Jul. 29, 2003

the lesson of the moth

by Don Marquis

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Poem: "the lesson of the moth," by Don Marquis from The Best of Don Marquis (Doubleday).

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

Literary Notes:

It was on this day in 1588 that Spain's "Invincible Armada" was defeated by the English. Spain had hoped to raid England and turn the Protestant isle Catholic again. The Spanish fleet consisted of 130 ships carrying 2,500 guns, 8,000 seamen, and almost 20,000 soldiers. But storms delayed their arrival and by that time, England was ready. Just after midnight, England sent eight burning ships into the harbor at Calais, where the Spanish were anchored for the night.

It's the birthday of French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, born in Paris (1805). He came over to the United States with a colleague when he was twenty-five to study the American prison system. Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America (1835, vol. I; 1840, vol. II), a compilation of observations and praises of American democracy. It is still widely quoted today.

It's the birthday of novelist Newton Booth Tarkington, born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1869). He was a poor student and hated school. He went to Princeton University because he liked the idea of the Ivy League. But he never graduated. He said, "No doubt I imbibed some education there, though it seems to me that I tried to avoid that as much as possible." Tarkington tried for awhile to make a living from drawing and writing, and sent in tons of manuscripts to popular magazines. But the rejection slips piled up. Finally, in the fall of 1898, he finished The Gentleman from Indiana and sold it to McClure. Gentleman from Indiana became a bestseller in 1900. He went on to write a number of popular novels, including two that won the Pulitzer: The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and Alice Adams (1921), about the frustrated romantic ambitions of a lower-middle class girl. In 1921, Publishers Weekly polled booksellers who rated Tarkington number one, above Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg.

It's the birthday of newspaper columnist, playwright, and short story writer Don Marquis, born Donald Robert Perry Marquis in Walnut, Illinois (1878). He went to work at the Washington Times and then the Sun and the Tribune in New York. He had a column called "The Sun Dial." Marquis created the characters Archy the cockroach, and Mehitabel the alley cat. Archy was a former free verse poet who "sees life from the underside now." He wasn't able to reach the shift key so everything he wrote was in lower case. And Mehitabel was an alley cat with questionable morals who insisted that she was Cleopatra in one of her former lives. After using Archy and Mehitabel in columns for 10 years, Marquis made books out of their writing, beginning with archy and mehitabel (1927). Don Marquis wrote of himself, "Height, 5 feet 101/2 inches; hair, dove-colored; scar on little finger of left hand…dislikes Roquefort cheese, 'Tom Jones,' Wordsworth's poetry, absinthe cocktails, most musical comedy, public banquets, physical exercise, steam heat, toy dogs, poets who wear their souls outside, organized charity, magazine covers, and the gas company…"

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