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the lesson of the moth -- Don Marquis

Background info: The narrator is a poet reincarnated in a cockroach's body.
He types by jumping on the keys of a typewriter, hence the lack of caps.
Knowing that helps :)
(Poem #36) the lesson of the moth
i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

-- Don Marquis
I don't usually care overmuch for free verse; Don Marquis is a rare but
welcome exception. His poems are delightful, refreshing and filled with the
kind of insight one usually associates with humorists like Twain. The one
above is my favourite; while not as witty as some of the others, it makes me
shiver, which is about as good a subjective test of poetry as any I can come
up with :) It is interesting, incidentally to compare the sentiments
expressed with those in If.


  They are the most unlikely of friends. Archy is a cockroach with the soul
  of a poet, and Mehitabel is an alley cat who traces her lineage back to
  Cleopatra. Not to a cat in Cleopatra's time, mind you, but Cleopatra
  herself. Together, cockroach and cat form the foundation of one of the
  most engaging collections of light poetry to come out of the early
  twentieth century.
  The drawings that accompany some of these poems are by the brilliant
  cartoonist George Herriman, creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip. You'll
  find them in just about all of the Archy and Mehitabel books.

    -- the archy and mehitabel page,
    <[broken link]>

  We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning, and discovered a
  gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys. He did not see us, and we
  watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and
  cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, 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 operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so
  that a fresh line may be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or
  perspire so freely in all our lives before. 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 the poems which are always there in

  Congratulating ourself that we had left a sheet of paper in the machine the
  night before so that all this work had not been in vain, we made an
  examination, and this is what we 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
    (rest of poem snipped)

    -- Don Marquis, 'the coming of archy'

  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 well 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

    -- Marquis, from 'mehitabel was once cleopatra'

Biographical Notes:

  Who was Don Marquis and who cares?

  Donald Robert Perry Marquis 1878-1937, was a newspaper columnist,
  humorist, poet, playwright and author of about 35 books of which the best
  known are books of humorous poetry about Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel
  the cat. Don's work appeared regularly in the New York Sun and the
  Saturday Evening Post, among other places.

  Don still had enough fans in 1978 that several dozen people assembled in
  Port Townsend, Washington, to celebrate his 100th birthday. Among the
  celebrants were Frank Herbert, author of the Dune trilogy; William
  McCollum, Jr., editor of The Don Marquis Letters (Northwoods Press) and
  the now-defunct Don Marquis Newsletter; Bob Lyon of The Non-Profit Press
  who published Don's play Everything's Jake in honor of the occasion; and
  Jim Ennes, author of Assault on the Liberty (Random House). The group
  shared cocktails, dinner, conversation, speeches, stories about Don, and
  Baked Beans Ambrosia prepared exactly as Don says beans should be prepared
  in The Almost Perfect State.

        -- The Don Marquis page at <[broken link]>


  "Archy and his racy pal Mehitabel are timeless," noted E. B. White in his
  essay on Don Marquis and his famous creations, and the undimmed enthusiasm
  of several generations of fans --who every year buy thousands of copies of
  Marquis' earlier collections--testifies to their appeal. A whimsical and
  sophisticated sage, archy the cockroach entertained readers with
  iconoclastic observations on pretensions, politics, and our place in the
  cosmos during Marquis' career as a New York newspaper columnist in the 1920s
  and 30s.

    -- From reviews of 'archyology', a posthumous collection
    <[broken link]>


23 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Robert Arnold Hall said...

Please create a link with something like

"Robert Arnold Hall, composer, is showing
excerpts of a video puppet production of his song "archy
hears from mars". Click here
to visit [broken link]"

Jackie Shreves said...

Lesson of The Moth

Williams Clare said...

beautiful, touching and enlivening. I'm glad I read it.

Clare Williams
Health and Safety Adviser- Environment & Housing*

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Arsil said...

can you tell me an another poem
in which humorous and melancholy are together
like this poem

Anonymous said...

there once was a man from mantuckin

Anonymous said...

What type of poem is this? Is it free verse, ballad etc?

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