From the Archives: Archy and Mehitabel by Barbara Ardinger

This was originally posted on December 1, 2019

Archy the Cockroach and Mehitabel the Cat were introduced to the world in 1916 by Don Marquis, a columnist for the New York Evening Sun. Marquis was more than a mere columnist; he was a social commentator and satirist admired by nearly every famous writer of the first quarter of the 20th century. Franklin P. Adams, for example, said Marquis was “far closer to Mark Twain than anybody I know” (see note).

As the story goes, Marquis said he came into his office one morning to find a big cockroach jumping about on his typewriter keys. The cockroach kept climbing up the metal frame and hurling itself headfirst onto a key, one slow letter after another. He couldn’t use the shift lock (except one time when he hit it accidentally and produced an entire uppercase column), so his writing is lowercase. After about an hour, Marquis reported, the cockroach fell to the floor, exhausted after typing just one page. He never could manage punctuation, and he also had trouble with the carriage return—how many of us remember how those old typewriters worked?—but he somehow hit it every time. (My grandfather had an old typewriter like this. The keys were very stiff. I felt like my little fingers were gonna break when I tried to type.)

In his previous life, Archy was a free verse poet. As he explains to Marquis,

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

Vers libre, or free verse, was highly popular in the first half of the 20th century (consider “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) because it does not require use of any of the standard poetical meters (iambic, trochaic, etc.) and uses the rhythms of ordinary speech. You know what? Most of the verse that appears in these FAR posts is free verse. It’s perfectly good poetry, but not Miltonic or Shakespearean or even Keatsean or Yeatsean.

One of Archy’s friends is Mehitabel the Cat. She says she started out as Cleopatra, but now in perhaps her ninth life, she is a fairly scruffy, always hungry, alley cat. Here is one of Archy’s reports on her:

mehitabel the cat claims that

she has a human soul

also and has transmigrated

from body to body and it

may be so boss you

remember i told you she accused

herself of being cleopatra once i

asked her about antony

anthony who she asked me …

listen archy she said i

have been so many different

people in my time and met

so many prominent gentlemen i

won t lie to you or stall i

do get my dates mixed sometimes

think of how much i have had a

chance to forget and i have

always made a point of not

carrying grudges over

from one life to the next …

… i am a free spirit … i

look on myself as being

quite a romantic character oh the

queens I have been and the

swell feeds I have ate

Reading today about Mehitabel’s life a hundred years ago, I begin to wonder if she might be a model for us women living in the first quarter of the 21st century. Thanks to the Nuns on the Bus and #MeToo and the brave women who run for public office and win, we seem to be doing somewhat better than we were, say, half a century ago. (Yes, this a subject for lively debate; please give your opinions in the Comments.) What I think Mehitabel has is persistence. She has the ability to endure, no matter what. I think it’s her free spirited persistence we can adopt today. What do you think?

Here is Mehitabel’s song, as transcribed by Archy, who observed her dancing:

i have had my ups and downs

but wotthehell wotthehell

yesterday scepters and crowns

fried oysters and velvet gowns

and today i herd with bums

but wotthehell wotthehell

i wake the world from sleep

as i caper and sing and leap

when i sing my wild free tune

wotthehell wotthehell

under the blear eyed moon

i am pelted with cast off shoon

but wotthehell wotthehell

do you think that i would change

my present freedom to range

for a castle or a moated grange

wotthehell wotthehell

cage me and i go frantic

capricious and corybantic

and i am toujours gai toujours gai

i know that i am bound

for a journey down the sound

in the midst of a refuse mound

but wotthehell wotthehell

oh i should worry and fret

death and i will coquette

there s a dance in the old dame yet

toujours gai toujours gai

“A dance in the old dame yet.” Do we still have any dancing in us in this Awful Age of Trump? Let’s look for our own endurance, for our own kind of dancing. And while we’re looking, let’s also find a DVD of Andrew Lloyd Webber and T.S. Eliot’s Cats and watch it again. We’ll see the endurance. (Dancing is hard work.) We’ll also how see the dancing keeps cats—us—going. Yes, indeed—there’s a dance is our old dames yet!

BTW, in 1957 there was a Broadway musical about Archy and Mehitabel titled Shinbone Alley. It was written by Mel Brooks (The Producers) and Joe Darien (Man of La Mancha). Eddie Bracken played Archy, Eartha Kitt played Mehitabel, and it ran for forty-nine performances. I guess Don Marquis was way too smart and satiric for 1950s America. Marquis died in 1936; Archy and Mehitabel live on.

Note: This quote and all the poetry are taken from The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, Edited with Notes and Introduction by Michael Sims (Penguin Books, 2006). It’s one of the funniest books you’ll ever read.

Author: Barbara Ardinger

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (, is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

One thought on “From the Archives: Archy and Mehitabel by Barbara Ardinger”

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: