sherlock, Sherlock, he's in town again,
That prince of perspicacity, that monument of brain.
It seems he wasn't hurt at all
By tumbling down the waterfall.
That sort of thing is fun to Sherlock.

(from 'Back to His Native Strand', P G Wodehouse)

As a relative latecomer to the delights (if that's the right word) of Sylvia Plath, I was astonished to discover not that long ago that one of her poems, 'The Detective', refers to Holmes and Watson. I read it as a poem about metaphorical death, perhaps due to emotional cruelty by someone close to the victim. Ominously, it concludes:

Then the dry wood, the gates,
The brown motherly furrows, the whole estate.
We walk on air, Watson.
There is only the moon, embalmed in phosphorus.
There is only a crow in a tree. Make notes.

(from 'The Detective', Sylvia Plath)

Much more recently, I found out that Jorge Luis Borges wrote his own absolutely amazing 'Sherlock Holmes', a meditation on the relationship between the creator and the created, among other things. In this translation by Willis Barnstone, it opens:

Not of a mother born, no elders known,
he was like Adam and Quijano. He
is made of chance. Near or immediately
the whim of varied readers guide his tone.

It isn't wrong to think that he was born
a moment when the Other One may tell
his story, and he dies with each farewell
of memory in us who dream him.

(from 'Sherlock Holmes', Jorge Luis Borges, translated from Spanish by Willis Barnstone)

And I also discovered this beautiful poem by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, 'Sherlock Holmes', where the poet uses the figure of Holmes to meditate on certainty versus uncertainty and ambiguity.

SHERLOCK HOLMES (Susan Fromberg Schaeffer)

I wanted to conclude with this most famous of Holmes poems, Vincent Starrett's '221B'. Although it isn't poetically quite in the class of the above works, it is beloved of Holmes fans and it represents a lot of what we love about the stories and the characters. (I've been advised that copyright in Vincent Starrett's estate is sufficiently murky that I shouldn't worry about reproducing the poem, but if anyone wants to hunt me down with an air gun like Moriarty's henchman Colonel Sebastian Moran, please think about just dropping me a line, first.)

221B (Vincent Starrett)

Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game's afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears -
Only those things the heart believes are true.

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

1 comment:

  1. Nice work! Nice work! These are lovely poems. You may be interested in a blog at my site The Eclectic Ear where I discuss the use of poetic verse for modern day musicians such as Van Morrison's use of Yeats for Crazy Jane on God. Hope to see you there...