Sunday, January 15, 2012

T.S. Eliot, Baker Street Irregular

I am thoroughly enjoying Dirda's On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling [this is my fifth post about the book]. About halfway through the Kindle edition I found this passage about T.S. Eliot and Sherlock Holmes:
.... During my freshman year I also grew besotted with T.S. Eliot, and boldly decided to read everything from the early essays in The Sacred Wood to the later verse-dramas. At some point I discovered that Eliot revered the Sherlock Holmes stories. At a party one evening, some friends asked him to name his favorite passage of English prose, and the great poet answered by virtually performing the following exchange:
"Well," cried Boss McGinty at last, "is he here? Is Birdy Edwards here?"
"Yes," McMurdo answered slowly. "Birdy Edwards is here. I am Birdy Edwards."
Was Eliot joking with his audience by choosing this climactic passage from The Valley of Fear? At least a little, I suspect. Nonetheless, Eliot reportedly reread the Holmes canon every couple of years, was an honorary member of the Trained Cormorants of Los Angeles, and looked—as Vincent Starrett observed—more like the Great Detective than many of the actors who played him.

Moreover, Eliot wrote at length about Holmes in the Criterion, modeled "Macavity, the Mystery Cat," aka the Hidden Paw, after that other Napoleon of Crime, Professor James Moriarty, and in "East Coker" quite pointedly evoked the atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles by alluding to the novel's ominous Grimpen Mire: "in a dark wood, in a bramble / On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold." While Eliot famously insisted that great poets steal, I was nonetheless taken aback when I first came across this striking exchange between Thomas Becket and a diabolical Tempter in Murder in the Cathedral:
THOMAS: Who shall have it?
TEMPTER: He who will come.
THOMAS: What shall be the month?
TEMPTER: The last from the first.
THOMAS: What shall we give for it?
TEMPTER: Pretence of priestly power.
THOMAS: Why should we give it?
TEMPTER: For the power and the glory.
In "The Musgrave Ritual"—one of Holmes's earliest cases—an aristocratic family preserves for centuries a queer litany, which, of course, provides the key to a riddle and the solution to a strange disappearance:
"Whose was it?"
"His who is gone."
"Who shall have it?"
"He who will come."
("What was the month?"
"The sixth from the first.")....
"What shall we give for it?"
"All that is ours."
"Why should we give it?"
"For the sake of the trust."

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