Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"The Storming Party" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

At Bay, 2nd Anglo-Afghan War 1880 by W.H.Overend.
On February 6th, 1892, The Speaker published Conan Doyle's poem The Storming Party, which would later be included in his 1898 collected Songs of Action.

Slight as the poem is, unread as Doyle's poems may be these days, The Storming Party does possess (as Sherlock Holmes would say ) some points of interest: in its circumstances of publication, literary nature and relation with the Holmes Canon. Here, first, is the poem itself.

Said Paul Leroy to Barrow,
'Though the breach is steep and narrow,
If we only gain the summit
Then it's odds we hold the fort.
I have ten and you have twenty,
And the thirty should be plenty,
With Henderson and Henty
And McDermott in support.'

Said Barrow to Leroy,
'It's a solid job, my boy,
For they've flanked it, and they've banked it,
And they've bored it with a mine.
But it's only fifty paces
Ere we look them in the faces;
And the men are in their places,
With their toes upon the line.'

Said Paul Leroy to Barrow,
'See that first ray, like an arrow,
How it tinges all the fringes
Of the sullen drifting skies.
They told me to begin it
At five-thirty to the minute,
And at thirty-one I'm in it,
Or my sub will get his rise.

'So we'll wait the signal rocket,
Till . . . Barrow, show that locket,
That turquoise-studded locket,
Which you slipped from out your pocket
And are pressing with a kiss!
Turquoise-studded, spiral-twisted,
It is hers! And I had missed it
From her chain; and you have kissed it:
Barrow, villain, what is this?'

'Leroy, I had a warning,
That my time has come this morning,
So I speak with frankness, scorning
To deny the thing that's true.
Yes, it's Amy's, is the trinket,
Little turquoise-studded trinket,
Not her gift--oh, never think it!
For her thoughts were all for you.

'As we danced I gently drew it
From her chain--she never knew it
But I love her--yes, I love her:
I am candid, I confess.
But I never told her, never,
For I knew 'twas vain endeavour,
And she loved you--loved you ever,
Would to God she loved you less!'

'Barrow, Barrow, you shall pay me!
Me, your comrade, to betray me!
Well I know that little Amy
Is as true as wife can be.
She to give this love-badged locket!
She had rather . . . Ha, the rocket!
Hi, McDougall! Sound the bugle!
Yorkshires, Yorkshires, follow me!'

* * *
Said Paul Leroy to Amy, 'Well, wifie, you may blame me,
For my passion overcame me,
When he told me of his shame;
But when I saw him lying,
Dead amid a ring of dying,
Why, poor devil, I was trying
To forget, and not to blame.

'And this locket, I unclasped it
From the fingers that still grasped it:
He told me how he got it,
How he stole it in a valse.'
And she listened leaden-hearted:
Oh, the weary day they parted!
For she loved him--yes, she loved him --
For his youth and for his truth,
And for those dying words, so false.

1. 1892 publication.

To put the poem in context, The Speckled Band is appearing in the February issue of The Strand and Conan Doyle is living in South Norwood. Having played cricket the previous summer for the Allahakbarries, he is now a firm friend of J.M. Barrie who has already written a gentle pastiche on Holmes for The Speaker.

In October, 1891, Doyle applied for membership of the all-male Reform Club, whose committee included Wemyss Reid, editor of The Speaker. Doyle's membership is confirmed in June, 1892. Meanwhile he has joined the informal, Bohemian set The Idlers, a group close to The Reform Club. In January, 1892, Doyle had already been published in The Speaker - a piece on British humour that praised Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. Jerome was an Idler.

2. The Poem's Literary Nature.

Doyle's poetry is easily and superficially dismissed in toto as sub-Kiplingesque and jingoistic. Much of it is, but The Storming Party is more reminiscent of Thomas Hardy in two main ways. First, both Doyle and Hardy flirted with less successful forms of writing, notably drama. Just as Hardy attempted to write plays so, in 1892, with the encouragement of Barrie, Doyle essays to be a dramatist.

My previous post Doyle's Waterloo tells the story of the success he had with A Straggler of  '15.

Still flexing his nascent literary powers, we also see Doyle attempting verse.

The Storming Party consists of nine stanzas, the last two forming a climactic epilogue. It's a regular, military-sounding form - octets of lines which march between six and eight syllables,  rendered song-like by a repetitive rhyme-scheme, which departs for variation and effect as the poem progresses from its initial aabcdddc format. 

Two soldiers of The Yorkshire Regiment prepare for a 5.30 attack, members of the initial storming party. As they await the signal rocket, married Paul Leroy observes Barrow take a locket from his pocket. It was, lies Barrow, stolen from Amy Leroy while they had a dance (rather than being given as a love token). He has reached for it now having felt his time had come.

Just as Leroy is berating his mate for the theft, the bugle sounds for action. In the poem's consequent hiatus we understand Barrow to have died in action and Leroy to have tried to forget the transgression and mourn his dead pal.

The final two stanzas record the husband and wife in conversation upon his repatriation. The predictable rhyme-scheme is abandoned rather effectively to mirror both the nobility of Barrow's lie and the hidden bereavement suffered by Amy, who must deal with the death of her secret lover in utter loneliness.

Such a story of private, domestic rivalry in love , couched in soldierly slang played out against the backdrop of nations at war is Hardy-esque in its ironies and reverses. The title's full implications become apparent - an altogether different 'fort' had been assailed even before they set sail.

3. The Poem's Relationship with the Holmesian Canon.

One of the issues the reader is left wondering about is whether the poem has in mind a particular campaign and mention of The Yorkshires gives a basis for speculation.

From the modest research I've conducted, I think it reasonable to identify The West Yorkshire Regiment as most likely candidate. In 1890, when they were called across from their Portsmouth barracks to help quell the Sounthampton Dock Strike, Doyle was still resident in Southsea and would be familiar with them.

As for campaign - the most recent in which the regiment took part were the 1860 New Zealand Maori campaigns & the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80.

Now, while there are some interesting echoes in the poem's language of that employed in this description of The Storming Party at Ohaeawai , I think the much more recent Afghan war to be the poem's setting. If I am right, we have in this little poem a poignant connection with Dr. John Watson who returned wounded from that very campaign to take up rooms with Sherlock Holmes at 221b. Baker Street in A Study in Scarlet. 

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