Don Marquis by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayThere is nothing more pathetic than the case of the author who is the victim of a supposedly critical essay. You hold him in the hollow of your hand. You …

Story type: Essay

There is nothing more pathetic than the case of the author who is the victim of a supposedly critical essay. You hold him in the hollow of your hand. You may praise him for his humour when he wants to be considered a serious and saturnine dog. You may extol his songs of war and passion when he yearns to be esteemed a light, jovial merryandrew with never a care in the world save the cellar plumbing. You may utterly misrepresent him, and hang some albatross round his neck that will be offensive to him forever. You may say that he hails from Brooklyn Heights when the fact is that he left there two years ago and now lives in Port Washington. You may even (for instance) call him stout….

Don Marquis was born in 1878; reckoning by tens, ’88, ’98, ’08–well, call it forty. He is burly, ruddy, gray-haired, and fond of corncob pipes, dark beer, and sausages. He looks a careful blend of Falstaff and Napoleon III. He has conducted the Sun Dial in the New York Evening Sun since 1912. He stands out as one of the most penetrating satirists and resonant scoffers at folderol that this continent nourishes. He is far more than a colyumist: he is a poet–a kind of Meredithian Prometheus chained to the roar and clank of a Hoe press. He is a novelist of Stocktonian gifts, although unfortunately for us he writes the first half of a novel easier than the second. And I think that in his secret heart and at the bottom of the old haircloth round-top trunk he is a dramatist.

He good-naturedly deprecates that people praise “Archy the Vers Libre Cockroach” and clamour for more; while “Hermione,” a careful and cutting satire on the follies of pseudokultur near the Dewey Arch, elicits only “a mild, mild smile.” As he puts it:

A chair broke down in the midst of a Bernard Shaw comedy the other evening. Everybody laughed. They had been laughing before from time to time. That was because it was a Shaw comedy. But when the chair broke they roared. We don’t blame them for roaring, but it makes us sad.

The purveyor of intellectual highbrow wit and humour pours his soul into the business of capturing a few refined, appreciative grins in the course of a lifetime, grins that come from the brain; he is more than happy if once or twice in a generation he can get a cerebral chuckle–and then Old Boob Nature steps in and breaks a chair or flings a fat man down on the ice and the world laughs with, all its heart and soul.

Don Marquis recognizes as well as any one the value of the slapstick as a mirth-provoking instrument. (All hail to the slapstick! it was well known at the Mermaid Tavern, we’ll warrant.) But he prefers the rapier. Probably his Savage Portraits, splendidly truculent and slashing sonnets, are among the finest pieces he has done.

The most honourable feature of Marquis’s writing, the “small thing to look for but the big thing to find,” is its quality of fine workmanship. The swamis and prophets of piffle, the Bhandranaths and Fothergill Finches whom he detests, can only create in an atmosphere specially warmed, purged and rose-watered for their moods. Marquis has emerged from the underworld of newspaper print just by his heroic ability to transform the commonest things into tools for his craft. Much of his best and subtlest work has been clacked out on a typewriter standing on an upturned packing box. (When the American Magazine published a picture of him at work on his packing case the supply man of the Sun got worried, and gave him a regular desk.) Newspaper men are a hardy race. Who but a man inured to the squalour of a newspaper office would dream of a cockroach as a hero? Archy was born in the old Sun building, now demolished, once known as Vermin Castle.

“Publishing a volume of verse,” Don has plaintively observed, “is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear the echo.” Yet if the petal be authentic rose, the answer will surely come. Some poets seek to raft oblivion by putting on frock coats and reading their works aloud to the women’s clubs. Don Marquis has no taste for that sort of mummery. But little by little his potent, yeasty verses, fashioned from the roaring loom of every day, are winning their way into circulation. Any reader who went to Dreams and Dust (poems, published October, 1915) expecting to find light and waggish laughter, was on a blind quest. In that book speaks the hungry and visionary soul of this man, quick to see beauty and grace in common things, quick to question the answerless face of life–

Still mounts the dream on shining pinion,
Still broods the dull distrust;
Which shall have ultimate dominion,
Dream, or dust?

Heavy men are light on their feet: it takes stout poets to write nimble verses (Mr. Chesterton, for instance). Don Marquis has something of Dobsonian cunning to set his musings to delicate, austere music. He can turn a rondeau or a triolet as gracefully as a paying teller can roll Durham cigarettes.

How neat this is:


Formal, quaint, precise, and trim,
You begin your steps demurely–
There’s a spirit almost prim
In the feet that move so surely.
So discreetly, to the chime
Of the music that so sweetly
Marks the time.

But the chords begin to tinkle
And your feet they flash and flicker–
Flash and flutter to a tricksy
Fickle meter;
And you foot it like a pixie–
Only fleeter!

Not our current, dowdy
“Turkey trots” and rowdy
For they made you overseas
In politer times than these
In an age when grace could please,
Ere St. Vitus
Clutched and shook us, spine and knees;
Loosed a plague of jerks to smite us!

But Marquis is more than the arbiter of dainty elegances in rhyme: he sings and celebrates a robust world where men struggle upward from the slime and discontent leaps from star to star. The evolutionary theme is a favourite with him: the grand pageant of humanity groping from Piltdown to Beacon Hill, winning in a million years two precarious inches of forehead. Much more often than F.P.A., who used to be his brother colyumist in Manhattan, he dares to disclose the real earnestness that underlies his chaff.

I suppose that the conductor of a daily humorous column stands in the hierarchy of unthanked labourers somewhere between a plumber and a submarine trawler. Most of the available wheezes were pulled long ago by Plato in the Republic (not the New Republic) or by Samuel Butler in his Notebooks. Contribs come valiantly to hand with a barrowful of letters every day–(“The ravings fed him” as Don captioned some contrib’s quip about Simeon Stylites living on a column); but nevertheless the direct and alternating current must be turned on six times a week. His jocular exposal of the colyumist’s trade secret compares it to the boarding-house keeper’s rotation of crops:

MONDAY. Take up an idea in a serious way. (ROAST BEEF.)

TUESDAY. Some one writes us a letter about Monday’s serious idea. (COLD ROAST BEEF.)

WEDNESDAY. Josh the idea we took up seriously on Monday. (BEEF STEW.)

THURSDAY. Some one takes issue with us for Wednesday’s josh of Monday’s serious idea. (BEEFSTEAK PIE.)

FRIDAY. We become a little pensive about our Wednesday’s josh of Monday’s serious idea–there creeps into our copy a more subdued, sensible note, as if we were acknowledging that after all, the main business of life is not mere harebrained word-play. (HASH OR CROQUETTES WITH GREEN PEPPERS.)

SATURDAY. Spoof the whole thing again, especially spoofing ourself for having ever taken it seriously. (BEEF SOUP WITH BARLEY IN IT.)

SUNDAY. There isn’t any evening paper on Sunday. That is where we have the advantage of the boarding-house keepers.

But the beauty of Don’s cuisine is that the beef soup with barley always tastes as good as, or even better than, the original roast. His dry battery has generated in the past few years a dozen features with real voltage–the Savage Portraits, Hermione, Archy the Vers Libre Cockroach, the Aptronymic Scouts, French Without a Struggle, Suggestions to Popular Song Writers, Our Own Wall Mottoes, and the sequence of Prefaces (to an Almanac, a Mileage Book, The Plays of Euripides, a Diary, a Book of Fishhooks, etc.). Some of Marquis’s most admirable and delicious fooling has been poured into these Prefaces: I hope that he will put them between book-covers.

One day I got a letter from a big engineering firm in Ohio, enclosing a number of pay-envelopes (empty). They wanted me to examine the aphorisms and orisonswettmardenisms they had been printing on their weekly envelopes, for the inspiration and peptonizing of their employees. They had been using quotations from Emerson, McAdoo, and other panhellenists, and had run out of “sentiments.” They wanted suggestions as to where they could find more.

I advised them to get in touch with Don Marquis. I don’t know whether they did so or not; but Don’s epigrams and bon mots would adorn any pay-envelope anthology. Some of his casual comments on whiskey would do more to discourage the decanterbury pilgrims than a bushel of tracts.

By the time a bartender knows what drink a man will have before he orders, there is little else about him worth knowing.

If you go to sleep while you are loafing, how are you going to know you are loafing?

Because majorities are often wrong it does not follow that minorities are always right.

Young man, if she asks you if you like her hair that way, beware. The woman has already committed matrimony in her own heart.

I am tired of being a promising young man. I’ve been a promising young man for twenty years.

In most of Don Marquis’s japes, a still small voice speaks in the mirthquake:

If you try too hard to get a thing, you don’t get it.

If you sweat and strain and worry the other ace will not come–the little ball will not settle upon the right number or the proper colour–the girl will marry the other man–the public will cry, Bedamned to him! he can’t write anyhow!–the cosmos will refuse its revelations of divinity–the Welsh rabbit will be stringy–you will find there are not enough rhymes in the language to finish your ballade–the primrose by the river’s brim will be only a hayfever carrier–and your fountain pen will dribble ink upon your best trousers.

But Don Marquis’s mind has two yolks (to use one of his favourite denunciations). In addition to these comic or satiric shadows, the gnomon of his Sun Dial may be relied on every now and then to register a clear-cut notation of the national mind and heart. For instance this, just after the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany:

This Beast we know, whom time brings to his last rebirth
Bull-thewed, iron-boned, cold-eyed and strong as Earth …
As Earth, who spawned and lessoned him,
Yielded her earthy secrets, gave him girth,
Armoured the skull and braced the heavy limb–
Who frowned above him, proud and grim,
While he sucked from her salty dugs the lore
Of fire and steel and stone and war:
She taught brute facts, brute might, but not the worth

Of spirit, honour and clean mirth …
His shape is Man, his mood is Dinosaur.

Tip from the wild red Welter of the past
Foaming he comes: let this rush, be his last.

Too patient we have been, thou knowest, God, thou knowest.
We have been slow as doom. Our dead
Of yesteryear lie on the ocean’s bed–
We have denied each pleading ghost–
We have been slow: God, make us sure.
We have been slow. Grant we endure
Unto the uttermost, the uttermost.

Did our slow mood, O God, with thine accord?
Then weld our diverse millions, Lord,
Into one single swinging sword.

I have been combing over the files of the Sun Dial, and it is disheartening to see these deposits of pearl and pie-crust, this sediment of fine mind, buried full fathom five in the yellowing archives of a newspaper. I thought of De Quincey’s famous utterance about the press:

Worlds of fine thinking lie buried in that vast abyss, never to be disentombed or restored to human admiration. Like the sea, it has swallowed treasures without end, that no diving-bell will bring up again.

Greatly as we cherish the Sun Dial, we are jealous of it for sapping all its author’s time and calories. No writer in America has greater of more meaty, stalwart gifts. Don, we cry, spend less time stoking that furnace out in Port Washington, and more on your novels!

There is no more convincing proof of the success of the Sun Dial than the roster of its contributors. Some of the most beautiful lyrics of the past few years have been printed there (I think particularly of two or three by Padraic Colum). In this ephemeral column of a daily newspaper some of the rarest singers and keenest wits of the time have been glad to exhibit their wares, without pay of course. It would be impossible to give a complete list, but among them are William Rose Benet, Clinton Scollard, Edith M. Thomas, Benjamin De Casseres, Gelett Burgess, Georgia Pangborn, Charles Hanson Towne, Clement Wood.

But the tragedy of the colyumist’s task is that the better he does it the harder it becomes. People simply will not leave him alone. All day long they drop into his office, or call him up on the phone in the hope of getting into the column. Poor Don! he has become an institution down on Nassau Street: whatever hour of the day you call, you will find his queue there chivvying him. He is too gracious to throw them out: his only expedient is to take them over to the gin cathedral across the street and buy them a drink. Lately the poor wretch has had to write his Dial out in the pampas of Long Island, bringing it in with him in the afternoon, in order to get it done undisturbed. How many times I have sworn never to bother him again! And yet, when one is passing in that neighbourhood, the temptation is irresistible…. I dare say Ben Jonson had the same trouble. Of course someone ought to endow Don and set him permanently at the head of a chophouse table, presiding over a kind of Mermaid coterie of robust wits. He is a master of the tavernacular.

He is a versatile cove. Philosopher, satirist, burlesquer, poet, critic, and novelist. Perhaps the three critics in this country whose praise is best worth having, and least easy to win, would be Marquis, Strunsky, and O.W. Firkins. And I think that the three leading poets male in this country to-day are Marquis, William Rose Benet, and (perhaps) Vachel Lindsay. Of course Don Marquis has an immense advantage over Will Benet in his stoutness. Will had to feed up on honey and candied apricocks and mares’ milk for months before they would admit him to the army.

Hermione and her little group of “Serious Thinkers” have attained the dignity of book publication, and now stand on the shelf beside “Danny’s Own Story” and “The Cruise of the Jasper B.” This satire on the azure-pedalled coteries of Washington Square has perhaps received more publicity than any other of Marquis’s writings, but of all Don’s drolleries I reserve my chief affection for Archy. The cockroach, endowed by some freak of transmigration with the shining soul of a vers libre poet, is a thoroughly Marquisian whimsy. I make no apology for quoting this prince of blattidae at some length. Many a commuter, opening his evening paper on the train, looks first of all to see if Archy is in the Dial. I love Archy because there seems to me something thoroughly racial and native and American about him. Can you imagine him, for instance, in Punch? His author has never told us which one of the vers libre poets it is whose soul has emigrated into Archy, but I feel sure it is not Ezra Pound or any of the expatriated eccentrics who lisp in odd numbers in the King’s Road, Chelsea. Could it be Amy Lowell? Perhaps it should be explained that Archy’s carelessness as to punctuation and capitals is not mere ostentation, but arises from the fact that he is not strong enough to work the shift key of his typewriter. Ingenious readers of the Sun Dial have suggested many devices to make this possible, but none that seem feasible to the roach himself.

The Argument: Archy, the vers libre cockroach, overhears a person with whiskers and dressed in the uniform of a butler in the British Navy, ask a German waiter if the pork pie is built. Ja, Ja, replies the waiter. Archy’s suspicions are awakened, and he climbs into the pork pie through an air hole, and prepares his soul for parlous times. The naval butler takes the pie on board a launch, and Archy, watching through one of the portholes of the pastry, sees that they are picked up by a British cruiser “an inch or two outside the three-mile line.” (This was in neutral days, remember.) Archy continues the narrative in lower case agate:

it is cuthbert with the pork pie the captain has been longing for said a voice and on every side rang shouts of the pie the pie the captains pie has come at last and a salute of nineteen guns was fired the pie was carried at once to the captains mess room where the captain a grizzled veteran sat with knife and fork in hand and serviette tucked under his chin i knew cried the captain that if there was a pork pie in america my faithful cuthbert find it for me the butler bowed and all the ships officers pulled up their chairs to the table with a rasping sound you may serve it honest cuthbert said the captain impatiently and the butler broke a hole in the top crust he touched a hidden mechanism for immediately something right under me began to go tick tock tick tock tick tock what is that noise captain said the larboard mate only the patent log clicking off the knots said the butler it needs oiling again but cuthbert said the captain why are you so nervous and what means that flush upon your face that flush your honor is chicken pox said cuthbert i am subject to sudden attacks of it unhand that pie cried the ships surgeon leaping to his feet arrest that butler he is a teuton spy that is not chicken pox at all it is german measles ha ha cried the false butler the ship is doomed there is a clock work bomb in this pie my name is not cuthbert it is friedrich and he leaped through a port into the sea his blonde side whiskers which were false falling off as he did so ha ha rang his mocking laughter from the ocean as he pulled shoreward with long strokes your ship is doomed my god said the senior boatswain what shall we do stop the clock ordered the captain but i had already done so i braced my head against the hour hand and my feet against the minute hand and stopped the mechanism the captain drew his sword and pried off all the top crust gentlemen he said yonder cockroach has saved the ship let us throw the pie overboard and steam rapidly away from it advised the starboard ensign not so not so cried the captain yon gallant cockroach must not perish so gratitude is a tradition of the british navy i would sooner perish with him than desert him all the time the strain was getting worse on me if my feet slipped the clock would start again and all would be lost beads of sweat rolled down my forehead and almost blinded me something must be done quick said the first assistant captain the insect is losing his rigidity wait said the surgeon and gave me a hypodermic of some powerful east indian drug which stiffened me like a cataleptic but i could still see and hear for days and days a council of war was held about me every afternoon and wireless reports sent to london save the cockroach even if you lose the ship wirelessed the admiralty england must stand by the smaller nations and every hour the surgeon gave me another hypodermic at the end of four weeks the cabin boy who had been thinking deeply all the time suggested that a plug of wood be inserted in my place which was done and i fell to the deck well nigh exhausted the next day i was set on shore in the captains gig and here i am.


So far as I know, America has made just two entirely original contributions to the world’s types of literary and dramatic art. These are the humorous colyum and the burlesque show. The saline and robust repartee of the burlicue is ancient enough in essence, but it is compounded into a new and uniquely American mode, joyously flavoured with Broadway garlic. The newspaper colyum, too, is a native product. Whether Ben Franklin or Eugene Field invented it, it bears the image and superscription of America.

And using the word ephemeral in its strict sense, Don Marquis is unquestionably the cleverest of our ephemeral philosophers. This nation suffers a good deal from lack of humour in high places: our Great Pachyderms have all Won their Way to the Top by a Resolute Struggle. But Don has just chuckled and gone on refusing to answer letters or fill out Mr. Purinton’s blasphemous efficiency charts or join the Poetry Society or attend community masques. And somehow all these things seem to melt away, and you look round the map and see Don Marquis taking up all the scenery…. He has such an oecumenical kind of humour. It’s just as true in Brooklyn as it is in the Bronx.

He is at his best when he takes up some philosophic dilemma, or some quaint abstraction (viz., Certainty, Predestination, Idleness, Uxoricide, Prohibition, Compromise, or Cornutation) and sets the idea spinning. Beginning slowly, carelessly, in a deceptive, offhand manner, he lets the toy revolve as it will. Gradually the rotation accelerates; faster and faster he twirls the thought (sometimes losing a few spectators whose centripetal powers are not starch enough) until, chuckling, he holds up the flashing, shimmering conceit, whirling at top speed and ejaculating sparks. What is so beautiful as a rapidly revolving idea? Marquis’s mind is like a gyroscope: the faster it spins, the steadier it is. There are laws of dynamics in colyums just as anywhere else.

What is there in the nipping air of Galesburg, Illinois, that turns the young sciolists of Knox College toward the rarefied ethers of literature? S.S. McClure, John Phillips, Ralph Waldo Trine, Don Marquis–are there other Knox men in the game, too? Marquis was studying at Galesburg about the time of the Spanish War. He has worked on half a dozen newspapers, and assisted Joel Chandler Harris in editing “Uncle Remus’s Magazine.” But let him tell his biography in his own words:

Born July 29, 1878, at Walnut, Bureau Co., Ill., a member of the Republican party.

My father was a physician, and I had all the diseases of the time and place free of charge.

Nothing further happened to me until, in the summer of 1896, I left the Republican party to follow the Peerless Leader to defeat.

In 1900 I returned to the Republican party to accept a position in the Census Bureau, at Washington, D.C. This position I filled for some months in a way highly satisfactory to the Government in power. It is particularly gratifying to me to remember that one evening, after I had worked unusually hard at the Census Office, the late President McKinley himself nodded and smiled to me as I passed through the White House grounds on my way home from toil. He had heard of my work that day, I had no doubt, and this was his way of showing me how greatly he appreciated it.

Nevertheless, shortly after President McKinley paid this public tribute to the honesty, efficiency and importance of my work in the Census Office, I left the Republican party again, and accepted a position as reporter on a Washington paper.

Upon entering the newspaper business all the troubles of my earlier years disappeared as if by magic, and I have lived the contented, peaceful, unworried life of the average newspaper man ever since.

There is little more to tell. In 1916 I again returned to the Republican party. This time it was for the express purpose of voting against Mr. Wilson. Then Mr. Hughes was nominated, and I left the Republican party again.

This is the outline of my life in its relation to the times in which I live. For the benefit of those whose curiosity extends to more particular details, I add a careful pen-picture of myself.

It seems more modest, somehow, to put it in the third person:

Height, 5 feet 101/2 inches; hair, dove-coloured; scar on little finger of left hand; has assured carriage, walking boldly into good hotels and mixing with patrons on terms of equality; weight, 200 pounds; face slightly asymmetrical, but not definitely criminal in type; loathes Japanese art, but likes beefsteak and onions; wears No. 8 shoe; fond of Francis Thompson’s poems; inside seam of trousers, 32 inches; imitates cats, dogs and barnyard animals for the amusement of young children; eyetooth in right side of upper jaw missing; has always been careful to keep thumb prints from possession of police; chest measurement, 42 inches, varying with respiration; sometimes wears glasses, but usually operates undisguised; dislikes the works of Rabindranath Tagore; corn on little toe of right foot; superstitious, especially with regard to psychic phenomena; eyes, blue; does not use drugs nor read his verses to women’s clubs; ruddy complexion; no photograph in possession of police; garrulous and argumentative; prominent cheek bones; avoids Bohemian society, so-called, and has never been in a thieves’ kitchen, a broker’s office nor a class of short-story writing; wears 17-inch collar; waist measurement none of your business; favourite disease, hypochondria; prefers the society of painters, actors, writers, architects, preachers, sculptors, publishers, editors, musicians, among whom he often succeeds in insinuating himself, avoiding association with crooks and reformers as much as possible; walks with rapid gait; mark of old fracture on right shin; cuffs on trousers, and coat cut loose, with plenty of room under the arm pits; two hip pockets; dislikes Rochefort cheese, “Tom Jones,” Wordsworth’s poetry, absinthe cocktails, most musical comedy, public banquets, physical exercise, Billy Sunday, steam heat, toy dogs, poets who wear their souls outside, organized charity, magazine covers, and the gas company; prominent callouses on two fingers of right hand prevent him being expert pistol shot; belt straps on trousers; long upper lip; clean shaven; shaggy eyebrows; affects soft hats; smile, one-sided; no gold fillings in teeth; has served six years of indeterminate sentence in Brooklyn, with no attempt to escape, but is reported to have friends outside; voice, husky; scar above the forehead concealed by hair; commonly wears plain gold ring on little finger of left hand; dislikes prunes, tramp poets and imitations of Kipling; trousers cut loose over hips and seat; would likely come along quietly if arrested.

I would fail utterly in this rambling anatomy if I did not insist that Don Marquis regards his column not merely as a soapslide but rather as a cudgelling ground for sham and hypocrisy. He has something of the quick Stevensonian instinct for the moral issue, and the Devil not infrequently winces about the time the noon edition of the Evening Sun comes from the press. There is no man quicker to bonnet a fallacy or drop the acid just where it will disinfect. For instance, this comment on some bolshevictory in Russia:

A kind word was recently seen, on one of
the principal streets of Petrograd,
attempting to butter a parsnip.

For the plain man who shies at surplice and stole, the Sun Dial is a very real pulpit, whence, amid excellent banter, he hears much that is purging and cathartic in a high degree. The laughter of fat men is a ringing noble music, and Don Marquis, like Friar Tuck, deals texts and fisticuffs impartially. What an archbishop of Canterbury he would have made! He is a burly and bonny dominie, and his congregation rarely miss the point of the sermon. We cannot close better than by quoting part of his Colyumist’s Prayer in which he admits us somewhere near the pulse of the machine:

I pray Thee, make my colyum read,
And give me thus my daily bread.
Endow me, if Thou grant me wit,
Likewise with sense to mellow it.
Save me from feeling so much hate
My food will not assimilate;
Open mine eyes that I may see
Thy world with more of charity,
And lesson me in good intents
And make me friend of innocence …
Make me (sometimes at least) discreet;
Help me to hide my self-conceit,
And give me courage now and then
To be as dull as are most men.
And give me readers quick to see
When I am satirizing Me….
Grant that my virtues may atone
For some small vices of mine own.

And it is thoroughly characteristic of Don Marquis that he follows his prayer with this comment:

People, when they pray, usually pray not for what they really want–and intend to have if they can get it–but for what they think the Creator wants them to want. We made a certain attempt to be sincere in the above verses; but even at that no doubt a lot of affectation crept in.

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