can’t see the forest

Archy and Mehitabel

Posted in American Literature, humor, Literature, Poetry, Satire by Curtis on 10/14/06

The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel could, just possibly, be my favorite book of English-language poetry. If you’ve never heard of it you’re probably perfectly normal, and we all know it’s never too late to end that sad state of affairs.

Don MarquisDon Marquis (1878-1937; pronounced /mar-kwiss/) was an American humorist and newspaper columnist who first introduced the character of Archy the Cockroach in his daily column for the New York Sun, later moving to the New York Tribune in 1916. What was initially intended as a space-filler quickly became the column’s centerpiece. Archy and his friends would, in fact, come to occupy the bulk of Marquis’ creative activity from the early 1920s until his death. The Archy stories were compiled and collected in several volumes, the most famous of which is 1940’s The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel (of which I am fortunate enough to own an original edition.) Previously unknown Archy poems were being published as late as the 1990s, and earlier this year a new critical annotated edition of Lives and Times was published. Original illustrations for Marquis’ poems were provided by George Herriman, creator of the Krazy Kat comics.

The premise for the Archy narratives, as explained in Marquis’ first column on the subject, goes something like this: Marquis walked into his newspaper office one morning to find that someone had typed a message on a blank piece of paper he’d left in the typewriter overnight. The writer introduced himself in these words as a romantic poet transmigrated into the body of a cockroach, forced to subsist on apple cores and sandwich remnants left behind by the news staff. He asks Marquis to please increase the amount of leftovers in the wastebasket, and to always leave a blank page in the typewriter each night so that he can compose his observations of the world from a cockroach’s perspective.

Because he is a cockroach, Archy cannot use the shift key and so is unable to properly capitalize or punctuate his writings. He has to exert Herculean effort just to jump hard enough to force each keystroke to leave an impression on the page. As the months and years roll by, Archy increases the scope of his narrative and of his own microcosmos so that his writings form a satirical sort of social commentary prominently featuring the global misadventures of his friend, Mehitabel the alley cat. In this way, Marquis was able to use his column to subtly comment on issues of the day as well as to entertain.

I was first introduced to the book by an aunt when I was living in Manhattan in the summer of 1993. I read her copy several times through that year, but it was almost twelve years later that I finally procured a copy of my own. There aren’t words for me to describe what an entertaining and enlightening read this book provides, with many of the issues covered still retaining a great deal of relevance to 21st Century circumstance. Marquis’ poems are every bit as accessible to young children as to adults, as the stories exist on multiple levels of understanding, replete with both sing-song rhyming and sophisticated symbolism. If you’re looking for unique reading material for the winter, I’d highly recommend it.

Here are a very few selected samples from The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel, to whet your appetite:

why mehitabel jumped

well boss i saw
mehitabel the cat the other day
and she was looking a little
thin and haggard
with a limp in
the hind leg on the starboard
side old feline animal i said
how is tricks still in the
ring archy she said and still a
lady in spite of h dash double l
always jolly archy she said inArchy and Mehitabel
spite of hard luck
toujours gai is the word
archy toujours gai how did you
get the game leg mehitabel i asked her
alas she said it is due
to the treachery of
one of these social swells who
is sure one bad actor he was a
fussed up cat with a
bell around his neck on a
ribbon and the look about him of
a person that is currycombed and
manicured from teeth to
tail every day i met him
down by the east river
front when i was scouting
about for a little piece of fish since
the high cost of living has
become so self conscious archy
it would surprise you
how close they
watch their fish nowadays
but what the h dash double l archy
it is the cheerful heart that
wins i am never cast down for long
kid says this gilded
feline to me you look hungry i
am all of that i says to him i
have a vacuum in my midst
that is bigger than i am i
could eat the fish that ate
jonah kid he says you have
seen better days i can
tell that from looking at you thanks
i said what you say is at
least half true i have never
seen any worse ones and so
archy one word led to
another until that sleek villain
practically abducted me
and i went with him
on board a houseboat of which
he was the pampered mascot
such evidences of pomp and wealth archy
were there that you would not
believe them if i told of them to
you poor cockroach that you are
but these things were nothing to me
for i am a reincarnation of cleopatra
as i told you long ago you mean
her soul transmigrated to a cat s
body i said it is
all one archy said she have it your own
way reincarnation or transmigration
is the same to me the point is
i used to be a queen in
egypt and will likely be one again
this place was furnished swell percy i
said the furniture is
fine and i could eat some of it if
i was a saw mill but
where is the honest to g dash d food
the eats percy what i crave is
some cuisine for my stomach let us
trifle with an open ice box
for a space if one can be
persuaded to divulge the scheme of its
interior decoration follow me
said this percy thing and led
me to a cabin in which stood a table upon
which stood viands i
have heard of tables groaning archy
but this one did not it
was too satisfied it purred with
contentment in an instant i had eaten a
cold salmon who seemed to be
toastmaster of the occasion and a
whole scuttleful of chef doovers what
you mean is hors douvres mehitabel i
told her what i mean is grub said she
when in walked a person whom
i should judge to be either a butler
or the admiral of that fleet or maybe
both this percy creature who had led me
to it was on the table eating with me
what do you think he did what
would any gentleman friend with a
spark of chivalry do what but stand by
a lady this percy does nothing of the
kind archy he immediately attacks me do
you get me archy he acts as if i
was a stray cat he did not
know and he was protecting his
loving master s food from my onslaughts
i do not doubt he got praise and had
another blue ribbon for his heroism as
for me i got the boot and as i went
overboard they hit me on the limb with
a bottle or an anchor or something
nautical and hard that archy is why i
limp but toujours gai archy what
the h dash double l i am always
merry and always ladylike mine archy has
been a romantic life and i will
tell you some more of my adventures
ere long well au revoir i suppose i
will have to go and start a pogrom
against some poor innocent little
mouse just the same i think
that mehitabel s unsheltered life sometimes
makes her a little sad

now look at it

the human race never would
take my advice
and now just look at it
planning more wars which mean
more debts more trouble and still more wars
well if it wants to commit suicide
why should a little insect such as i
worry about it
a suicide is a person who has
considered his own case and decided
that he is worthless and who acts
as his own judge jury and executioner
and he probably knows better
than anyone else whether there is justice
in the verdict
i am sorry to see the human race go
for it was in some respects almost as interesting
as several species of insects
but if it wants to die off
i shall not worry about it
i shall merely conclude it knows what it wants
archy the cockroach

comforting thoughts

a fish who hadArchy & Mehitabel Poster
swallowed an angle worm
found all too late
that a hook was nesting
in its midst ah me
said the poor fish
i am the most luckless
creature in the world
had you not pointed
that out said the worm
i might have supposed
myself a trifle
cheer up you two said
the fisherman jovially
the first two minutes
of that hook are always
the worst you must
cultivate a more philosophic
state of mind
boss there is always
a comforting thought
in time of trouble when
it is not our trouble

One very interesting aspect of the writings of Archy is that, in the beginning, he seems mostly to concentrate on lamenting his newfound circumstances as a poet-turned-roach; that is, he can’t seem to get over the fact that he once was a human but now is an insect. However, as the stories progress, we find that Archy becomes more critical of human attitudes and institutions—in the end he actually decides to wage war against humankind on behalf of insects and other lower animals. When he discovers that won’t work out, Archy turns to a somber sort of warning to humanity to change its ways or face peril. In fact, the entire collection of Lives and Times ends with these lines from Archy to Marquis:

men talk of money and industry
of hard times and recoveries
of finance and economics
but the ants wait and the scorpions wait
for while men talk they are making deserts all the time
getting the world ready for the conquering ant
drought and erosion and desert
because men cannot learn

rainfall passing off in flood and freshet
and carrying good soil with it
because there are no longer forests
to withhold the water in the
billion meticulations of the roots

it wont be long now it wont be long
till earth is barren as the moon
and sapless as a mumbled bone

dear boss i relay this information
without any fear that humanity
will take warning and reform


8 Responses

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  1. peoplesgeography said, on 10/15/06 at 6:11 am

    Amazing last few stanzas. The whole entry is interesting and you gave gave us a good taste with those selective excerpts, but the last was the most prescient, I thought. Woe! Ooops that was a typo as I meant to type ‘Wow’, but ‘woe’ also seems apposite, doesn’t it?!

  2. tellitlikeitis said, on 10/15/06 at 10:44 am

    Glad you liked it. It’s interesting, the process that goes on from the beginning to end in this book whereby the little cockroach-poet feels compelled to speak such things. It is very much a tale of Wow to Woe! Or maybe from Woe to Wow to Woe again. :-)  Also, I think it’s pretty incredible that those lines weren’t written in the past ten, twenty, thirty years. They’re from the early 1930s—pre-WWII, anyway. I don’t know what to make of that.

  3. Woodog said, on 10/16/06 at 8:37 am

    The lesson of the moth is one of my favorites. I’ve loved this collection of poetry since being introduced to it in high school, 1974


  4. tellitlikeitis said, on 10/16/06 at 1:35 pm

    I like the moth a lot, too…I should have put that one up! I wish I wanted something half as bad as he wanted to fry himself. :-)

  5. nathan said, on 10/25/06 at 10:07 am

    Wow – truly the more things change the more they stay the same. Woe is we.

    I don’t “get” the first one, though. Could be because of how hard it is to follow what with the lack of punctuation and all… Is the formatting any help at all in print?

  6. tellitlikeitis said, on 10/26/06 at 9:39 am

    Nope, it’s pretty raw. It can be difficult to read, but I think if you start at the beginning of the book and work through it as a whole you sort of get used to the way things are phrased. That first example is a pretty tough one, generally all the stories about mehitabel are like that and the soliloquies from archy are a little easier to follow.

  7. san said, on 11/13/06 at 12:00 am

    Excellent. I will add this link to our Resource centre website – you’ve done a great job.

  8. Curtis said, on 11/13/06 at 12:07 am


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