Don Marquis, born in Walnut Illinois in 1878, was a celebrated humorist, poet, playwright, and columnist, who wrote for many New York newspapers and journals, including the Sun, the Herald Tribune, Harper’s and Cosmopolitan
He is mainly remembered today for creating two deathless characters, Mehitabel, a rakish stylish, adventurous alley cat, who takes no prisoners; and archy, a cockroach with the soul of a vers libre bard, who hammers out wry terse ditties on Don Marquis’s typewriter in the small hours. He addresses Don Marquis as ‘boss’ but furiously resists any criticism of his poetic excursions. His lines are all in lowercase because he cannot handle the shift key.
The poem was first published in 1921 under the title “The Hero Cockroach” in Noah an ‘ Jonah an ‘ Cap ‘n John Smith (New York, D.Appleton) It later appeared in Archy’s Life of Mehitabel in 1935, published by Faber, with a slightly different ending and all in lower case. This is the version we have for you here.
Jan Montefiore writes:
In “archy experiences a seizure” the cockroach poet, inebriated by eating ‘kiplings earlier poetry’ has produced a magnificent nonsense ballad about ‘a fight between a cockroach and a lot of other things’
archy may have been nibbling at several early ballads. The cockroach’s defiance of his enemies when he ‘loose[s] his bridle rein’ seems to owe something to the “Ballad of East and West”, where the horse-racing hero ‘lightly’ tells his enemy to go ahead and murder him if he likes, so long as the other is prepared for a costly vengeance:
‘But if thou thinkest the price be fair,—thy brethren wait to sup,
The hound is kin to the jackal-spawn,—howl, dog, and call them up! ‘
– much as the dauntless cockroach invites his enemies to come and get him if they can:
‘begod he said if they want my head it is here on the top of my chine’
But the main source of archy’s inspiration is surely Kipling’s The Rhyme of the Three Captains. whose (1890) swinging seven-foot metre and internal rhymes, exotic diction, literary gore and threats of vengeance he imitates with such splendid gusto. [J.M.]
For more detail see Jan Montefiore in KJ 314 page 47 “archy experiences a seizure”, and Harry Ricketts in KJ 305 page 41 on “Parody. Kipling: Lost Parodist”.