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Playful allusion and undiscerning critics

Mark Gatiss started the year with a lovely bit of Sherlockian snark. Faced with criticism that the show was getting rather too action packed, he answered with a poem titled "To An Undiscerning Critic". It was not so much the argument of the poem which got me, but the title had me musing weakly on the delights of reference and appropriation as I lay dying on the sofa after unwittingly having contracted a vicious bug over the holidays. I am better now.

The first thing I did when I got to the NLS this afternoon was call up Vincent Starret's 1937 publication of Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 poem. Starret, the originator of the lines
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
published the reprint as just one folded sheet of paper (quality paper, though) because he had come across it in Lincoln Springfield's "Some Picquant People" (1924), could not find it anywhere else1, and did not think the world should be deprived of it.
To An Undiscerning Critic

Sure there are times when one cries with acidity,
'Where are the limits of human stupidity?'
Here is a critic who says as a platitude
That I am guilty because 'in ingratitude
Sherlock, the sleuth-hound, with motives ulterior,
Sneers at Poe's Dupin as very "inferior."'
Have you not learned, my esteemed commentator,
That the created is not the creator?
As the creator I've praised to satiety
Poe's Monsieur Dupin, his skill and variety,
And have admitted that in my detective work
I owe to my model a deal of selective work.
But is it not on the verge of inanity
To put down to me my creation's crude vanity?
He, the created, would scoff and would sneer,
Where I, the creator, would bow and revere.
So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle,
The doll and its maker are never identical.
The poem was originally published in the London Opinion in December 1912, as a reply to another poem by Arthur Guiterman, the pertinent section of which is the following:
All of us know where you dug the material!
Whence he was moulded-'tis almost a platitude;
Yet your detective, in shameless ingratitude
Sherlock your sleuthhound with motives ulterior
Sneers at Poe's "Dupin" as "very inferior!"
Labels Gaboriau's clever "Lecoq," indeed,
Merely "a bungler," a creature to mock, indeed!
This, when your plots and your methods in story owe
More than a trifle to Poe and Gaboriau,
Sets all the Muses of Helicon sorrowing.
Borrow, Sir Knight, but in decent borrowing!
Gatiss' use of Doyle's title (and, albeit somewhat haltingly, his dactylic tetrameter) refers back to this whole controversy, which is concerned with the acceptable attitude of the borrower to the borrowed, all while the main body of Gatiss' poem appears to defend the adaptation's choices with reference to a narrative of fidelity.

What is more, because Doyle's poem deals with the debt to Dupin, who is rather closer to the perfect calculating machine that Watson seems to have tricked some people into think Holmes should be, it serves (though possibly just to my fever-weakened mind) to subtly point out how much more of a man of action Holmes is (the vast majority of cases, after all, have titles beginning "The Adventure of").2

I have already written elsewhere about how Sherlock's particular brand of adaptation delights me. My mind spun happily on how Doyle had modified Poe, and how Sherlock built on that heritage in a willingness to repeat with a twist of renewal, and how it in its turn has spawned a properly impressive volume of fan fiction in its turn.

I was also mulling over my own reaction to "The Six Thatchers", which was not immediately and unconditionally positive. Because like Ralph Jones, I would also like more ratiocination and fewer femme fatalities if it could possibly be done. And it struck me that the defence of the somewhat excessive action sequences is not that Holmes occasionally resorts to violence in the canon; it is that these are not adaptations of the canon. These are adaptations of the field of Holmesian texts, at their best when cleverly playing on the canon both in plot and minor detail, but enriched by their awareness of earlier adaptations and Holmesian discussion. The poems3 beautifully suggest a line of adaptational genealogy, but the series itself is more rhizomatic, sprawling, which is bound to cause a concern with lack of purity.4



1Starret, predating the internet, may perhaps be forgiven for not having stumbled across it in the original London Opinion of 1912 or its reprints in the Glouchestershire Echo and the Belfast News-letter of 1913.

2That said, Ralph Jones is right that the Holmes stories are rather less bloody than they could have been. Christopher Pittard has written a good article on how Strand Magazine aimed to be "healthful", and how that may have limited the goriness of the stories.

3There is apparently poetry games afoot, as Gatiss' poem has sparked others and we are FINALLY getting back to having major discussions in verse in major newspapers.

4Of course, this does not explain my main problems with the episode, namely the idea that superspies would run around with unencrypted memory sticks around their necks containing their identities -- not even the Sign of the Four references make up for that; the completely out of character tendency to infidelity; the journey without a point; oh, and the continued insistence that Mary must be protected and it is Sherlock's job to do it. You can pretty much only make up for that by making this the gay love story it wants to be.
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