Don Marquis

  Jerome Shea       February 1, 2009      Weekend Wonk

First of all, it’s “MARkwiss (Scots), not MarKEE (French). And he wrote much more than Archie and Mehitabel.

Nevertheless, it is for Archie and Mehitabel that he is known, if known at all, and one could do far worse. (In fact, the temptation to just turn the rest of this wonk over to Archie is almost irresistible.) Marquis created Archie (the cockroach) and Mehitabel (the alley cat) in 1916 so that he could get column material in some other guise, so that he would have a voice not his own for a while. The pair immediately took off, and Archie’s poems have stayed in print ever since, a remarkable run. The story is that Marquis left a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter one night and when he got to work the next morning he surprised a giant cockroach hurling himself onto key after key until “after about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of poems which are always there in profusion.” But let Archie pick up the story—here is what Marquis found:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i cant eat it
there is a cat here named mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay

Despite this rocky start, Archie and Mehitabel became fast friends and staunch allies in the battle of life. Because reincarnation, ectoplasm, and other phenomena were all the rage in those days, it is no surprise that Mehitabel, too, had a past life. And, being Mehitabel, it had to be glamorous:

mehitabel s soul formerly inhabited a
human also at least that
is what mehitabel is claiming these
days it may be she got jealous of
my prestige anyhow she and
i have been talking it over in a
friendly way who were you
mehitabel i asked her i was
cleopatra once she said i said i
suppose you lived in a palace you bet
she said and what lovely fish dinners
we used to have and licked her chops

Archie’s vers libre looks like cut-rate e.e.cummings simply because the poor little beast couldn’t manage the shift key. (How he managed the carriage return is anybody’s guess.) He didn’t want to be an ersatz cummings. Archie wanted only to be Archie. Which he was. And Mehitabel took whatever life served up with iron-clad joie de vivre:

i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday scepters and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell

do you think that i would change
my present freedom to range
for a castle or moated grange
wotthehell wotthehell
cage me and i d go frantic
my life is so romantic
capricious and corybantic
and i m toujours gai toujours gai

Toujours gai. That’s Mehitabel to whisker.

I said that Marquis wrote much more: plays, novels, serious poetry. He could say, with Archie, “Expression is the need of my soul.” Writing relentlessly, he made a pile of money at his craft and lost it all on a failed play that he believed in. If Archie was one alter ego, Mehitabel was another—until it became impossible to shout into the world’s teeth, “Toujours gai.” But not before writing one of most haunting and heart-wrenching lines that I have ever read.

But that’s for next week. Till then, “Toujours gai, friends!”

Postscript. I recommend the 1950 edition of Archie and Mehitabel (The Life and Times of Archie and Mehitabel, Doubleday and Co.), which has a wonderful introduction by E.B. White in which you’ll find Marquis’s famous line when he came off an enforced spell of temperance: “I’ve finally conquered that god-damn will power of mine. Gimme a double scotch.”

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