Over the last three months, I have faithfully listened to a marvelous audio collection of Arthur Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
During this time, I have been struck by the masterful quality of Doyle's descriptive writing. For it is the description provided by the narrator Watson that makes these stories truly come alive. It is impossible to consider Watson to be stupid or unwitting after one closely reads the prose attributed to him. As one Sherlockian commentator notes:
Just listen to the introduction of "The Sign of the Four," or "The Five Orange Pips," and you will hear what I mean about the power of Doyle's description.
I read this last phrase to my father.
"You have made a mistake," he said.
"Yes. You meant to say that the child cried and sobbed like the wind in the chimney. "
I looked at the text again:
No, I had read it correctly. Then it hit me. And I was aghast. The concept of the child chimney sweep was so common, so universally-understood that Doyle used it as a metaphor to help explain the sound of the wind.
And I was reminded of Blake's poem, "The Chimney Sweeper":
Crying "weep! weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father and mother? Say!"-
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.
"Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
"And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."
I am also reminded of Blakes' poem "London."
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:
How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.
But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.
This poem is one of the most moving I have ever read. It describes the true and sorry state of humanity, the part we don't see because we are too excited about the new shiny toys we can buy and the blinding harmony of delight that lurks within the things we watch and hear.