O Rare Don Marquis
The Saturday Review, January 1938
By Christopher Morley
Don Marquis used to tell, with his own complete gusto, of a time in Hollywood a few years ago when he was taken ill with a heart attack. According to his story–which I dare say he improved in the narration–it was urgent for him to be got to hospital at once; all the ambulances were in service, so a hearse was sent to fetch him. In this sombre glass-paned vehicle he was laid on a stretcher and rolled off toward the clinic. But on the way, halted in a traffic jam, the hearse pulled up next to a smart little open roadster in which two frolicsome young women were gaily chattering. In the middle of their mirth they noticed the transparent chariot alongside; they piously withheld palaver, and glanced reverently through the glass panel where Don’s burly figure lay decently composed under a blanket. At that moment he caught their gaze, and in spite of heartburn and syncope appalled them with a slow and magnificent wink. No one, may I add, was ever better furnished for that gesture of intimate apocalypse: he had the large and lustred eye, the heavy reef of eyebrow, which could make a wink seem as physically massive as a shrug. At any rate, Don always insisted; the damsels fell into a hysteric seizure, and as his carriage rolled away he saw them crash into someone else’s car and attempt, with screams, to explain to a disbelieving policeman. “I’ll bet,” he used to add, “they led better lives after that.”
This may seem an odd salute to an old friend just gone, but I could not help thinking of it as we sat the other day at Don’s own funeral service, and as some of his friends afterward repaired, for the ritual of affection, to the nearest inn. I should not have dared to look him in the face, in funeral state, for fear either of seeing that wink–or not seeing it. I wish our taboos were not so strong: it would have been a happy circumstance if some of his lighter madrigals might have been read at the service: for perhaps he was, above all, a really great writer of humorous verse. How rare these are, the study of any anthology will quickly show. Noah an’ Jonah an’ Cap’n John Smith is the best known of his ballads in easy vein, but there are many many others. There’s David and Bathsheba (“Oh what the hell, it’s spring”) and The Old Brass Railing and the lyrics of mehitabel and the unsurpassed Famous Love Affairs. The best of these are sure of preservation for a long time to come. It is the rarest and scarcest of all literary talents–I don’t mean just verse of wit and satiric precision; I mean the stuff of real midriff humor-and even its own creators are only too likely to belittle it. As Don himself once wrote–
And so we raise superior eyebrows,
And scorn the lovely slapstick stuff;
And so we pander to the highbrows–
We hate it, but we bluff.
I remember one of his sisters telling me that sometimes, during his long illness, he was heard laughing to himself. He was not able to communicate the matter of his mirth: the many richnesses of that fine brain had been sealed by some blood-clot: but I like to think of that secret and unsharable communion. Gravity and levity were so mixed in Don’s mind that it puzzled even himself, and certainly may have seemed shocking to many well-drilled citizens.
And then–so fertile and various was he–as soon as one begins to write of him as a humorist, other phases keep coming to mind. Perhaps the two books that most closely represent the moody and shifting interchange of his thinking are The Almost Perfect State and Chapters for the Orthodox; both of which, as books, proved to be almost completely unsalable. I recall a remarkable piece written about a dozen years ago by the late Stuart Sherman when he was editing the Herald Tribune Books. Mr. Sherman, coming to New York fresh from college teaching, with the cultured disabilities of a learned clerk, had the reasonable notion that Marquis, a newspaper columnist, was just an amusing merryandrew. And he recorded his agreeably naif astonishment to find his colleague a distinguished man of letters, and of a personality so effectively radiant that even separated by several places at a lunch table he could feel that someone important was there. It used to annoy me, incidentally, that though universities annually bestow honorific degrees upon many solemnities and shirts of starch it never occurred to any of them to accredit Don in this way. How could it be, I used to wonder, that Columbia, here in the very city where Marquis’s daily column ran for so many years, was not acute enough to recognize and salute his great quality? But I acquiesced in this eventually, realizing that awareness rarely originates inside a university but is forced on it from without, against its most obdurate struggles. The professors, very likely, will now be able to tell us why Don’s stuff was good, and bracket it in some critical niche. But his fellow journalists always knew that it was. I recall the letter that Hilaire Belloc wrote to Marquis last spring, a propos the famous piece about the Mermaid tavern parrot. Don was already too ill to read or understand this tribute, which said “It is a permanent addition to the furniture of my mind. It is a masterpiece and rare indeed.”
The fact that Don Marquis was, in his own circle, the best loved man of his time, makes it now all the more a point of honor to speak with judgment. He was, regardless of mediocre work done under pressure, a deeply mercurial intuitive artist and passionately concerned with the ardors and problems of art. A human being so largely and kindly planned moves always in widening rings of irony. It was tragic to realize that he, who uttered so many genial shouts in praise of idleness, was actually broken by overwork. He was, if I ever saw one, a victim of the constantly tightening strain and pressure of our present way of living. There was, in the last two years, nothing left of him but the look in his eyes, and it was grim to speculate how much he realized of what had happened. I cannot help thinking that he had a very special message to younger artists, a message which was implicit in many of his seemingly jocular paragraphs. lt was this: energy is not endless, better hoard it for your own work. Be intangible and hard to catch; be secret and proud and inwardly unconformable. Say yes and don’t mean it ; pretend to agree; dodge every kind of organization, and evade, elude, recede. Be about your own affairs, as you would also forbear from others at theirs, and thereby show your respect for the holiest ghost we know, the creative imagination. I read him wrong unless I see that cry in many a passage. Read, and perhaps be startled by, the angry trio of sonnets called A Gentleman of Fifty Soliloquizes (which he wrote several years before reaching that age).
By a natural association I think of a letter he wrote in 1928 when a group of friends had planned a 50th Birthday Party for him, which was to be humorously called the Marquis Semi-Centennial. Quite unwittingly we had touched upon a secret phobia of his. I venture to quote a few bits from that letter because it is surely important, once in a while, to know what people actually think behind the mask they learn to wear. And I somehow feel that his unusual frank ness, though due to momentary fatigue or discouragement, may be valuable to someone:–
“I simply could not go through with congratulations or a party or anything of the sort. If you are an institution you may not mind the idea of a semi-centennial; if you are a human being, the word itself is an acute toothache.
“In my case, it means to me that half a dozen novels, which I planned in my thirties, will probably never be: written now, as I find myself still pot-boiling.
“I have never told anybody, how deep and abiding my professional disappointments are. I have had for fifteen years the consciousness of rather unusual powers–I can say this to you and have no risk of it being misunderstood as mere egotism. Along with that has gone the consciousness that, except in brief and fragmentary things, I have never displayed the powers I have, or developed them.
“Well, there has always been the hope that the stuff was coming through yet. I still have it, mixed with a lot of humility. But you cannot understand, nor won’t until you get to be 47 or 48, the continual internal gasping hurrying sense that they are not started yet, the big things.
“I fight continuously and desperately against the idea that being 50 or 60 makes any difference at all-and it takes a lot of fighting and a lot of kidding along and a good deal of guts to keep steadily to the resolve to do something yetand an awful lot of determination to keep from slumping into the easy affirmation: I’ve done something already. It isn’t the tenth of what I should have produced.
“Merely to pay up present debts and obligations there are at least 18 months of desperate and continued pot. boiling. I have a schedule that calls for one short story or one article each week for 18 months. . . .
“Let’s have a: party in September, and not mention my birthday at all. . . . Forty and forty-five are bad enough; fifty is simply hell to face; fifteen minutes after that you are sixty; and then in ten minutes more you are 85.
“These ten years from forty to fifty are by before you know it. For the love of God, don’t let them slip from you, as I did.”
–And by the “Love of God” he meant as every artist, does, the joy of creation.
That outcry was, I hope and believe, a passing mood of oversensitized chagrin. There indeed spoke the true dreamer, who is bound to exalt the undone at the expense of the accomplished. But, as his friends agreed in the barroom that gray New Year’s Eve, there can be no sense of sorrow at the escape of a winged thing after cruel imprisonment. We had seen (it was his own words)
“Beauty as a valiant wing
Strike a white blow against a stormy sky.”
In the noble old phrase, Diuturnity to his relics! Toward the end of The A AImost Perfect State is a poem he wrote which seemed perfect for that afternoon–
Lines for a Gravestone
Here the many lives I led,
All my Selves, are lying dead:
All they journeyed far to find
Strawed by the dispersing wind:
You that were my lovers true,
That is neither sad nor new!
Naught that I have been or planned
Sails the seas nor walks the land:
That is not a cause for woe
Where the careless planets go!
Naught that I have dreamed or done
Casts a shadow in the sun:
Not for that shall any Spring
Fail of song or swallow’s wing!
Neither change nor sorrow stays
The bright processional of days
When the hearts that grieved die, too,
Where is then the grief they knew?
Speed, I bid you, speed the earth
Onward with a shout of mirth,
Fill your eager eyes with light,
Put my face and memory
Out of mind and out of sight.
Nothing I have caused or done,
But this gravestone, meets the sun:
Friends, a great simplicity
Comes at last to you and me!