My heart has followed...

  Jerome Shea       February 8, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Don Marquis was born in a small Illinois town in 1878 and died in New York City in 1937. He packed a lot of life into that span. It’s a shame that he is all but forgotten today.

He was basically a newspaper columnist, and his forte was humor. But as if publishing a column six days a week wasn’t punishing enough, he also churned out novels, short stories, essays, poetry, and plays both humorous and serious—more than thirty volumes in all. In the teens and twenties there was not a soul in this broad land who did not recognize the name “Don Marquis.” His play “The Old Soak” (he often playing the title role himself) was a long-running, lucrative success. But his one serious play, “The Dark Hours,” about the trial and crucifixion of Christ, was a humiliating and very costly failure. (It was an ironic failure, too, in that Marquis was a thoroughgoing skeptic where religion was concerned.)

His personal life was beyond tragic. His only son, a very precocious but sickly child, died in 1921 at the age of five. His first wife, Reina, died suddenly in 1923. His only daughter, Barbara, died in 1931 at the age of thirteen. His second wife, Marjorie, died in her sleep in 1936. And still the gods were not done with Don Marquis. His own health failed and, beginning in 1935, he suffered a series of incapacitating strokes. He died on 29 December 1937, in an almost vegetative state. One commentator has described Marquis’s last year as “pitiable,” the exactly right word.*

“My heart has followed, all my days, something I cannot name.”

Perhaps it was prescient, then, that this man should write one of the most haunting lines in our literature. I first found it, when I was scarcely more than a youngster, not in Marquis’s work but in E. B. White’s. In The Second Tree from the Corner is a nasty little dystopian fantasy entitled “The Door.” White has the narrator say at one point, “You wouldn’t want me, standing here, to tell you, would you, about my friend the poet (deceased) who said, ‘My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name’?” I assumed that it was White’s (made-up) line, and I was immediately enthralled. I still have that book. It is rubber-banded because the binding broke long ago. And long ago I highlighted the line in red.

I became disabused of my belief when I first picked up a copy of The Lives and Times of Archie and Mehitabel. It must have been the 1950 edition, because there, at the end of E. B. White’s wonderful introduction, he quotes the line again and gives proper credit. I also realized that the line was not prose but poetry (as if the distinction mattered).

Because the line has been part of the furnishings of my soul for most of my life, I was determined to track it down once and for all. So I did what we all do these days—I Googled it, and there it was! (Praise God for Google!). The poem is entitled “The Name.” It is a workmanlike job with some good lines (“Or dreaming in old chapels where / The dim aisles pulse with murmurings / That part are music, part are prayer— / (Or rush of hidden wings),” if a bit mannered. But that line! That line dwarfs the rest in its simple majesty. Surely I am not alone here. It transfixed no less a light than White, and I found it in some young woman’s blog where she used it as the title. It seems to resonate with all of us.

Yes, I put the commas in. I can be forgiven, I hope, if I thought there were commas in the original. Surely you can hear them. And I can be forgiven, I hope, if I thought it had been cast in prose.

I always introduce my prose style course by passing out a “sampler,” a double-sided sheet with writing snippets at random—some good, some not, most somewhere in between. The Marquis is at the very end, and we hadn’t got to talking about it. One of my students sent me an email about something we had discussed in class; then she added, almost timidly, “That very last one on the sheet, Shea? It’s so beautiful! And you know what? I tried changing it around, and it fell apart on me. It wasn’t beautiful at all any more!” She was absolutely right, of course, and I wanted to just give her an A for the course right then and have done. What makes the line a magic incantation is that lovely triplet (I want to say “triptych”) form. Switch those three phrases around however you like (go ahead, try it) and all the magic drains out of it. You’ve cut the marionette’s strings and it is just a jumble of sticks.

The line speaks to something very deep, something ineffable, in all of us. That’s the other part of the magic. Ave atque vale, Don Marquis. Rest, at last, in peace.

*Marquis requested in his will that he be cremated and his ashes strewn on the waters of New York Bay, near the Statue of Liberty, as his son’s and his first wife’s had been. But his sisters overruled that request and the executors caved in. He is buried in a church cemetery on Long Island. Even in death the poor man couldn’t catch a break.

Postscript. The only biography of Marquis of which I am aware is O Rare Don Marquis by Edward Anthony (Doubleday, 1962), a serviceable work if uneven.

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