"Let us go then, you and I," said Sherlock Holmes to his companion, "when the evening is spread out against the sky."
No, wait: that wasn't Sherlock, that was Prufrock, the speaker in a poem that continues to intrigue and infuriate, and that is recognized as one of the principal works of Modernism although it's now more than 100 years old.
You may have studied "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
" in high school, and you may remember that its author was T. S. Eliot, who also wrote "Four Quartets," "Murder in the Cathedral," "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," and much more.
Eliot was born in St. Louis in the fall of 1888, during the season of London's Jack the Ripper murders, and (according to some chronologists) simultaneous with the Baskerville hound case on Dartmoor. He moved to London as a young man, turned British, and lived until the early days of 1965, when the musical "Baker Street" was in Boston tryouts before its Broadway run. From the early career of Holmes himself to the first murmurings of the Great Sherlock Holmes Boom a lifetime later, in fact.
Scholars both Sherlockian and academic have repeatedly pointed out connections between the canons of Sherlock and Prufrock, starting at least as far back as a brief item in the journal Notes and Queries in 1948. Vernon S. Goslin wrote in The Sherlock Holmes Journal in 1965, noting Eliot's death, that "Conan Doyle and Eliot share the same poetry of outer London."
One issue later, A. D. Henriksen had a full-length article in the SHJ
discussing Eliot's own 1928 essay about the Sherlock Holmes tales. (See also "T.S. Eliot, Crime Fiction Critic
" on CrimeReads)
Your high school teacher, explaining "Prufrock" (or, more ambitiously, "The Waste Land"), probably did not point out that several of Eliot's works contain blatant references to the stories of Sherlock Holmes.
The most widely known of these is the verse about Macavity, the Mystery Cat, who bears a strong resemblance to the late Professor James Moriarty, to the point that the musical "Cats," based on Eliot's poems, belongs in a comprehensive Sherlockian collection. "East Coker," the second of the Four Quartets, is notable for turning a canonical place name into a common noun: "On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold."
And in "Murder in the Cathedral," a considerable passage from "The Musgrave Ritual" — literally from the questions and answers of the ritual — is quoted in a quite different context, a duel of words between Archbishop Thomas à Becket and the Tempter who is trying his soul.
One of the great Sherlockians, Nathan L. Bengis, went to the horse's mouth about these lines, and was able to report in The Baker Street Journal in 1951 that Eliot himself said the borrowing was "deliberate and wholly conscious."
"Who shall have it? He who will come. What shall be the month? The last from the first. What shall we give for it? Pretence of priestly power."
So what about Prufrock and his love song?
There is nothing that blatant, but it is not hard to read the whole 140-line poem as a Sherlockian work — a slightly surrealist pastiche, let's say. Eliot wrote this "love song" in 1910-1911, less than a decade after Sherlock Holmes's apparent retirement from active practice, and exactly contemporary with the publication of such canonical tales as "The Devil's Foot," "The Red Circle," and "Lady Frances Carfax." (It was actually published in 1915.)
When it speaks of "the yellow fog" and "the soot that falls from chimneys," it is talking about the London that Holmes and Watson knew, and "the smoke that rises from the pipes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves" could be their very smoke.
Prufrock, like Holmes, walks through London's "streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent to lead you to an overwhelming question." The reader is not to ask what the question actually is, says Prufrock, but I think we know:
"What did you do with the bodies?"
And when Prufrock speaks of being "formulated, sprawling on a pin… pinned and wriggling on the wall," how can one not think of Peter Carey? Or, indeed, of Jack Stapleton: "A pin, a cork, and a card, and we add him to the Baker Street collection!"
Many other lines in the poem have canonical connections, and the narrative of an aging, insecure man wishing but not daring to present himself as a lover might have an echo here and there. "There will be time," says Prufrock,
there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create.
And it seems clear that what Eliot created more than a hundred years ago came in part from Sherlock Holmes.