Poetry Wednesday: Sherlockian Serendipity

It’s no secret that I adore Sherlock Holmes.  Well before Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones, Robert Downey Jr.’s intensity, Martin Freeman’s steadfast smile, and Jude Law’s . . . everything . . .I devoured the stories, diving head first into the Victorian age and trying so hard to figure out whodunnit and how.  And now that I know perfectly well what the speckled band is and why the red-headed league isn’t, I read them for inspiration and comfort.

Lifelong fan, me, with a small tattoo, perhaps, to prove it.

It stands to reason, if not ratiocination, that I’m also a bit of an Arthur Conan Doyle fan as well.  I find it fascinating that he was a doctor, a ship’s surgeon, and, for many years, a struggling writer—he was more Watson than Holmes, which I think puts a special spin on things.*

A lot of people don’t seem to know that he wrote a lot of stuff—successful stuff—thatdidn’t feature a consulting detective, including The Lost World, a story that did for dinosaurs what Holmes did for mysteries, and The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, which features an insufferable main character and proved that a vain, self-centered, infuriating hero can be fascinating to read.

So why am I telling you all this on a Wednesday?

Because a few days ago, this showed up in my inbox—a late birthday present from a friend who kindly thought I already knew:

A Parable
(Arthur Conan Doyle)

The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,
    And warmly debated the matter;
The Orthodox said that it came from the air,
    And the Heretics said from the platter.
They argued it long and they argued it strong,
    And I hear they are arguing now;
But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,
    Not one of them thought of a cow.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote poetry, y’all.

Not a lot, apparently, and to be honest—and completely subjective—this is the best of them.  “A Parable” tickles me because it shows the same biting humor I enjoy from his prose, but most of his poems are Victorian standards about God and England—not that I’m knocking either subject, but I don’t find his verses particularly remarkable, much as I respect the man.**

But he did write it, amid all the other stuff he did, and that’s awesome.  I think it’s even better that it wasn’t that great.

This does make for a shorter post than usual, but don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet, because I would be remiss in my duties as a Doyle fan if I didn’t mention another Doyle fan who happened to be a fantastic poet.

T.S. Eliot was such a fan of Sherlock Holmes that he supposedly memorized great long passages from the stories and bet a friend that he could remembered every single character Doyle put into his stories.***

Which asks the question: can a minor character created for the sole purpose of killing off a main character in a set of popular magazine stories really influence a poet of Mr. Eliot’s caliber?

Macavity—The Mystery Cat
(T. S. Eliot)

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw—
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no on like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air–
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity’s not there!

Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly doomed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square—
But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!

He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s.
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair–
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!

And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty’s gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it’s useless of investigate—Macavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
“It must have been Macavity!”—but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macacity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, or one or two to spare:
And whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

I really couldn’t say.^

It’s no mystery (see what I did there?) that Edgar Allen Poe’s three, brilliant stories about C. Auguste Dupin—narrated by the associate of the genius Frenchman, who used deductive reasoning to solve crimes— had a terrific influence on Doyle.  So, for the sake of this post and my own curiosity, I searched long and hard for a Poe poem that celebrated the logic of the mind—but with the exception of Dupin, Poe really, seriously, gothically, wasn’t into that.

So I’m rounding this post off with a poem that directly celebrates Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and also the kind of characters and stories that for whatever reason are so loved that they become more than themselves.

Vincent Starrett was a member of the Beacon Society—part of the Baker Street Irregulars, which is dedicated to introducing young people to Sherlock Holmes.  His poem was written in 1942, when the world had turned dangerous and home no longer meant a safe refuge.

(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.

I know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t always happy that Sherlock Holmes overshadowed his other work, and I don’t know if that included his poetry . . . but I’ll bet he wouldn’t have minded a bit that his stories inspired poetry in others.

And I’m certain Sherlock wouldn’t have.


*We shall not speak of fairies, thank you, though if anyone earned the right to believe in them, he did, and who cares?

** Though there is one about a yew bow (and God and England) that’s fun.  I suspect it was written as a drinking song either for or in remembrance of his years aboard a whaler and an exploration ship before returning to England.  I may be wrong . . . but I hope not.

***Apparently he couldn’t, quite, but we’ll forgive him because he admitted it, laughed at himself, and he was, after all, T.S. Eliot.

^But I will say that fanfiction isn’t new, people, and there are diamonds amid the dross.


The ownership of all poems are retained by their respective estates. 

Images are courtesy of Microsoft and other creative commons sources.