Sherlock Holmes was born (in all probability) on January 6th, 1854—160 years ago today. In answering how this date was discovered out of the secret of Mr. Holmes’ past, the temptation may arise to proclaim, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Regard, however, for the Canon—the sixty public records of Mr. Holmes’ remarkable career—repudiates common errors. Nowhere does this oft-misquoted phrase appear in the Writings. (The word “Elementary” is spoken by Sherlock Holmes in closest conjunction to his saying, “my dear Watson” in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man,” where they are separated by no less than fifty-two words.)
Similarly, nowhere in the reminiscences of Dr. Watson is the specific birth date of Mr. Holmes given. Nonetheless, the great detective’s arrival upon this earth can be inferred by applying his well-known methods of observation, deduction, and analytical reasoning to the clues afforded by the Canon. For instance, in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” which took place in June 1889, Mr. Holmes calls himself a “middle-aged gentleman.” This term is generally and historically accepted as age thirty-five, placing his birth in 1854. Further evidence is provided in the narrative of “His Last Bow,” where Holmes is described as sixty years old in 1914, again placing his birth in 1854.
Regarding the precise date of Sherlock Holmes’ birth, scholars lean towards January 6th due to certain telling trifles; for as Mr. Holmes said in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” “there is nothing so important as trifles.” Chief among these is his notable use of Shakespeare. Mr. Holmes often weaves Shakespearean language into his own—“the game is afoot” from Henry IV, Part I in “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” perhaps being the most famous—but there is only one play that he quotes twice in the chronicles of Dr. Watson. “Journeys end in lovers’ meetings,” says Mr. Holmes in both “The Adventure of the Empty House” and “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” quoting from Twelfth Night. (It is singular that in both of these instances Holmes says “lovers’ meetings,” slightly misquoting the line in Act III, Scene 3 reading “lovers meeting.”) This repetition is suggestive of a particular fondness for the play or for the date of twelfth night, January 6th. The Valley of Fear furthers the thread of reasoning when it reports Mr. Holmes as being out of sorts on the morning of January 7th, indicating a poor night’s rest possibly brought on by merry-makings held the night before—due to January 6th being Sherlock Holmes’ birthday.
On this 160th anniversary of Mr. Holmes’ birth, the following verses are offered which celebrate all sixty of the Canonical mysteries, as well as many of the mysterious characteristics of the Master himself. Though Mr. Holmes would certainly object to such poetic exaltations, which are antithetical to scientific demonstrations, we will pray that the musical side of his soul make allowances for the more romantic among his bereaved.
The Mystery of Mr. Holmes in 17 Steps
(A Monograph in Verse)
Oft’ is it asked, from out of Holmesian History,
Which is the classic adventure, case, or mystery?
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” as Holmes did not say,
And neither say we to such a question – Nay!
To answer which of Watson’s memoirs is the best,
We must reply, how can Holmes be thus compressed?
The Army Doctor of Bradshaw and bowler
Could never encompass his friend in one fell blow.
But do or die, We Can But Try!
So to the Sacred Writings we shall go.
(And bring along the magnifying lens.)
A knife to impale correspondence and mail
To the center of the mantelpiece;
A scuttle-cigar, the south wall V.R. …
Which case for these a reason can release?
(O most stirring and sacrosanct of dens!)
An active brain of logic and cocaine;
A man of music and moods, of science and swordplay,
Who combs the Times to learn of crimes,
With cherrywood, the briar, or the clay.
(How can such men as Holmes be briefly put?)
His methods cannot be simply caught,
(They are the methods of the Master, don’t forget).
Which case would dare to be the snare
To capture the mind to find the Beryl Coronet?
(Or was it a fait accompli by the Devil’s Foot?)
The Speckled Band beats Hatherley’s hand,
(But does it reflect the sum of Sherlock’s powers?)
Strike out the Yellow Face and Shoscombe Old Place.
Perhaps the Priory School with its ivy-covered towers?
(Is Holmes Oxford or Cambridge man, if you please?)
The Carfax coffin? Jim Browner’s bodkin?
(How did Mathews knock out Sherlock’s tooth?)
“A Case of Identity?” “The Boscombe Valley Mystery?”
Where is the soul of our Bohemian sleuth?
(For clues, apply to Mycroft at the Diogenes.)
Twisted lips and orange pips;
Three Garridebs, three students, and three gables;
Lestrade’s second stain, the Downs lion’s mane,
The dog that didn’t bark at King Pyland Stables.
(The game’s afoot – but to what end does it tend?)
Captain Jack Croker? The corrupt stockbroker?
(When does this clock called Sherlock eat and sleep?)
Whether Reigate Squire or Sussex Vampire,
There never was a problem too dark or too deep.
(How came the irregular Wiggins to be his friend?)
Now as they say in the old play,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting (or meetings).
But, oh, which case should win this race?
Which is the Stradivarius for fifty-five shillings –
(As Holmes, one day, exulted to pay)?
The noble bachelor, Black Peter the whaler;
Six busts of Napoleon, Charles Augustus Milverton;
The resident patient, the illustrious client;
Or Abe Slaney’s cryptic dancing men?
(Instructive – but pray why the deerstalker hat?
A scarlet candle, the Adler Scandal,
(Why does Holmes so mistrust the fairer sex?)
The Sign of Four, the Copper Beeches door –
What horrors lie catalogued in his ‘M’ Index?
(If only we knew more of the Sumatran Rat!)
“The Final Problem” was a gem –
(Could it be the finest problem of them all?)
Where archenemy, Professor Moriarty,
Cast himself and Holmes beneath the Reichenbach Fall.
(Why wasn’t Watson’s agent, Doyle, bereaved?)
The Great Hiatus was then upon us –
(What said Sigerson to the Khalifa at Khartoum?)
Until Moran the shikari shot Meunier’s effigy,
And Camden House became a resurrection tomb.
(Wasn’t London – and the world – relieved?)
The builder, the lodger, the pale-faced soldier?
(Is Holmes a highbrow or a hero?)
The lost three-quarter, the Greek interpreter –
(What trials did Mrs. Hudson undergo
With his pigpen customs and pristine clothes?)
What of the naval treaty? The Birlstone tragedy?
O that career of red-haired men and blood-red circles!
The dubious Mazarin Stone, Miss Violet cycling alone,
Or is it the howling Hound of the Baskervilles?
(There, but for the grace of God, Sherlock goes!)
The colorman was collared, the crooked man was cornered;
The Wisteria Lodge plot; Thor Bridge and Watson’s gun;
The apish creeping man; the Bruce-Partington plan;
Which can stand above the rest? Which one?
(Which can label Holmes a humanist or humorist?)
The Tapanuli fever stunt, the Musgrave treasure hunt;
(Why shag tobacco in the Persian shoe?)
Geese and carbuncles and golden spectacles;
(Why bees? Why Petrarch? Why baritsu? –
Who is this Sherlock Holmes no mortal can resist?)
Once dismissed is the impossible,
The truth remains, however improbable.
From “The ‘Gloria Scott’” to “His Last Bow,”
The crown jewel of the Canon we cannot avow.
For us, and for many, the greatest mystery
Is the man himself who lives at 221B.
Sherlock Holmes novels may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.