Chapter 8: Smith and Rathbone spread the word.
Edgar W. Smith
If “221B” was overlooked by the world at large when it was published in Starrett’s 1943 anthology Autolycus in Limbo, it was gaining in popularity among the growing number of Sherlockian devotees.
Edgar W. Smith included it his Sherlockian anthology, Profile by Gaslight, published by Simon and Schuster in 1944.
Smith’s book also included “Sonnet on Baker Street,” by Christopher Morley. You will recall that was also Morley’s contribution to the Christmas leaflet “Sherlockiana,” that also birthed “221B”. Smith also found space for Starrett’s poetic tribute to the mystery novel, “To a Very Literary Lady.”
(Speaking of Profile by Gaslight, I want to heartily recommend this lovely old book to anyone who is not familiar with it. It is as good as any condensed view of the Golden Age of Sherlockian commentary and can be enjoyed now as much as when it was published more than 65 years ago.)
Eight years after Profile by Gaslight, Smith published “221B” in The Baker Street Journal, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dr. Watson’s birth. And while Smith does not note it, the 1952 publication also commemorates the sonnet’s 10th anniversary.
As he had done when editing Profile, Smith left out the author’s dedication, perhaps out of a sense of modesty. Nevertheless, it is nice to see the old sonnet in the BSJ for the first time. It would not be the last.
Despite Smith’s regard for the sonnet, records from the 1950s BSI dinners show it was not read during his tenure as head of the Irregulars.
However, it was certainly well known at this time in Chicago, where Starrett himself would occasionally read it at meetings of the Hounds of the Baskerville (sic), the scion society he helped found. Other Chicago scions are reported to have made it a part of their celebrations too, adding to its popularity.
(Permission to reprint these two pages from the January 1952 issue of The Baker Street Journal granted courtesy of the Baker Street Irregulars.)
In addition to Edgar Smith, there was one other prominent fan of “221B” who helped popularize the poem in the 50s and 60s.
Basil Rathbone also played a role in the growing popularity of the sonnet. Starrett and Rathbone struck up a friendship in the 1930s and found they had many points in common besides Holmes. Writing for the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine in 1969, Starrett recalled that in November 1951, Rathbone visited Starrett’s Chicago apartment and the two talked books into the late evening. “He took with him a copy of one of my sonnets, which he later included in his recordings and read many times in his one-man shows, ‘An Evening with Basil Rathbone.’ ”
In fact, Rathbone was so enamored with the sonnet that he included it in his 1956 biography, In and Out of Character. After reprinting the sonnet, which he mistakenly titles “221 B Baker Street,” Rathbone writes:
This poem by my good friend Vincent Starrett, poet, novelist, mystery writer, and book reviewer on the Chicago Tribune causes me to wonder why some sculptor has not been inspired to carve such thoughts out in stone. London owes itself and many millions more of us all over the world a statue to these two men ‘who never lived and so can never die,’ and who have done so much to perpetuate a colorful fragment of history at the turn of the century in dear old Londontown.
In a later chapter of his memoirs, Rathbone recounts an unlikely meeting with an elderly man in Central Park by the name of John Watson, who claims to have known Sherlock Holmes. The two carry on a dreamlike conversation but when Rathbone turns to look at the fellow, he has disappeared. Rathbone concludes his little fantasy by recalling the sonnet’s most emotional line: “Yes, Vincent Starrett was right – painfully, beautifully right – ‘Only those things the heart believes are true!’
Rathbone also showed his regard for the poem by including it in a 1963 recording of Sherlock Holmes stories for Caedmon records. “221B” was the only matter not written by Arthur Conan Doyle on that LP.
As Starrett mentioned earlier, Basil Rathbone would recite “221B” during his evening of readings on college campuses. Late in his life, he recorded the sonnet for Caedmon records, as part of his narration of several original stories. (It was not included in all versions of the album, so if you’re looking to add this to your collection be careful. There were several pressings of the LP and “221B” is not on all of them.)
Rathbone’s reading of “221B” is unusual, in that he literally reads “view-halloo” as “view-hello.” This means the rhyme scheme is thrown off, but Rathbone doesn’t seem to care.
I have to say that I prefer Starrett’s reading to Rathbone’s, even though Rathbone has the more professional voice. You can jump back here to compare with Starrett.
The sonnet takes on a new life as the Holmes boom of the 1970s takes hold. We’ll dig a little deeper in Chapter 9.
‘221B’ Chapter Index
Chapter 1: Introduction and Prologue: ‘Where it is always 1895’
Chapter 2: 'So they still live for all that love them well'
Chapter 3: ‘Some of the most dramatic months… of contemporary history’
Chapter 4: ‘Here dwell together still’
Chapter 5: ‘He has done many little things for me’
Chapter 6: ‘A wider circulation’
Chapter 7: ‘Part of a slim volume’
Chapter 8: ‘This poem by my good friend’
Chapter 9: ‘Something remains of London in 1895’
Chapter 10: What is it we love about ‘221B’?
Chapter 11: Afterthoughts and Acknowledgments
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