Week Eleven: Poetry Speaks Introduction by Elise Paschen and “The Figure a Poem Makes” by Robert Frost

Poetry Speaks Introduction by Elise Paschen and “The Figure a Poem Makes” by Robert Frost

In honor of National Poetry Month, we ask the question, What is Poetry?

“A poem can change your life,” says Elise Paschen, in her introduction to the 2007 edition of Poetry Speaks.  “In poems, we discover the words and images to understand and interpret the world. Whether writing birth songs or elegies, love vows or political anthems, lyric outbursts or vast narratives, great poets throughout the ages transform ordinary experience, thought, and emotion into something memorable.

A poet regards the page differently than the prose writer. As the French poet Paul
Valéry wrote, “Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.” The poet, when writing, considers the borders of a right and left margin and chooses where to begin and end the line. “Verse” derives from the Latin versus, or “turn,” as in turn of the plough, furrow, or line of writing. Unlike the prose writer, who will continue writing the sentence until the typewriter or computer pulls the line over to the left margin, the poet “carves” the line onto the page.”

To appreciate the importance of the line carved out on the page, it may be useful to study a few vocabulary terms.

“In A Poetry Handbook, poet Mary Oliver says, “prose is printed (or written) within the confines of margins, while poetry is written in lines that do not necessarily pay any attention to the margins, especially the right margin.” Critic and poet James Longenbach, in his preface to The Art of the Poetic Line, also links the definition of poetry to lineation: “Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines.”

Line, End-stop and Enjambment:

Line: A line is a subdivision of a poem, specifically a group of words arranged into a row that ends for a reason other than the right-hand margin. This reason could be that the lines are arranged to have a certain number of syllables, a certain number of stresses, or of metrical feet; it could be that they are arranged so that they rhyme, whether they be of equal length or not. But it is important to remember that the poet has chosen to make the line a certain length, or to make the line-break at a certain point. This line-break, where a reader has to turn back to the start of the next line, was known in Latin as the versus, which translates as “turn”, and is where the modern English term “verse” comes from. It is one of the strongest points of a line, which means that words that fall at the end of a line seem more important to a reader (an effect that rhyme can intensify).

End-stop: A metrical line ending at a grammatical boundary or break—such as a dash or closing parenthesis—or with punctuation such as a colon, a semicolon, or a period. A line is considered end-stopped, too, if it contains a complete phrase. Many of Alexander Pope’s couplets are end-stopped, as in this passage from “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”

Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought:
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.

Enjambment: The running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation; the opposite of end-stopped William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” is one sentence broken into 10 enjamed lines:

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green¹

Another term which may be of use in studying poetry is denouement.



1. the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved. synonyms: finale, final scene, epilogue, coda, end.

Similarly, Robert Frost tacked the definition of poetry in his famous and often-anthologized essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.”

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere. The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick. Modern instruments of precision are being used to make things crooked as if by eye and hand in the old days . . .”

Certainly one aspect of writing poetry is the act of rewriting or revision. The poet Elizabeth Bishop was famously known for her meticulous revision process.  And here below is a glimpse into the revision process for the poet Anne Sexton, working on a draft of what would eventually become “45 Mercy Street”:


Yet as we discover in speaking about poetry, for most readers the process begins with delight.  There is no analysis; only immersion. A poem must invite the reader in. We do not begin with the study of the bones of a poem; we only enter it and come away changed.

For those who would aspire to create their own poems on an on-going basis, a study of craft and structure or of seeing the scaffolds or the machine of the poem is certainly needed in order to know what one is doing. The reader and writer both find their delight.


How do you define poetry? Read Paschen and Frost in these excerpts below, and feel free to share your thoughts with us!

What is a poem?

Poetry Speaks Introduction by Elise Paschen and “The Figure a Poem Makes” by Robert Frost

Some poems our Wonderlings book club members shared for Poem in Your Pocket Day 2017:

“Train” by Helen Mackay

“The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens

“Revivals” by Denise levertov

“Beannacht” by John O’Donohue

“The Three Oddest Words” by Wislawa Szymborska

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

“A Little Madness in the Spring” by Emily Dickinson

“Colors Passing Through Us” by Marge Piercy




¹ quote from The Poetry Foundation and Poets.Org.


Week Ten: “Alone” by Ellen N. La Motte and “Sister” by Helen Dore Boylston: Studying Personal Journals

World War One Field Nurses

Over 22,000 professionally-trained female nurses were recruited by the American Red Cross to serve in the U.S. Army between 1917 and 1919 — and over 10,000 of these served near the Western Front. More than 1,500 nurses served in the U.S. Navy during this period, and several hundred worked for the American Red Cross.

During that time, many kept personal diaries documenting their day-to-day lives. For many, this was their first time away from home.

They served bravely. Yet no nurses would begin to receive actual commissions until 1947.

After the war, many of those nurses (in Britain, called VAD’s: voluntary aid detachment) who had not perished often returned home to marry or lead perfectly ordinary lives, retreating from public service without any parade, ceremony or rank whatsoever. Unacceptably, as so often happens in “Herstory”, the experiences of these extraordinary women and so many others like them “got lost.”

The use of primary sources such as journals often reveals riveting stories and extremely well-crafted eye witness accounts.

There is an effort going on now by family descendants to posthumously award commissions to these women as part of the World War One Centenary.

Please read their diary entries and share their stories with others, so as to honor them and bring the lives of these resilient, fierce souls back into the light.


“Alone” by Ellen N. La Motte


“Alone,” is a first-hand journal account from WWI field hospital Army Nurse Ellen N. La Motte.

In 1915, La Motte was sent to Belgium, about six miles behind enemy lines. For the next year she kept a personal diary. “Was it not all a dead-end occupation, nursing back to health men to be patched up and returned to the trenches, or a man to be patched up, court-martialed and shot?” she wondered. The work was grisly and La Motte, like many of the field nurses and VAD’s, kept personal notebooks detailing day-to-day life.
After returning to America, she published The Backwash of War, which gathered a dozen profiles of soldiers and civilians at the front. One scholar notes, “La Motte’s writing demonstrates [that] one of the most insidious traits of war is the way in which it strips the individual of his or her particularity.”
One of La Motte’s personal stories gives an account of such a man, Rochard, a dying soldier she met at the field hospital.

“Sister” by Helen Dore Boylston


We continue our study of first-person WWI field hospital accounts by reading “Sister” -The War Diary of a Nurse, by Helen Dore Boylston.

23-year-old Helen Dore Boylston was from an affluent family, unlike many of the nurses who came from poor or rural families. In her diaries she describes her work with the first Harvard Unit, a U.S. medical team that treated more casualties than any other group of American doctors and nurses during the conflict.

In May 1917 (almost precisely 100 years ago, next month), U.S. medical teams like Boylston’s became the first American troops to arrive right in the middle of the war zone.

Although quite close to the fray, sometimes dropping face-down into mud when bombs were dropped, Boylston also took time to describe the social side of the war.

When does a worker turn for a moment and strive to retain friendships and the appreciation of small human connections and joy in everyday things?

Here is an excerpt from the book “Sister” -The War Diary of a Nurse, by Helen Dore Boylston.

What are primary sources?

Primary sources provide firsthand testimony.They are usually created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.

Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but can also sometimes include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.

Authentic first person accounts- diaries, letters, telegrams -can tell the story of an hour, a day, a historical event or an era.

How do authentic source materials shape our understanding of events in history? And what about your own family history?

Do you have any albums, journals, letters or other authentic records which create your own family’s narrative, or shed light on a particular era in history?

diary of sister edith appletonarticle-2291844-189093AE000005DC-665_634x382

Diary entry by Sister Edith Appleton, relating the story of a soldier dying after being gassed in the trenches of the Western Front. Young Private Charles Kerr’s last wish was a kiss from his nurse.

Read more here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2291844/The-kiss-dying-Nurses-poignant-farewell-First-World-War-soldier-gassed-trenches.html#ixzz4f1w5n7IJ

For Further Study: The Website of The British Red Cross: WWI: Potato Peelers, Sock Knotters and Moss Collectors

Ready for a fantastic time portal into history? Then check out this website of the British Red Cross,which is really just outright fantastic.

For International Women’s Day, Their bloggers created this website to honor volunteers of The Great War.
Learn about the nurses and VAD’s who by the thousands supported the war effort.
Discover more remarkable VADs – the potato peelers, sock knitters and moss collectors of WWI !
Scroll down slowly- this site is just chock-full of information. Enjoy!


For more information on primary resource collections by women . . .

The Diary of Dorothea Crewdson:

Dorothea Crewdson, a Red Cross nurse, was given instructions to leave for northern France in 1915. She spent the next four years as a witness to some of the worst horror of the Great War, yet her diaries, with their beautiful hand-drawn illustrations, sparkle with warmth and humour. Now Dorothea’s nephew, Richard, has brought her diaries together so that they may be published for the first time. Sometimes intimate and gossipy and other times moving and charming, these evocative diaries offer a rare glimpse into the heroic world of a nurse in the First World War.



More Information on Primary accounts of WWI, including La Motte:

World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

127 selections by nearly ninety soldiers, airmen, nurses, diplomats, statesmen, political activists, journalists, and others. Edited by A. Scott Berg


Link to The Crimson Field, a Masterpiece Theater Presentation from  from BBC1:


Watch previews of The Crimson Field:


Week Nine: “Bird” and “Of Power and Time” by Mary Oliver and Selected Poems

“Bird” by Mary Oliver

Discovering Mary Oliver’s poetry leaves one with the same breathless wonder felt as a child waking up on the first morning of a delicious vacation at a summer cottage. There will be everything to explore ; there will be the fields, the woods, the rock beach, the meadows.

There will be all of it, laying ahead of you in sun and shadow.

The poet Stanley Kunitz once said, “Mary Oliver’s poetry is fine and deep; it reads like a blessing. Her special gift is to connect us with our sources in the natural world, its beauties and terrors and mysteries and consolations.”

Indeed, much of Oliver’s writing deals with the outdoors and with a grand, vital celebration of life.

Yet within this celebration the author often turns her considerable talents inward to contemplate mortality. Certainly she’s explored this with great mastery in works such as “Poem for the Anniversary” and many others.

Here for your consideration today is Oliver’s brief essay entitled “Bird.”

“Bird” is from Oliver’s latest essay collection, Upstream (note: in some earlier publications such as this magazine excerpt, it was called “The Christmas Bird”.) The selection was suggested by Wonderlings book club member Shabnam Mirchandani. Enjoy! Have you visited Upstream?

“Of Power and Time”

Another brief glimpse into Mary Oliver’s collection, Upstream can be had in this week’s second selection, the essay “Of Power and Time.” Here, Oliver discusses the charge given to artists who would be both in creative space and of the world at large. Do you work creatively? If so, how do you carve out time and space to honor this? And let’s explore this question: must we venture into a wild place to create true art?

Here is “Of Power and Time” by Mary Oliver.

Two Poems

As supplemental reading to Oliver’s essay collection, it’s worthwhile to explore any one of her many, fine poetry collections (the reading and discussion of these could fill the syllabus of a college course for several years).

If you are new to her poetry, here is an excellent starting place: “Why I Wake Early,” read by the author:

And “Morning” (from New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Beacon Press, 1992):


A bit about Mary Oliver . . .


Mary Oliver has received many honors for her poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award

A private person by nature, Oliver has given very few interviews over the years. Instead, she prefers to let her work speak for itself. And speak it has, for the past five decades, to countless readers. The New York Times recently acknowledged Mary Oliver as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Born in a small town in Ohio, Oliver published her first book of poetry in 1963 at the age of 28; No Voyage and Other Poems, originally printed in the UK by Dent Press, was reissued in the United States in 1965 by Houghton Mifflin. Oliver has since published many works of poetry and prose (the complete list appears below).

As a young woman, Oliver studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but took no degree. She lived for several years at the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upper New York state, companion to the poet’s sister Norma Millay. It was there, in the late ’50s, that she met photographer Molly Malone Cook. For more than forty years, Cook and Oliver made their home together, largely in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005.

Over the course of her long and illustrious career, Oliver has received numerous awards. Her fourth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She has also received the Shelley Memorial Award; a Guggenheim Fellowship; an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award; the Christopher Award and the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for House of Light; the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems; a Lannan Foundation Literary Award; and the New England Booksellers Association Award for Literary Excellence.

Oliver’s essays have appeared in Best American Essays 1996, 1998, 2001; the Anchor Essay Annual 1998, as well as Orion, Onearth and other periodicals. Oliver was editor of Best American Essays 2009.

Oliver’s books on the craft of poetry, A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance, are used widely in writing programs. She is an acclaimed reader and has read in practically every state as well as other countries. She has led workshops at various colleges and universities, and held residencies at Case Western Reserve University, Bucknell University, University of Cincinnati, and Sweet Briar College. From 1995, for five years, she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College. She has been awarded Honorary Doctorates from The Art Institute of Boston (1998), Dartmouth College (2007) and Tufts University (2008). Oliver currently lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the inspiration for much of her work.

(official biography from Oliver’s web site)


For further enrichment:


Walden Pond, Morning

In her writing and interviews, the writer Mary Oliver often acknowledges her stylistic and inspirational indebtedness to several well-known male authors of New England/Early America; Whitman, Poe, Emerson and Thoreau . . .

Indeed, Oliver’s collection Upstream mentions these iconic Transcendentalist authors often and lovingly.
Similarly, in his Wonderlings interview, the wilderness guide and “Marginalia” author Michael Engelhard also recommended reading Thoreau for inspiration.
In particular, this essay, “Walking” (Engelhard actually emailed it to us as a “PS” to his interview.)

Thoreau wrote “Walking” toward the very end of his life, as a visionary explication of the “absolute freedom and wildness.” Per Thoreau, one needs “wild and dusky knowledge” more than lettered learning. Thoreau undercuts the notion of “Useful Knowledge,” preferring instead “Useful Ignorance” or “Beautiful Knowledge.”
It seems fitting to pair it here, as Oliver echoes some of these same sentiments in her work.
The work, while long, is conveniently divided into manageable sections which can be enjoyed as mini-passages or all at once as you wish. Enjoy this peripatetic read . . .

Also try this link from The Atlantic

The Complete Works of Mary Oliver


No Voyage and Other Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1965)
The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (Harcourt Brace, 1972)
Twelve Moons (Little, Brown, 1979)
American Primitive (Little, Brown, 1983)
Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986)
House of Light (Beacon Press, 1990)
New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press, 1992)
White Pine (Harcourt Brace, 1994)
West Wind (Houghton Mifflin,1997)
The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo, 2000)
What Do We Know (Da Capo, 2002)
Owls and Other Fantasies (Beacon Press, 2003)
Why I Wake Early (Beacon Press, 2004)
Blue Iris (Beacon Press, 2004)
Wild Geese (Bloodaxe, 2004) (UK)
New and Selected Poems, Volume Two (Beacon Press, 2005)
Thirst (Beacon Press, 2006)
Red Bird (Beacon Press, 2008)
The Truro Bear and Other Adventures (Beacon Press, 2008)
Evidence (Beacon Press, 2009)
Swan (Beacon Press, 2010)

Chapbooks and Special Editions

The Night Traveler (Bits Press, 1978)
Sleeping in the Forest (Ohio Review, 1978)
Provincetown (Bucknell University Press, 1980)


A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt Brace, 1994)
Blue Pastures (Harcourt Brace, 1995)
Rules for the Dance (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)
Winter Hours (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
Long Life (Da Capo, 2004)
Our World, with photographs by Molly Malone Cook (Beacon Press, 2007)


At Blackwater Pond (Beacon Press, 2005)
Many Miles (Beacon Press, 2010)


Mary Oliver’s page at the Poetry Foundation
Mary Oliver at Poets.org
Mary Oliver fan page on Facebook

Week Eight: Walking in Two Worlds: Visiting our Ancestors in “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and “No Name Woman”


“The Way to Rainy Mountain” by N. Scott Momaday

N(avarre) Scott Momaday was born in 1934 into a Kiowa Indian family in Lawton, Oklahoma. Before graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1958, he attended the University of Virginia and met William Faulkner, who exerted a strong influence on his writing.

In The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday expands upon Kiowa folktales; in particular the Journey of Tai-me. The journey invokes both the personal and the archetypal  through an elegant montage blending both legend and Momaday’s personal memoir.

We read of the tribe’s three-century migration from Yellowstone to the Great Plains, and Momaday’s personal reflections on the land the people and the ghosts of his ancestors.

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” is also the standalone prologue essay of the book, setting the stage for an impeccable depiction of the people on, in and through the land, told in a way which goes well beyond literary personification or anthropomorphism.

Says Momaday, “None but an Indian, I think, knows so much what it is like to have existence in two worlds and security in neither.”

Here is “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” one of Momaday’s most-beloved essays. I hope you’ll give it a read and share your thoughts.


A bit about N. Scott Momaday . . .


N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday was born in Lawton, but grew up on the Navajo Reservation. Momaday earned his M.A. and Ph.D degrees from Stanford University in 1960 and 1963 respectively. He has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs and beliefs, and is also recognized as one of the most successful contemporary Native American literary figures. Momaday’s writings are greatly influenced by oral tradition. He is professor of English at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a consultant of the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts since 1970. He is a known poet, and as well, an accomplished artist whose work appears at The Smithsonian, The Art Institute of Chicago and in many other places.




Awards and Honors

Academy of American Poets Prize, 1962
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1969
Guggenheim Fellowship, 1966/67
National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1970


Excellent information on Momaday and many others can be found at the site Modern American Poetry.

Momaday’s involvement with the making of Ken Burn’s The West (PBS) can be found here.

Momaday’s address to the U.N. http://www.wisdomoftheelders.org/un-address-n-scott-momaday/

For information on the kiowa: The Oklahoma Historical Society


Also see this Video on Kiowa dance:


“No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston


The womanwarrioCover_womanwarrior

Maxine Hong Kingston has played a leading role in establishing the personal memoir as a literary form, drawing narrative inspiration from the “storytalkers” of her Chinese-American girlhood.

Her very first book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976) was named by Time Magazine as one of the top ten nonfiction books of the 1970’s.

In her award-winning book Kingston blends autobiography and mythology, outer world and inner being.  First published in 1976, it has become a classic in its portrayal of numerous intersectional personas—female, Chinese, immigrant, American.

From reviews:

As a girl, Kingston lives in two confounding worlds: the California to which her parents have immigrated and the China of her mother’s “talk stories.”   . . .A warrior of words, she forges fractured myths and memories into an incandescent whole, achieving a new understanding of her family’s past and her own present.
Here is the essay “No Name Woman”, by Maxine Hong Kingston.  It’s the opening segment of her book. Let us know your thoughts!


A bit about Maxine Hong Kingston . . .


Maxine Hong Kingston is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who operated a gambling house in the 1940s, when Maxine was born, and then a laundry where Kingston and her brothers and sisters toiled long hours. Kingston graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1962 from the University of California at Berkeley, and, in the same year, married actor Earll Kingston, whom she had met in an English course. The couple has one son, Joseph, who was born in 1963. They were active in antiwar activities in Berkeley, but in 1967 the Kingstons headed for Japan to escape the increasing violence and drugs of the antiwar movement. They settled instead in Hawai‘i, where Kingston took various teaching posts. They returned to California seventeen years later, and Kingston resumed teaching writing at the University of California, Berkeley.

While in Hawai‘i, Kingston wrote her first two books. The Woman Warrior, her first book, was published in 1976 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, making her a literary celebrity at age thirty-six. Her second book, China Men, earned the National Book Award. Still today, both books are widely taught in literature and other classes. Kingston has earned additional awards, including the PEN West Award for Fiction for Tripmaster Monkey, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and the National Humanities Medal, which was conferred by President Clinton, as well as the title “Living Treasure of Hawai‘i” bestowed by a Honolulu Buddhist church. Her most recent books include a collection of essays, Hawaii One Summer, and latest novel, The Fifth Book of Peace. Kingston is currently Senior Lecturer Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley.

Per Bill Moyer’s Journal:

“Maxine Hong Kingston began writing at the age of nine (“I was in the fourth grade and all of a sudden this poem started coming out of me”). She won her first writing award-a journalism contest at UC Berkeley-when she was sixteen. In 1976 THE NEW YORK TIMES praised her first book, THE WOMAN WARRIOR, comparing it to Joyce’s PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, saying, “It is an investigation of soul . . . Its sources are dream and memory, myth and desire. Its crises are crises of the heart in exile from roots that bind and terrorize it.” At the age of thirty-six, she was a celebrity, winning the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Other books would follow, and the praise would continue to be unstinting. In 1980, she was named a Living Treasure of Hawai’i by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai’i.

In 1991, following a massive fire in the Oakland-Berkeley hills that consumed Maxine’s house and the only copy of her manuscript-in process, THE FOURTH BOOK OF PEACE, and as the first President Bush was ordering the invasion of Iraq, she began offering writing and meditation workshops for veterans, to help them give voice to their experiences and work toward personal peace. As she’d hoped, the writing became a process of healing and renewal not just for the veterans but also for Maxine. She drew on the experience of these workshops in THE FIFTH BOOK OF PEACE.

In 1997, Maxine Hong Kingston was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton. In March 2003, she was arrested for crossing a police line at the White House as part of a CODEPINK action to protest the Iraq War.

She retired last year from her career teaching literature and creative writing, mostly at UC Berkeley, where she was known for offering personalized instruction to each student, even in auditorium-sized classes, encouraging “real communication.”


Kingston receiving the National Medal of Arts  from the President of the United States

Bill Moyer’s Journal interview:  http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/05252007/profile.html

A podcast interview with Kingston from The National Endowment for the Arts

Week Seven: Two Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and an interview with Lee Jackson, Author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth



This week The Wonderlings went on a fabulous journey of the mind (or perhaps mind-palace?) to Victorian London; to visit no other than the renowned tenants of 221 B Baker Street. It’s elementary, my dear reader!

Sherlock Holmes is a fictional private detective created by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Known as a “consulting detective” in the stories, Holmes is known for a proficiency with observation, forensic science, and logical reasoning that borders on the fantastic, which he employs when investigating cases for a wide variety of clients, including Scotland Yard.

No study of the short story would be complete without a foray into the country mansions and city opium dens where Holmes and Watson solved each adventure.

Though not the first fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes is arguably the most well-known, with Guinness World Records listing him as the “most portrayed movie character” in history.

Conan Doyle repeatedly said that Holmes was inspired by the real-life figure of         Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, whom Doyle met and had worked for as a clerk. Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing broad conclusions from minute observations. However, he later wrote to Doyle: “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it”. Sir Henry Littlejohn, Chair of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, is also cited as an inspiration for Holmes. Littlejohn, who was also Police Surgeon and Medical Officer of Health in Edinburgh, provided Doyle with a link between medical investigation and the detection of crime.


Excerpt: Chapters from A Study in Scarlet

As a warm-up for Holmes 101 it may be useful to check out Chapters One and Two of the novel A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It established Watson as the narrator and is our very first glimpse into the mind of Mr.Holmes. It’s also our first glimpse into Holmes’s interest in forensics.  Enjoy!  http://www.read.gov/books/sherlock_holmes.html

“The Adventure of The Abbey Grange”

“The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” which first appeared in The Strand Magazine, takes place in the bitter winter of 1897. There’s a new case. Holmes is known for his critical reasoning and his ability to secure proofs which are based on facts. Yet what happens in this story?

“The Man With The Twisted Lip”

For the second story of the week we explore “The Man With The Twisted Lip.”

It’s the sixth of the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The story was first published in the Strand Magazine in December 1891. Doyle ranked “The Man with the Twisted Lip” sixteenth in a list of his nineteen favorite Sherlock Holmes stories.

Dr Watson is called upon late at night by a female friend of his wife. The woman’s husband has been absent for several days. Let’s travel together now, to explore some of the seedier side of Victorian London, as we read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” Enjoy it here.

It may also be of interest to peruse a project called Reading Sherlock Holmes, from Stanford University: http://sherlockholmes.stanford.edu/history.html

A bit about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

He was a British writer and physician, most noted for creating the character Sherlock Holmes and for his detective stories which are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction.

He is also known for writing the fictional adventures of a second character he invented, Professor Challenger, and for popularising the mystery of the Mary Celeste. He was a prolific writer whose other works include fantasy and science fiction stories, plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction and historical novels.

In 1876, he began his medical studies at the Faculty of Edinburgh.

Dr. Joseph Bell

 Per The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia, here he met two men who influence the choice of his future novel hero: Professor Rutherford, whose Assyrian beard, booming voice and broad chest, inspire him Professor George Edward Challenger  and Dr. Joseph Bell, Professor of Surgery, whose amazing deductions on his patients and their diseases did germinate the idea of a detective using the same methods.

In 1887, he wrote his first Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet.

In august 1889, during a dinner hosted by J. M. Stoddart, an American agent of the Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde were hired to write two stories. Published in 1890, Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle The Sign of Four, the second adventure of the detective. The same year, the Conan Doyles stayed a few months in Vienna for Arthur to improve his medical knowledge. Back in England, they moved to London on Montague Place and the young doctor’s office opened at 2 Devonshire Place. Patients were still scarce, and Conan Doyle took up the pen again.

In January 1891, discovering the first issue of The Strand Magazine, he decided to write and propose new adventures of the detective, including A Scandal in Bohemia and The Red-Headed League. He then provided five other short stories and renewed his contract for six additional stories at the rate of one per month.  (The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia)  . . .but as we all know, The story of Holmes would not end there.

Any appreciation of the Victorian London streets, the history of the detective novel, or a study of methods of critical reasoning, logic, fallacy or forensic methods would not be complete without a visit to 221 B Baker Street; therefore we include Doyle in our syllabus and encourage all to further peruse additional stories.

For a more detailed and illustrated biography, please see The Official Site of The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate here.

Lots of information on Doyle and his work can also be found in The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia, here.


The Granada Television production

The Wonderlings Interview Lee Jackson, Curator of  The Online Dictionary of Victorian London and Author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth!


Lee Jackson is the author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. His online Dictionary of Victorian London is often consulted on social history by universities offering courses on the topic of the Victorian novel. It’s a faithful and fascinating resource.


Lee Jackson. Photo from Yale University Press

He has been interviewed by NPR as well as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and many others.

He’s also written seven historical crime novels (published in the UK and France); two anthologies about Victorian daily life; a coffee-table book; and, most recently, a guide to Walking Dickens London.

As we follow Sherlock and John through the famous London fog (composed of pollution from the burning of bituminous coal), the author agreed to ANSWER SOME OF OUR MOST PRESSING QUESTIONS about everyday life in dirty old Victorian London.

Q and A

TW: At this particular time in history, I am wondering how London compared to other urban areas in the West? Was London the most developed metropolis of its day? (Rome did always refer to the English as barbarians didn’t they?) -Jeri Harbers Thomson:

LJ:  London in the 1880s/1890s (classic Holmes period) was the biggest city in the world, with a population well over five million people. It was the centre of the British Empire, with massive import/export trade through the London docks, taking raw materials from the West Indies, Africa and Asia, converting them into finished products, and selling at home and abroad. The underground railway network was developing quickly, and rail (underground and overground) made possible extensive suburban commuter-belts; so transport was excellent, albeit the central streets were often highly congested with horse traffic. From a health point of view, London had benefited from a pioneering mid-century sewer project, which effectively eradicated water-borne disease like typhoid and cholera; but, on the other hand, it was now heavily polluted by coal smoke, which led to the infamous occasional ‘pea-soup’ fogs, but also a pervasive filth, which turned everything grey/black, from trees in the parks, to one’s clothing. Paris was the nearest comparable metropolis, but New York was growing fast in terms of size and population and would overtake London in the next century.

TW: I see that Doyle was into “spiritualism” – fairies, belief in otherworlds. Was spiritualism popular at that time in London? What exactly is spiritualism? – Rick Williams

LJ:  Spiritualism was the idea that ‘mediums’ – persons of particular ‘sensitivity’ – could communicate the spirits of the dead. Two sisters in New York really kickstarted the interest in this (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism#Origins  ) Many Victorians mocked this nonsense; see my site for examples http://www.victorianlondon.org/religion/spiritualism.htm  but others made it into a lucrative business, charging for seances etc. There was a renewed interest in spiritualism after the countless deaths of young men in World War One. Conan Doyle’s enthusiasm ties into this, although apparently he was interested in the subject even before the death of his son in the war.

TW: During World War I did the amount of horse dung decrease in the streets of London? And when the war was over were the men who returned put to use on any city sanitation projects or improvements projects? –   David Delaney

LJ:  The amount of horse dung (predictably) decreased with the advent of the motor-bus and motor-car, which began to really take over in the 1920s (although you could still see horses in London streets in the 1950s). I don’t know of ex-soldiers working on sanitary projects – it’s a little after my period of study. Not everyone saw the car’s potential, though. This is a quote from 1896:

“One of the most entertaining features of this revived interest in what it is the fashion to call automobility, is the series of laments as to the supersession of the horse expressed in almost exactly the same terms as in Trevithick’s day. The railways also were to have wiped out the horses, but have they? There are more horses now than there ever were.

TW: “Could Mr. Jackson relate what he knows of the lives and importance of chimney sweeps in the Victorian era? -Anna Schantz

LJ:  There’s half a chapter in my book Dirty Old London on chimney-sweeps. Basically, sending boys (for the most part, rather than girls) up chimneys, to clean out blockages of soot, was standard practice in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In some cases these tiny children were squeezing into spaces not more than nine inches square. They often went up naked (clothes got torn and snagged) and developed nasty wounds and lesions (including, in later life, cancer in the groin, thanks to exposure to the soot). The cane poles and brushes you see in Mary Poppins were invented in the early nineteenth century, but people were used to sending children, and it took a while – and repeated efforts at forming suitable legislation – to stop the practice of using these ‘apprentices’. It was a nasty trade: the only ‘apprenticeship’ where the employer paid the parents to ‘take on’ a child (it was usually vice versa), because it was so brutal. It was finally stamped out in the mid-nineteenth century, with only very rare instances of children being used after that (and certainly not by Holmes’s time).  There’s a biography of a sweep you can read here https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00IEN2H0Q/victoriandict-21/

TW: Can you speak a bit about the forensic investigations of Doyle’s day? Were people really writing monographs the way Holmes was always doing? Did the medical colleges or Scotland Yard take any of the Holmes methods seriously?  – Celeste Schantz

LJ:  Certainly you get post mortems and chemical investigation of stomach contents in poisoning cases in 19C (I recall it from a detailed account of the Madeleine Smith case https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeleine_Smith ). The use of  photographs of convicted criminals was becoming common from the 1870s onwards. Scotland Yard set up a fingerprint bureau in 1901, and its own forensics lab in 1930s (but used outside scientists before that time).

Thank you, Lee, for taking the time to speak with The Wonderlings!

For more information on Lee Jackson’s books or to visit The Victorian Dictionary:

Check out his NPR Interview: http://www.npr.org/2015/03/12/392332431/dirty-old-london-a-history-of-the-victorians-infamous-filth?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social

as well as