Saturday 28 December 2013

The Best of Archy and Mehitabel - Don Marquis

I've been away from the internet for a few days, and with a stinking post-Christmas cold (which won't go away and has left me exhausted) so I'm going to be hard-pressed to write my final four reviews of the year... but this afternoon I did finish my Reading Presently project.  Hurrah!  I have read 50 books which were given to me as presents... and I'll write something about each of the outstanding ones before the end of the year, leaving my Best Books, summings up etc. until the early days of 2014.

My friend Barbara gave me The Best of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis for my birthday this year, with a note hoping that I didn't have it already (always a worry when people give me books as presents).  Well, in this case, I had never heard of Don Marquis or the cockroach and cat of the title.  They originated in a New York newspaper column, when Don Marquis apparently discovered that a cockroach had, in his absence, been writing vers libre on the typewriter.  And that is what this little book contains.

The cockroach is Archy; Mehitabel is a cat, and (unsurprisingly) my favourite of the few characters which enter the scene.  'Toujours gai' is her motto, as well as 'there's a dance in the old dame yet', and 'always the lady'.  Despite these protestations, she is arguably not particularly ladylike... often detailing the savagings she has given gentlemen cats who have wronged her.  Oh, and she claims to have been reincarnated from Cleopatra.

I don't often read poetry, but this collection was enjoyable - a pleasant mixture of the silly, surreal, and profound.  Here's a rather long example I liked, 'mehitabel and her kittens' (poor Archy cannot type capitals - although, as E.B. White writes in his reprinted introduction, that is no reason to foreswear them when referring to him):

well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that i am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
but am i never to be allowed
to live my own life
i have purposely avoided
matrimony in the interests
of the higher life
but i might just
as well have been a domestic
slave for all the freedom
i have gained
i hope none of them
gets run over by
an automobile
my heart would bleed
if anything happened
to them and i found it out
but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove
them they are living
just now in an abandoned
garbage can just behind
a made over stable in greenwich
village and if it rained
into the can before i could
get back and rescue them
i am afraid the little
dears might drown
it makes me shudder just
to think of it
of course if i were a family cat
they would probably
be drowned anyhow
sometimes i think
the kinder thing would be
for me to carry the
sweet little things
over to the river
and drop them in myself
but a mother s love archy
is so unreasonable
something always prevents me
these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too
in spite of hell
well boss it will
be interesting to note
just how mehitabel
works out her present problem
a dark mystery still broods
over the manner
in which the former
family of three kittens
one day she was taking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject
we had a heavy rain
right after she spoke to me
but probably that garbage can
leaks so the kittens
have not yet
been drowned


  1. Oh, toujours gai! I think a shared love of Archy and Mehitabel has done more to keep me and OH married than any amount of admiration for the works of Hesse or Hardy!

    1. Is it just our love of cats, or does darling savage Mehitabel outshine Archy?? And how funny that it has been the glue of your marriage! ;)

  2. Oh! I wish I could go back in time and be introduced to Archy and Mehitabel all over again! A friend gave me a volume of archy and mehitabel for my birthday one year -- like you, I'd never heard of Don Marquis before -- and I just loved them. I am very, very fond of "warty bliggens, the toad" -- is that in your collection?

    1. He is indeed! And what a very wonderful name it is.

  3. Oh, I had this years and years and years ago... And I loved it so much... When I started work as a journalist I used an aged typewriter where the shift key didn't work, and I often thought of Archy as I tried to type... I wish I still had the book, but I have no idea what happened to it.

  4. OMG! Archie and Mehitable! My mom used to talk about them! Haven't heard that in soooooo long. Simon....happy new year and thanx for making 2013 fun!

  5. It's glorious, isn't it? My father introduced me to these wonderful books years ago as part of the family thing of valuing books with cats above all other forms of literature! ;-)


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