Text: Barton Levi St. Armand, “Poe’s ‘Sober Mystification’: The Uses of Alchemy in ‘The Gold-Bug’,” ­Poe Studies­, June 1971, vol. IV, no. 1, 4:1-7


[page 1, column 1:]

Poe’s “Sober Mystification”:
The Uses of Alchemy in “The Gold-Bug”

Brown University

Carl Gustav Jung explains in his revealing Psychology and Alchemy that the process of alchemy itself had two natures, one physical and one psychic, one “profane” and one “sacred” (1). The alchemical dimension most familiar to us is usually the purely physical one — the attempt to transmute a base metal into gold by means of certain involved and seemingly ridiculous laboratory experiments. But the material paraphernalia which we associate with the alchemist (furnaces, retorts, alembics, elaborate vessels, magical formulas, and so on) masked an incredibly complex and profound philosophy, basically Neoplatonic in content, in which the search for the “philosopher’s stone” was not just the quest for a catalytic agent which could turn base metals into gold, but a long rite of initiation which conducted the neophyte through various disciplinary types of experience toward an ideal state of soul.

Few Romantic authors were deeply schooled in the more obscure aspects of alchemy and the alchemical philosophy, either sacred or profane, yet the “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” which informed the Romantic temper often filtered such concepts to them in a new form. The Romantics thus developed a basic respect for these arcane ideas, which had been relegated to a dusty metaphysical attic by the rise of eighteenth-century rationalism and positive science. Indeed, often they became interested enough to climb the narrow and difficult passage up to the secret eminence and discover for themselves at first hand the very Corpus Hermeticum they were reproducing in poetry and prose.

When we look at the work of a Romantic writer such as Poe, we find a utilization of alchemical materials, but apparently only at a “profane” or even “mundane” level. At first glance, Poe appears merely to have toyed with the alchemical tradition as the means of providing a clever hoax in a short sketch such as “Von Kempelen and His Discovery.” Here he utilizes all the “props” of the long tradition of profane alchemy to trick his readers into believing his contention that Von Kempelen “has actually realized, in spirit and in effect, if not to the letter, the old chimera of the philosopher’s stone . . . .” (2). Thus Poe’s description of Von Kempelen’s arrest by the [column 2:] authorities has all of the fustian of a typical nineteenth-century stage melodrama:

Opening into the garret where they caught him, was a closet, ten feet by eight, fitted up with some chemical apparatus, of which the object has not yet been ascertained. In one corner of the closet was a very small furnace, with a glowing fire in it, and on the fire a kind of duplicate crucible — two crucibles connected by a tube. One of these crucibles was nearly full of lead in a state of fusion, but not reaching up to the aperture of the tube, which was close to the brim. The other crucible had some liquid in it, which, as the officers entered, seemed to be furiously dissipating in vapor. They relate that, on finding himself taken, Von Kempelen seized the crucibles with both hands (which were encased in gloves that afterward turned out to be asbestic), and threw the contents on the tiled floor. It was now that they handcuffed him; and, before proceeding to ransack the premises they searched his person, but nothing unusual was found about him, excepting a paper parcel, in his coat pocket, containing what was afterward ascertained to be a mixture of antimony and some unknown substance, in nearly, but not quite, equal proportions. All attempts at analyzing the unknown substance have, so far, failed, but that it will ultimately be analyzed, is not to be doubted. (VI, 251-252)

“Nothing” more “unusual” is found, also, save for a large trunk full of pure gold pieces, “irregular in shape, although more or less flat — looking, upon the whole, very much as lead looks when thrown upon the ground in a molten state, and there suffered to grow cool.” There is no other possible ending for Poe’s casual relation of these facts than the ironic one which he himself affixes to the report: “In Europe, as yet, the most noticeable results have been a rise of two hundred per cent. in the price of lead, and nearly twenty-five per cent. in that of silver” (VI, 254).

Thus, Poe was cognizant of the implemental surface of alchemy, and as Burton Pollin has pointed out (3), he was at least familiar with Isaac D ’Israeli’s note on “Alchymy” in his 1834 Curiosities of Literature, which contained the provocative suggestion that “Modern chemistry is not without a hope, not to say a certainty, of verifying the golden visions of the alchymists” (4). The tale that dilates on this idea and most bears out the fact of Poe’s adeptness in the philosophy of alchemy is one which is usually taken as simply an ingenious mystery-adventure story, the intriguing “Gold-Bug.”

In an article entitled “The Problems of Realism in ‘The Gold Bug, ’” J. Woodrow Hassell, Jr., has written, for example, that “The germ from which the story originated, then, was Poe’s desire to reveal in spectacular fashion the methodology of solving a simple substitution cipher. The inspiration was clearly that of the Reasoner” (5). Although Hassell proposed “to study ‘The Gold Bug ’ as a product of the collaboration of the Poet and the Reasoner,” [page 2:] what he succeeded in showing was how the Reasoner suffered at the hands of the Poet, so that at last “the result is a romantic narrative, in which realism and fantasy are in general nicely blended, but in which they are also sometimes in conflict.” As his final paragraph elaborates,

When one considers the many divergent and sometimes conflicting elements which have gone into the structure of “The Gold Bug,” one cannot fail to admire the skill with which Poe has fused them into a plausible and coherent unit. Errors and inconsistencies are present, to be sure; but as Professor J. O. Bailey has justly remarked, “The perfectly fascinating hocus-pocus that makes up the art of ‘The Gold Bug ’ is all the more remarkable to anyone who undertakes to weigh and measure what Poe pretends to weigh and measure so carefully.” And, one might add, the supreme proof of the brilliant art of the tale lies precisely in the fact that its readers have been so charmed that almost none has even thought of inquiring too closely into “what Poe pretends to weigh and measure so carefully.” (pp. 191-192)

Surely Hassell is correct about the prodigious skill involved in the construction of Poe’s tale, but what I will attempt to show is that an even closer reading of “The Gold-Bug” may obviate some of the author’s supposed “inconsistencies.” My contention is that Poe used alchemy to “fuse” the “many divergent and sometimes conflicting elements” of his narrative into an aesthetic whole, and that the story becomes still more “plausible” and “coherent” when one examines its “perfectly fascinating hocus-pocus.

Thus among the “violations of realism” which Hassell explores, along with a “double symbol error” in Poe’s cryptography and the way in which the human skull is fastened to the tulip tree “with only one nail,” is the question of the significance of the tree itself. Hassell writes:

Turning from the beetle to the tulip tree, we find a very minor error. In somewhat pedantic style, Poe refers to it as “Liriodendron Tulipiferum. ” The correct spelling is, of course, “Liriodendron Tulipifera.” The misspelling is perhaps hardly worthy of note, except that it is amusing to find Poe, while assuming the learned manner of a professor of botany, falling into so egregious an error. (p. 189)

Poe’s apparent misspelling, however, seems actually to be a clue concerning the metaphorical meaning of the tree, by which he sets up an imagistic allegory of the alchemical work being performed. Why Poe might have preferred the incorrect ending in Tulipiferum is, I suggest, for the sake of a pun on ferrum, which denotes the metal iron, a sword, or any iron implement. Note Poe’s particular emphasis on the hard, smooth, almost metallic nature of the tulip tree as he describes it in terms of a “huge cylinder”:

In youth, the tulip-tree, or Liriodendron Tulipiferum, the most magnificent of American foresters, has a trunk peculiarly smooth, and often rises to a great height without lateral branches; but, in its riper age, the bark becomes gnarled and uneven, while many short limbs make their appearance on the stem. Thus the difficulty of ascension, in the present case, lay more in semblance than in reality. Embracing the huge cylinder, as closely as possible, with his arms and knees, seizing with his hands some projections, and resting his naked toes upon others, Jupiter, after one or two narrow escapes from falling, at length wriggled himself into the first great fork, and seemed to consider [column 2:] the whole business as virtually accomplished. The risk of the achievement was, in fact, now over, although the climber was some sixty or seventy feet from the ground. (V, 110)

On the tree hangs the figure of the Negro servant Jupiter, and in alchemy, “Jupiter” was the symbolic name for “tin,” one of the seven “planetary” metals. In the allegorical illustrations meant to complement the alchemical writings (similar to the “image books” of the seventeenth century), a primary symbol was that of “the tree of life,” sometimes also referred to as “the tree of wisdom” or “the tree of the philosophers.” Many of these representations of the tree showed a figure either climbing up or climbing down it, for, depending on its origin on earth or in heaven, the figure connoted either destructive knowledge (Melusina) or divine revelation (Mercurius) (6). Jupiter, the servant of Poe’s protagonist, Legrand, in fact performs both these roles, since at first he miscalculates and nearly drives his master to distraction (Legrand in fact calls him an “infernal scoundrel”), while later he adjusts for his mistake and pinpoints the spot indicative of the true hiding place of Captain Kidd’s golden treasure. Poe is careful to let the perceptive reader know that the limb to which Jupiter climbs is the seventh one up on the trunk of the tree, as specified in Legrand’s parchment, since the number seven was the highest digit in the alchemical hierarchy, which ran in an ascending order of tin — Jupiter, lead — Saturn, mercury — Mercury, Iron — Mats, copper — Venus, silver — Moon, and gold — Sun. For example, John Read writes of an alchemical illustration similar to Poe’s:

The seven-runged ladder is another common feature of alchemical symbolism, the rungs representing the seven metals and the associated heavenly bodies. One of the paintings of Splendor Solis (1582), for example, shows a man standing on the sixth and seventh rungs (representing silver and gold) and gathering the golden fruit of the Philosophic Tree, from the roots of which issues the Hermetic Stream (7).

Indeed, in Poe’s story Legrand even tempts Jupiter to climb to the end of the seventh limb, symbolizing the golden state of transmutation, by bribing him with a silver dollar. As for the tree itself, Jung calls it “a symbol of the [whole] developmental process that results in the unity of the filius Philosophorum, or lapis [i.e., ‘Philosopher’s Stone ’]” (8), while C. A. Burland, in The Arts of the Alchemists, refers it to Norse mythology when he describes the tree as “the Tree of Life, an analogue of Yggdrasil which spans the gulf from Nifelheim to the bright world of Valhalla” (9). Yet every mystical theorum of alchemy had its corresponding physical fact, so that the spontaneously spiritual was never allowed to remain entirely separate from the materialistic concrete.

Poe’s tulip tree partakes of this duality of mystery and stability, existing in its own hermetic realm of power. At the beginning of the tale, for example, we are informed that as for Sullivan’s Island, Legrand’s retreat, “The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant, or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen” (V, 95). Yet after the treasure-hunters have “crossed the creek at the head of the island” and ascended “the high grounds on the shore of the mainland,” they discover an even more wild and desolate area, a waste land [page 3:] world “where no trace of a human footstep was to be seen.” The scene is described in typical “sublime” and “romantic” terms, recalling the general Romantic taste for the landscapes of Salvator Rosa and others of his school:

. . . . the sun was just setting when we entered a region infinitely more dreary than any yet seen. It was a species of table land, near the summit of an almost inaccessible hill, densely wooded from base to pinnacle, and interspersed with huge crags that appeared to lie loosely upon the soil, and in many cases were prevented from precipitating themselves into the valleys below, merely by the support of the trees against which they reclined. Deep ravines, in various directions, gave an air of still sterner solemnity to the scene. (V, 108-109)

The setting is “Gothic,” to be sure, but it is also “magical,” and another species of that dark “Dream-Land” — “a wild, weird dime that lieth, sublime, / Out of SPACE — out of TIME” — which haunts Poe’s work as a whole. Here it defines a magic circle of possibility, in which the golden dream of the treasure, the dream of “Eldorado,” lies hidden, for when this “natural platform” is cleared of brambles, what is found but

an enormously tall tulip-tree, which stood with some eight or ten oaks, upon the level, and far surpassed them all, and all other trees which I had ever then seen, in the beauty of its foliage and form, in the wide spread of its branches, and in the general majesty of its appearance. (V, 109)

The tree is an outward and visible sign of the secret or buried mystery of transmutation, and its “appearance” is thus portentous as well as awe-inspiring and majestic. The adept, too, could create a ready-made physical representation of the spiritual process he was mastering through his “art” if he so wished. C. A. Burland thus quotes Paracelsus on “How the Philosophicall Tree is Made” from Of the Nature of Things to demonstrate this phenomenon:

It is possible also that Gold, through industry and skill of an expert Alchymist may bee so far exalted, that it may grow in a glasse like a tree, with many wonderful! boughs, and leaves, which indeed is pleasant to behold, and most wonderful!.... The process is this. Let Gold be calcined with Aqua Regis, till it becomes a kind of chalke, which put into a gourd glasse, and pour upon it good new Aqua Regis, so that it may cover foure fingers breadth, then againe draw it off, with the third degree of fire, untill no more ascend. The water that is distilled off poure on againe, then distill it off againe. This doe so long until thou seest the gold to rise in the glasse, and grow after the manner of a tree, having many boughs and leaves; and so there is made by gold a wonderful and pleasant shrub, which the Alchymists call their Golden Hearbe, and the Philosophers ’ Tree. In like manner you may proceed with silver, and other metalls, yet soe that their calcination be made after another manner, by another Aqua Fortis, which I leave to shine experience. If thou art skilled in Alchymie, thou shalt not erre in these things. (pp. 183-184)

Legrand mentions aqua regis as an ingredient in one of the chemical preparations for secret writing. But just as the “Tree of the Philosophers” becomes a symbol for their quest, the goal of which was a perfect transmutation of base metals such as lead, iron, and tin into gold, so does Poe’s “Liriodendron Tulipiferrum “ become in a purely natural way a cryptic symbol representing the goal of transmutation itself. For, another name for the tulip tree [column 2:] is “yellow poplar,” since in the spring it is covered with “yellowish-green tuliplike blossoms,” while in autumn, “the leaves change to a clear yellow.” It is this golden quality, I suggest, that led Poe, who was familiar with this characteristically Southern specimen, to choose it for the same symbolic connotations.

Poe’s indigenous “Philosophers ’ Tree” finds its most successful interpreter in William Legrand, native of New Orleans, intellectual outcast and resident hermit of Sullivan’s Island. “Well educated, with unusual powers of mind, but infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy,” Legrand is, with his questing and “mercurial” temperament, in a direct line of descent from the most famous alchemist of Western literature, Goethe’s Faust. The story of “The Gold-Bug” is the story of Legrand’s gathering of the diverse ingredients which will ensure completion of the opus maximus, the great work, and it records his deciphering of the hermetic formula which details the secret of the process. Almost at once he finds an avatar of the philosopher’s stone, that catalyst which remains an “unknown substance,” unclassifiable and unanalyzable — the gold-bug itself. Thus this “gold-bug” which Legrand happens upon by a stroke of fortuitous luck has a strange and “brilliant metallic lustre,” its “scales were exceedingly hard and glossy, with all the appearance of burnished gold,” and even the narrator admits “This is a strange scarabaeus, I must confess; new to me; never saw anything like it before” (10). Legrand’s Negro servant is still more emphatic about the real nature of the specimen, while incidentally he illustrates once again the alchemical “Jupiter’s” affinity with its corresponding base metal: (11)

“Dey sent no tin in him, Massa Will, I keep a tellin on you,” here interrupted Jupiter; “de bug is a goole bug, solid, ebery bit of him, inside and all, sep him wing — neber feel half so hebby a bug in my life.” (V, 98)

Jupiter also suggests that William Legrand’s strange actions indeed derive from the fact that he has been “bitten” by this gold-bug shaped ominously enough like a death’s head or skull, which, like the legendary bite of the tarantula, has infected his master with a sort of dancing madness (tarantism) to which Poe refers in his epigraph to the tale (12). William Legrand is, of course, infected with the methodical “madness” of all alchemists in their quest for riches, whether sacred or profane, and even his surname, which in French means “grand” or “great,” hints at his ambition to undertake “The Great Work” or “Grand Arcanum.” The narrator agrees to humor his friend, however, by accompanying him on a mysterious expedition, while “Legend contented himself with the scarabaeus, which he carried attached to the end of a bit of whipcord; twirling it to and fro, with the air of a conjuror, as he went” (my italics). Of course, to the uninitiated, Legrand’s strange ritualistic actions — having Jupiter climb a tree and drop the gold-bug through the eye of a skull nailed to one of the branches, driving a peg into the ground “at the precise spot where the beetle fell,” pacing off a distance and proceeding to dig — seem patently ridiculous and even “insane,” especially when his first attempt yields nothing. But upon the second trial the treasure is discovered after correcting for Jupiter’s mistake, [page 4:] and a we sign of the alchemist’s success is vouchsafed the party — the so-called “Peacock’s Tail,” or coruscation of all colors of the rainbow which signals the climax of a perfect transmutation. As Jung writes in his later alchemical study, Mysterium Coniunctionis:

The cauda pavonis announces the end of the work, just as Iris, its synonym, is the messenger of God. The exquisite display of colours in the peacock’s fan heralds the imminent synthesis of all qualities and elements, which are united in the “rotundity” of the philosophical stone. (p. 290)

When the narrator of “The Gold-Bug” describes the successful completion of Legrand’s work of finding the golden treasure, there is a rough parallel to the glow and glare of the cauda pavonis:

In an instant, a treasure of incalculable value lay gleaming before us. As the rays of the lanterns fell within the pit, there flashed upwards, from a confused heap of gold and of jewels a glow and a glare that absolutely dazzled our eyes. (V, 119)

The dazzling “glow and glare” is due not only to the “promiscuous” heaping of the gold, but also to the loose gemstones which are sprinkled throughout it, the narrator adding that:

There were diamonds — some of them exceedingly large and fine — a hundred and ten in all, and not one of them small, eighteen rubies of remarkable brilliancy; — three hundred and ten emeralds all very beautiful; and twenty-one sapphires, with an opal. (V, 121-122)

Before this, however, have appeared other signs which indicate that a successful transmutation is taking place. The prevalence of the death’s head and the skeletons found in the pit remind us that a necessary physical stage of the alchemical process is “mortification,” coming toward its middle or end, or the induced “death” of the ingredients which compose the sacred formula. In the symbolic charts of the arbor philosophorum which adorn alchemical treatises, the mixed bones of a male and female are often found at the base of the tree itself, while Jung says that in some cases the human skull (os occipit) was considered to be the actual vessel of transmutation and was used in the work “because the brain is the lodging house of the divine part” (13). Even the howling of Legrand’s Newfoundland dog, “Wolf,” carries symbolic significance. At first he became so obstreperous that Jupiter “getting out of the hole with a dogged air of deliberation, tied the brute’s mouth up with one of his suspenders, and then returned with a grave chuckle, to his task” (V, 116), allowing Poe to make two outrageous puns, but also permitting him to emphasize the fact that this initial attempt to unearth the treasure, or accomplish the transmutation, is a false one. When Jupiter has recalculated the “shot” or projection of the gold-bug by dropping it through the correct eye of the skull (by finally learning the difference between left and right), “Wolf’s” actions also take a far different turn. Poe writes:

At a period when such vagaries of thought most fully possessed me, and when we had been at work perhaps an hour and a half we were again interrupted by the violent howlings of the dog. His uneasiness, in the first instance, had been, evidently, but the result of playfulness or caprice, but he now assumed a bitter [column 2:] and serious tone. Upon Jupiter’s again attempting to muzzle him, he made furious resistance, and, leaping into the hole, tore up the mould frantically with his claws. In a few seconds he had uncovered a mass of human bones, forming two complete skeletons, intermingled with several buttons of metal, and what appeared to be the dust of decayed woollen. One or two strokes of a spade upturned the blade of a large Spanish knife, and, as we dug farther, three or four loose pieces of gold and silver coin came to light. (V, 118-119)

Here is the mortification process, and the corrosive agent which accomplishes it through his “furious resistance” is Legrand’s “Wolf.” As John Read points out, the dog or “Wolf” was an alchemical symbol of the acid which effects the transmutation. He writes in Prelude to Chemistry: An Outline of Alchemy, that:

The alchemical wolf in general represents a corrosive or “biting” agent, sometimes an acid .... the grey wolf is clearly antimony which was known to the alchemists as lupus metallorum, or “wolf of the metals,” because it “devoured,” or united with, all the known metals except gold. On account of its use in purifying molten gold — the impurities being removed in the form of a scum — antimony was also called ba1neum regis, the “bath of the King.” Moreover, its “appetite” for metals was likened to the mythological appetite of Saturn for infants: antimony was therefore sometimes called “the sacred lead” or “lead of the philosophers” (14).

There are fragments — impurities — in the pit which “Wolf” helps to dig away for Legrand, but there is also the “mysterium coniunctionis,” the dual presence of gold and silver, which shows the penultimate stage has been reached. The dazzle of the “Peacock’s Tail” or rainbow effect caused by the opening of the chest is only frosting on the cake. For, that Legrand’s ‘transmutation of “base metals” (Jupiter — tin and Wolf — lead) into the highest or golden state is an absolute success, and that all its signs are “true” ones, the narrator testifies in telling us that “In coin there was rather more than four hundred and fifty thousand dollars — estimating the value of the pieces, as accurately as we could, by the tables of the period,” adding “There was not a particle of silver. All was gold of antique date and of great variety” (V, 121).

As a profane alchemist, Legrand uses the logical tools of cryptography and deduction to decipher the hermetic manuscript penned by Captain Kidd. Yet in spite of the aura of purely mental legerdemain which Poe casts over the tale, a dose reading discovers that, as in the traditional alchemical opus, Legrand depends as much upon the unmediated grace of unknown powers as upon his innate ingenuity. Even he admits that

And then the series of accidents and coincidences — these were so very extraordinary. Do you observe how mere an accident it was that these events should have occurred on the sole day of all the year in which it has been, or may be, sufficiently cool for fire, and that without the fire, or without the intervention of the dog at the precise moment in which he appeared I should never have become aware of the death’s-head, and so never the possessor of the treasure? (V, 129)

The materialization of the treasure and the transmutation of the lead bullet mentioned in Kidd’s formula into the bolus of alchemical gold which is the strange scarabaeus (15) could hardly have taken place without a prime ingredient. This prima matefia was Legrand’s own faith in his work, [page 5:] coupled with a kind of transcendental patience and complete devotion to the task at hand. It is actually Legrand’s Romantic imagination which helps to accomplish the multiplication of the gold-bug into Captain Kidd’s treasure, as at the first finding of a secret writing on the parchment “there seemed to glimmer, faintly, within the most remote and secret chambers of my intellect, a glow-worm-like conception of that truth which last night’s adventure brought to so magnificent a demonstration” (V, 124).

It is upon “science” which Poe prefers to base his tale of “The Gold-Bug,” yet the magic ingredient of faith and the occult theoturgy of the alchemists always shine “glow-worm-like” in the background. Legrand himself is tried in the fire and comes out pure gold, just as he uses that element himself to “transmute” the mystic parchment into a grimoire of hermetic secrets, at the lowest and most “profane” level of laboratory alchemy:

When I considered all these particulars, I doubted not for a moment that heat had been the agent in bringing to light, on the parchment, the skull which I saw designed on it. You are well aware that chemical preparations exist, and have existed time out of mind, by means of which it is possible to write on either paper or vellum, so that the characters shall become visible only when subjected to the action of fire. Zaffre, digested in aqua regia, and diluted with four times its weight of water, is sometimes employed; a green tint results. The regulus of cobalt, dissolved in spirit of nitre, gives a red. These colors disappear at longer or shorter intervals after the material written on cools, but again become apparent upon the re-application of heat. (V, 127-128)

Even Legrand’s seemingly pedantic digression here on the chemical details of secret writing seems more meaningful when we refer once more to the fixed stages of the ancient alchemical process. For zaffre (from the Arabian word meaning “yellow copper”) is a pigment used to turn glass or pottery blue or green, while cobalt, which here produces a red tint, is a silver-white metal which can also be used for the same purpose. In the color changes which mark the progress of the alchemical work, black is normally the first stage (also the stage of the “base metals”) represented in Poe’s tale by the Negro Jupiter (tin) and the Newfoundland dog (lead), for, as the American Heritage Dictionary tells us, a characteristic of the Newfoundland breed is its “dense, usually black coat.” Jung says of this stage that “The nigredo or blackness is the initial state, either present from the beginning as a quality of the prima materia, the chaos or massa confusa, or else produced by the separation . . . . of the elements” (16). Between this blackness and the final stages of the red “tincture of gold” and its concomitant display of the auroral “Peacock’s Tail,” there intervene three median colors — white, green, and yellow. As John Read says, “The principal colours were said to develop in the order, black, white, citrine, and red; these colours were sometimes associated, respectively, with earth and black bile, water and phlegm, air and yellow bile, fire and blood — that is, with the four elements and the four humors,” while

All the colours of the Great Work were supposed to reappear, in a more rapid and transitory manner, during the operation of multiplication. Sometimes the stages of the Work denoted by the appearance of characteristic colours were known as regimens: [column 2:] such were the regimen of Saturn (black), the regimen of the Moon (white), the regimen of Venus (green and purple), the regimen of Mars (rainbow), and the regimen of the Sun (red or golden). These regimens were sometimes represented by flowers (17).

Alchemists also referred to these stages of color change by the use of such terms as caelum for the blue nature, rubedo for the red, xanthosis or citrinitas for the yellow, and the “green womb” or the “green lion” for the green. Legrand’s various washings and treatments of the parchment itself parallel the ablutio, or baptism of the elements also performed by the questing alchemist. It is interesting to note in this connection that Poe says of Jupiter, after the treasure is found, that:

Jupiter’s countenance wore, for some minutes, as deadly a pallor as it is possible, in the nature of things, for any negro’s visage to assume. He seemed stupified — thunder-stricken. Presently he fell upon his knees in the pit, and burying his naked arms up to the elbows in gold, let them there remain, as if enjoying the luxury of a bath. (V, 120)

That is, Jupiter himself performs an act of washing, or ablution, while he actually changes (momentarily) from “black” to “white.” By bathing in the gold, he also symbolically becomes one with it, and as a representative of Jupiter-Jove he is “thunder-stricken” because the thunderbolt is Jove’s fabled weapon. Also, as a representative of tin in the form “Jupiter,” his next action is to speak, “with a deep sigh,” an excited “soliloquy,” and as John Read writes: “Tin, on account of its brightness and the crackling ‘cry ’ which it emits when bent, invited recognition as the thunderbolt of Jupiter” (18).

Finally, the silver-white of cobalt relates to another step in the process, the reaching of the albedo or moon-silver condition of the substance, a prelude to its ultimate nature as the sun-golden stone. The albedo stage is also echoed in the oblong chest of wood which contains the golden treasure, for Legrand notes that “from its perfect preservation and wonderful hardness” the box “had plainly been subjected to some mineralizing process — perhaps that of the Bi-chloride of Mercury” (V, 119). The silvery quality of metallic mercury and its salts is obvious, but not so obvious is the further occult significance of mercury in the alchemical lexicon. For, as Jung writes, two forms of “Mercurius” rule alchemical operations, one physical and specific, and one spiritual and archetypal:

But Mercurius is [also] the divine winged Hermes manifest in matter, the god of revelation, lord of thought and sovereign psychopomp .... When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it, he means quicksilver, but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter. . . . . Mercurius stands at the beginning and end of the work: he is the prima materia, the caput corvi, the nigredo; as dragon he devours himself and as dragon he dies, to rise again as the lapis. He is the play of colours in the cauda pavonis and the division into four elements. He is the hermaphrodite that was in the beginning, that splits into the traditional brother-sister duality and is reunited in the coniunctio, to appear once again at the end in the radiant form of the lumen novum, the stone. He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet healing draught — a symbol uniting all opposites (19).

Such is Legrand’s obsession with the “gold-bug” itself, for his “rational” explanations of his weird behavior seem [page 6:] so patently thin and forced that he appears hardly to know what he himself is doing. “But your grandiloquence, and your conduct in swinging the beede — how excessively odd!” exclaims the puzzled narrator. “I was sure,” he continues,

“you were mad. And why did you insist on letting fall the bug, instead of a bullet, from the skull?”

“Why, to be frank [replies Legrand], I felt somewhat annoyed by your evident suspicions touching my sanity, and so resolved to punish you quietly, in my own way, by a little bit of sober mystification. For this reason I swung the beetle, and for this reason I let it fall from the tree. An observation of yours about its great weight suggested the latter idea.” (V, 141142)

Poe’s spurious epigraph to “The Gold-Bug,” which he ascribes to Arthur Murphy’s All in the Wrong:

What ho! what ho! this fellow is dancing mad!

He hath been bitten by the Tarantula,

added to both the narrator’s and the Negro servant Jupiter’s real concern about Legrand’s feverish mania, indicates that his conduct was something more than only “a little bit of sober mystification.” With Jupiter, we could take a truly orthodox view and consider Legrand’s “madness” to be the result of a virulent infection produced by the bite of the evil scarabaeus. In the nineteenth century, the noun “bug” was in fact a slang term for “madman,” while “to bug” (or “to humbug”) was a transitive verb meaning to deceive, impose on, or hoax (20).

Thus the very title of Poe’s tale hints also at the duplicity involved in Legrand’s methods, his “mystification” of the narrator, almost like that of a confidence man, and his studied pose as another in the long line of alchemical “humbugs.” This would connect the story’s “mystification” with Poe’s later, more calculated alchemical hoaxing in “don Kempelen and His Discovery,” though Poe never rules out the possibility of the hoax within the hoax. Legrand’s hermetic manuscript could assume the character of an unholy compact, evidence of his Faustian traffic with the Devil rather than with God (and recall that Legrand had to sit in the “devil’s seat” to use his “good glass”). Just as the lead bullet is changed to the heavier gold-bug, which then yields the ponderous, glittering treasure, so does Poe transmute and domesticate traditional symbols of the Western alchemical tradition. Goethe’s Faust reappears as an American entomologist and cryptographer, the Philosopher’s Stone becomes Captain Kidd’s treasure ’ and the pervading spirit of ominous revelation, Mercurius, assumes the shadowy form of Captain Kidd himself.

In fact, taken in a profane sense, Poe’s wry and clever manipulation of traditional alchemical signs and symbols reaches its apex in this latter conjunction of Captain Kidd, Legrand, and Mercurius. For Legrand himself is, as I have mentioned, pronouncedly “mercurial” in temperament, Poe making this clear when he writes “I found him well educated, with unusual powers of mind, but infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy” (V, 96), or, again, “He received the paper very peevishly, and was about to crumple it, apparently to throw it in the fire, when a casual glance at the design seemed suddenly to rivet his attention. In [column 2:] an instant his face grew violently red — in another excessively pale” (V, 100). With his penchant for chicanery and concealment, Legrand is also an apt pupil of his presiding daemon, Kidd — Mercurius, a “conjuror” in the “confidence man” tradition. What R. W. B. Lewis says of this other side of the Mercurius or Hermes figure in Melville’s work can apply as well to Poe. Lewis writes:

As a creature of myth, the Confidence Man is to some extent Melville’s American embodiment of one of the most engaging of the great archetypal figures — namely, the trickster god, especially as that figure took the name of Hermes in Greek mythology. The functions and attributes of Hermes correspond suggestively with those of Melville’s hero. He was a god of travelers, and in this capacity he also escorted souls of the dead into the underworld. He was, to use modern terms, the god of gambling, and the deity of financial profit, the one involved in commercial dealings — particularly in shady ones. Hermes was the muse responsible for inspiring the rhetoric of salesmanship he had a modest musical talent; and he was an adept of the daring and elaborate prank (21).

So “sober mystification” remains the best phrase for describing Poe’s uses of alchemy in his famous short tale, which, as the one-hundred-dollar “Prize Story” of the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper for June of 1843, was in itself a minor feat of alchemical multiplication. For, in his concentration on the realistic and rational veneer of nineteenth-century science, Poe soberly proved in fiction Isaac D ’Israeli’s thesis that “Modern chemistry is not without a hope, not to say a certainty, of verifying the golden visions of the alchymists,” though in a completely different sense than that learned gentleman could ever have imagined.



(1)  Cf. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952), pp. 1-37.

(2)  The Complete Works of Edger Allen Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas W. Crowell and Co., 1902), VI, 253. Hereafter, Poe references will appear in the text.

(3)  Cf. Burton R. Pollin, “Poe’s ‘Von Kempelen and His Discovery ’: Sources and Significances,” Etudes Angleises, 20 (Jan.-March 1967), 12-23.

(4)  Isaac D ’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature ( Boston: Lilly, Wait, Colman, and Holden, 1834), I, 385.

(5)  J. Woodrow Hassell, Jr., “The Problem of Realism in ‘The Gold Bug, ’” American Literature, 25 (May 1953), 179.

(6)  For the actual illustration of this, cf. Jung, Psychology end Alchemy, p. 439. Other pictorial representations of the arbor philosophica appear on pp. 229, 245, 257, 338, 390, and 400.

(7)  John Read, The Alchemist in. Life, Literature, and Art (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1947), p. 59.

(8)  Jung, Mysterious Coniunctionis (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), p. 8n.

(9)  C. A. Burland, The Arts of the Alchemists (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967), p. 142.

(10)  The narrator refers to the gold-bug jokingly as “scarebaeus caput hominis “ because of its “very close resemblance to the ordinary cuts of a death’s-head,” but for a pictorial parallel showing the symbol caput mortuum, see the chart on p. 43 of Read’s Through Alchemy to Chemistry (London: C. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1957). The narrator is looking, of course, not at Legrand’s drawing of his entomological specimen, but at Captain Kidd’s piratical “stamp” or “seal” on the parchment. Kidd also uses the symbol of a goat or “young kid” as “a kind of punning or hieroglyphical signature,” and for an alchemical approximation of this character, see the same chart for Capricornus, another celestial [page 7:] figure. The whole idea of the cryptogram deciphered by Legrand can be related to Read’s observations that “the alchemical fraternity revelled in anagrams, acrostics, secret alphabets, and ciphers” (Through Alchemy to Chemistry, pp. 41-43).

(11)  Jupiter speaks of tin because he has mistaken Legrand’s pronunciation of the Latin antennae for the English “tinny” (V, 98).

(12)  Cf. Eric Carlson’s notes to “The Gold-Bug” in his Introduction to Poe: A Thematic Reader (Glenville, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1967), pp. 584-585.

(13)  Cf. Psychology and Alchemy, pp. 255n., 413n., and especially p. 257, for an alchemical emblem which combines skull and tree.

(14)  John Read, Prelude to Chemistry (Boston: MIT Press, 1966), p. 201.

(15)  The gold-bug, as a bolus of alchemical gold, as a kind of avatar of the Philosopher’s Stone itself which takes concrete form in the shape of Captain Kidd’s treasure, is thus both the psychic and physical “seed” of the process, which must be “killed” before it can “germinate.” As John Read writes:

The conception of the growth of metals called for a metallic seed, and the search for the seed of gold was inextricably intertwined with the quest of the Philosopher’s Stone: the seed of gold, or ‘chrysosperm,” was said to be “lodged in all metals.” The perfect seed would produce gold; imperfect seed would lead to imperfect, or aborted, metals. “Sow your gold in white earth made of leaves,” runs the injunction attached to an alchemical drawing of 1618 illustrating this conception. In extending the supposed analogy, the mistaken idea that a plant seed must putrefy, or die, before it can germinate was transferred to the supposed seed of metals: thus, alchemical literature abounds in references to the “putrefaction,” “mortification” and “killing” of metals or their seeds, followed by “revivification” or ’ resurrection.” (Prelude to Chemistry, pp. 94-95)

Legrand “kills” the bug to preserve it as an entomological specimen, but of course it is a “perfect” seed, and so is both “revived” and “multiplied” in the form of the treasure.

(16)  Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, pp. 219-220. In Mysterium Coniunctionis, Jung says that “the nigredo or caput corvi is also termed the ‘caput nigrum aethiopis. ’ “ What he says about the term caput corvi, however, may aid in explaining Poe’s choice of a raven as the primal image in his famous poem as well as his decision to make Legrand’s unwilling helper a Negro.

Corvus (crow or raven) or caput corvi (raven’s head) is the traditional name for the nigredo (nox, melancholia, etc.) . It can also, as pars pro toto, mean a “capital” thing or “principle,” as for instance the caput mortuum, which originally meant the head of the black Osirus, but later Mercurius philosophorum, who, like unto him, undergoes death and resurrection and transformation into an incorruptible state. Thus the anonymous author of the “Novum lumen chemicum ’ exclaims: “O our heaven! O our water and our Mercurius! O dead head or dregs of our sea! . . . . And these are the epithets of the bird of Hermes, which never rests.” This bird of Hermes is the raven, of which it is said: “And know that the head of the art is the raven, who flies without wings in the blackness of the night and the brightness of the day.” He is a restless, unsleeping spirit, “our aerial and volatile stone,”a being of contradictory nature. (p. 510)

So, too, is Poe’s “Raven,” which has been “wandering from the Night’s Plutonian shore,” and which becomes the “capital” or dominating “principle” of the narrator’s thoughts by perching upon the bust of Pallas. Once again, an alchemical approach would seem to indicate that Poe’s “Raven” is not simply a symbol for “melancholy,” but carries many other connotations as well.

(17)  Reed, Prelude to Chemistry, pp. 146-147.

(18)  Read, Prelude to Chemistry, p. 88.

(19)  Jung, Psychology end Alchemy, pp. 280-282.

(20)  In this connection, it is interesting to note two things. First, the fact that since Legrand does attach the bug to a piece of whipcord and then proceeds to twirl it “to and fro, with the air of a conjuror,” it might well act (given its supposed excessive weight) like a miniature “bull-roarer” and emit some kind of humming sound, becoming in effect, a genuine “humbug.” As we have seen, given Poe’s penchant for plays on words, this conclusion is not actually too far-fetched. Also, we have the fact that at the end of the nineteenth century, the term “gold-bug” was applied in America to scheming capitalists like Jay Gould, who tried to corner the gold market, or to fanatical advocates of a gold standard over a silver standard. Once more this illustrates the use of the word “bug” as a synonym for “monomaniac,” but the use of the full term “gold-bug” itself may well have been strengthened by the currency of Poe’s story, one of the most famous “detective” tales of the century.

(21)  R. W. B. Lewis, “Afterword” to The Confidence Man, by Herman Melville (New York: Signet Classics, The New American Library, 1964), p. 269


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]