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William Palmer on Don Marquis, archy and mehitabel, Slightly Foxed Issue 72

the cat who was cleopatra

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In the 1920s, some of the more daring modernist poets further liberated their already metre-free verse by abandoning capital letters and conventional punctuation. One unfortunate poet had little choice. His diminutive size and the configuration of his limbs determined the way in which he was forced to write. Here he is, working at night on a typewriter in a deserted newspaper office:

He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downwards, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters and he had a great deal of difficulty in operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started . . . After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted.

The piece of paper left in the machine is examined. It reads:

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

This is how Don Marquis introduces his creation Archy – or ‘archy’ as the typing cockroach is forced to describe himself. Most cockroaches are tough little creatures, but Archy soon reveals himself as sensitive, rather anxious and bullied by another ex-poet, now reincarnated as a rat, who is jealous of Archy’s work and ‘after he has read it he sneers/ and then he eats it’.

But Archy has seen that the man who uses the typewriter during the day is interested in what is left in his machine overnight and is encouraged by this new audience: ‘i will write you a series of poems showing how things look’. These are the comic poems that make up archy and mehitabel, first published in 1927, and largely concerning Archy’s friendship with a female cat, the magnificent if rather battered and g

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In the 1920s, some of the more daring modernist poets further liberated their already metre-free verse by abandoning capital letters and conventional punctuation. One unfortunate poet had little choice. His diminutive size and the configuration of his limbs determined the way in which he was forced to write. Here he is, working at night on a typewriter in a deserted newspaper office:

He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downwards, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters and he had a great deal of difficulty in operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started . . . After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted.
The piece of paper left in the machine is examined. It reads:
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
This is how Don Marquis introduces his creation Archy – or ‘archy’ as the typing cockroach is forced to describe himself. Most cockroaches are tough little creatures, but Archy soon reveals himself as sensitive, rather anxious and bullied by another ex-poet, now reincarnated as a rat, who is jealous of Archy’s work and ‘after he has read it he sneers/ and then he eats it’. But Archy has seen that the man who uses the typewriter during the day is interested in what is left in his machine overnight and is encouraged by this new audience: ‘i will write you a series of poems showing how things look’. These are the comic poems that make up archy and mehitabel, first published in 1927, and largely concerning Archy’s friendship with a female cat, the magnificent if rather battered and gamey Mehitabel. He discusses reincarnation with her:
talking it over in a friendly way who were you mehitabel i asked her i was cleopatra once she said well i said i suppose you lived in a palace you bet she said
Mehitabel’s most common expressions for dealing with life’s vicissitudes are a dismissive ‘wot the hell archy wot the hell’ and the defiant ‘toujour gai archy toujour gai’ whenever one of her romances falls to pieces. She has an extensive past in affairs of the heart, which stretches back through many transmigrations from one existence to another. But when Archie asks her about Mark Antony and Caesar, she doesn’t recognize their names; after all, as she says, she has met ‘so many prominent gentlemen i/ won’t lie to you or stall i/ do get my dates mixed up sometimes’. There’s more of the Bronx about Mehitabel than there is of Ancient Egypt, and her adventures form the funniest and most enduring of Archy’s poems. True, Mehitabel does treat her chronicler a little roughly sometimes, once coming close, in an abstracted moment, to eating him. But then, it’s a dangerous world they inhabit, based on a whole hierarchy of predators – in one of Archy’s modernized Aesop fables, ‘the robin and the worm’, there is a protest against fate as the worm is eaten by the robin. While being digested he exclaimed
i am losing my personal identity as a worm my individuality is melting away from me odds craw i am becoming part and parcel of this bloody robin
The robin, sated with the worm, sings a sweet song, and fails to notice Mehitabel sneaking up behind him:
she pounced just as he had extended his larynx in a melodious burst of thanksgiving and he went the way of all flesh fish and good red herring
Mehitabel, in a way probably near the truth of how cats actually think, philosophically considers the fate of the worm and the robin:
they breakfast in heaven all s well with the world how true that is and even yet his song echoes in the haunted woodland of my midriff
The seven pages of ‘the worm and the robin’ never flag in their intense dark comedy, pointing out that the higher a creature is in the food chain, the more complicated its adaptation of moral sense to its own survival. That morally complicated creature, the human being, makes only rare appearances. The most sophisticated of the animals are probably the lovers of Mehitabel. She is forever being picked up by some ‘slick looking tom’ who lives with his rich owners in a fine house and promises love and access to the pantry and icebox. One night, Mehitabel is foully double-crossed: just as we had got
the icebox door open and were about to sample the cream in comes his mistress why fluffy she says to this slicker the idea of you making friends with a horrid creature like that
And, of course, the tom pretends not to know his companion of the night. He turns and attacks her and, aided by the lady of the house and a cook with a broom, Mehitabel is rousted out of the door. The revenge she takes after lying for two days and nights in the shrubbery is savagely funny – full of elegantly blistering reproach as astonishingly bloody violence is inflicted on this particular ‘social swell’. Don Marquis was born in 1878 and died in 1937. Today he is only widely known for his books about Archy, Mehitabel and assorted other creatures. But he also wrote an enormous amount of daily and weekly journalism, novels, collections of short stories, Hollywood screenplays, serious and comic poetry, and a play, The Old Soak (Marquis was a heavy drinker), that ran for 325 performances on Broadway in the early 1920s. (Other plays, religious or historical, came to nothing.) Like most wits Marquis was not a happy man and, like most voluminous writers, only a fraction of what he wrote is now read. Some critics have said that much of his work in other fields is unfairly neglected. Rather like Arthur Conan Doyle, who felt that Sherlock Holmes had overshadowed his historical novels, Marquis came to feel the same about Archy. Certainly, he believed that his prodigious output as a newspaper columnist had got in the way of a major serious novel he had worked on for years but never managed to complete. In 1928, at the age of 50, he wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘I have never told anybody, how deep and abiding my professional disappointments are . . . Except in brief and fragmentary things I have never displayed the powers I have, or developed them.’ Significantly, in the late 1920s a younger generation of novelists, including Fitzgerald and Hemingway, had already won fame for their work: Marquis must have felt that he had been left on the shelf, his only fame coming from a book of comic verse about a cockroach and a libidinous cat. There were other, deeper causes of despair. Marquis had clawed his way out of youthful poverty and a series of menial jobs to become one of America’s leading journalists, and a persistent fear of failure led him to take on too many commitments. His health was damaged by overwork and, perhaps, by his drinking. His personal life had the unremitting darkness of a Greek tragedy. In 1909, he married Reina Melcher. They had a son and daughter; the son died aged 5, and Reina died in 1923. Marquis remarried in 1926. The daughter of his first marriage died five years later, aged just 15. Marquis himself suffered a devastating stroke in 1936, and his second wife died that same year. Marquis followed her in 1937. So perhaps we can forgive Marquis for the wry disdain with which his poet, Archy, treats the meaning of life:
i once heard the survivors of a colony of ants that had been partially obliterated by a cow s foot seriously debating the intention of the gods towards their civilization
Such complacency is found elsewhere in Archy’s animal world. In ‘warty bliggens, the toad’, Warty spends his days sitting under a toadstool that he believes was created solely for his comfort, to shelter him from sun and rain:
do not tell me said warty bliggens that there is not a purpose in the universe the thought is blasphemy . . . to what act of yours do you impute this interest on the part of the creator of the universe i asked him why is it that you are so greatly favored ask rather said warty bliggens what the universe has done to deserve me
Luckily for us, most of the characters Archy meets and immortalizes are full of energy and tell wonderful stories of their previous and present lives: spiders, flies, hornets, a parrot who knew Shakespeare in a past existence, even a tarantula who arrives by ship from South America in a bunch of bananas and proceeds to terrify the local community until dealt with by Freddy the Rat. Unfortunately, Freddy succumbs in their epic battle and is buried with full military honours in a nearly clean dustbin. But the chief glory of the collection is the indestructible, endlessly promiscuous Mehitabel. The book ends with cockroach and cat enjoying a trip to London and Paris. As usual Mehitabel finds a soul-mate and goes to live with him in (where else?) the catacombs of Paris: an ‘outcast feline/ who calls himself/ francois villon’, who regales Mehitabel with poetry of a thoroughly Villonesque nature (excellently rendered by Archy in most skilfully handled metre and rhyme). Archy looks on with awe at the cat’s latest romance. He himself, a warm-hearted, amiable creature, has only one real ambition, one shared by many others in life:
say boss please lock the shift key tight some night i would like to tell the story of my life all in capital letters archy

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 72 © William Palmer 2021


About the contributor

William Palmer ’s latest book, In Love with Hell, a study of alcohol in the lives and work of eleven writers, was published earlier this year. The illustrations in this article are by George Herriman.

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