Text: David H. Hirsch, “ ‘The Duc De L’Omelette’ as Anti-Visionary Tale,” Poe Studies, December 1977, Vol. X, No. 2, 10:36-39


[page 36:]

“The Duc De L’Omelette” as
Anti-Visionary Tale

Brown University

In 1832, the first five Poe stories to appear in print were published by the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. Apparently, all of them were originally intended to parody some of the poorer fiction of the day, and, perhaps to an extent, to satirize current intellectual fads (1). Alexander Hammond notes that the five tales “are mannered imitations of different kinds of contemporary fiction, clearly distinguishable from one another in subject and style, suggesting that they were indeed designed to serve as contributions from individual members of some ur-form of the Folio Club symposium” (2). While I agree with this hypothesis generally, I would suggest that the tales are not as varied in subject matter as first appears to be the case. Of the five tales, four deal with some aspect of the body-soul dualism and with the question of metempsychosis. Of these four, only one, “Metzengerstein,” comes close to being cast in Poe’s later “serious” gothic style, though G. R. Thompson sees even this tale as a parody of the German horror story (3). The other three tales — “The Duc De L’Omelette,” “Loss of Breath,” and “Bon-Bon” — are clearly light-hearted and comic (4). The impression of variety Hammond notes results from differences not so much in subject matter as in point of view.

Although I wish to concern myself here only with “The Duc De L’Omelette’” I would like to point out that this group of tales actually takes up four different traditional ways of talking about the soul. “Loss of Breath” alludes to the tradition embodied in the Biblical description of the Creation in Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” “Metzengerstein,” with its climactic image of a rider being carried to destruction by an uncontrollable demonic horse, refers to the tradition most commonly associated with Plato’s Phaedrus, in which the soul is described in the image of a charioteer trying to control a chariot drawn by two winged horses, one docile and the other rebellious. In “Bon-Bon,” Poe examines the Greek tradition of the soul as Pneuma, which was, according to Ernest Jones, an internal flame which converts food into a substance that passes into the blood (5) — the narrator of “Bon-Bon” avers, “I am not sure, indeed, that Bon-Bon greatly disagreed with the Chinese, who held that the soul lies in the abdomen. The Greeks at all events were right, he thought, who employed the same words for the mind and the diaphragm” (II, 127). Finally, in “The Duc De L’Omelette,” Poe examines the motif of the soul through the metaphor of the bird-in-cage as soul-in-body.

I shall not contend that the presence of this motif makes “The Duc De L’Omelette” a “teat story, but I would like to establish that it is carefully constructed and that Poe, in this story as in so much of his writing, was working on a much larger scale than is at first apparent. As Hammond points out, even these early stories “demand readers well [column 2:] versed in things literary. . . .” (6). I shall also try to get at the way in which Poe’s sense of humor operates in relation to other elements in the tale.

Because “The Duc” is not often anthologized, it may be useful to summarize its contents. Though short, the tale breaks naturally into two parts. The first and shortest part describes the way in which the epicurean Duc De L’Omelette, preparing to dine upon an ortolan imported from Peru, finds the bird “deshabille de ses plumes” and “expire[s] in a paroxysm of disgust.” The second section takes place in Hell, where the Duc finds himself “the third day after his decease” (II, 198). The Devil orders the Duc to strip, which he refuses to do. There follows a passage in which the chamber in Hell is described through the Duc’s eyes. The narrator then recounts how the Duc momentarily loses his nerve, regains it, challenges the Devil to a game of cards, tricks him, wins, and finally escapes, returning, one would assume, to his ortolan.

Several sources, both literary and biographical, have been proposed for this tale, but it is not my purpose to gainsay any of them, since Poe, it is known, had an uncanny knack for fusing a wide variety of materials (7). Rather, I wish to suggest initially that in “The Duc De L’Omelette,” as elsewhere, Poe quickly moves beyond the immediate object of his parody into a discussion of the problem of body and soul. But in this burlesque tale, “transcendence” remains problematic. The elements that may be found in almost all of Poe’s stories, both early and late, are all here, but this time the note of bizarre comedy predominates and the element of terror remains on the periphery.

Poe starts this tale on a popular conundrum:

Keats fell by a criticism. Who was it died of “The Andromache”? Ignoble souls! — De L’Omelette perished of an ortolan. L’histoire en est breve. Assist me, Spirit of Apicius! (II, 197)

Poe is, I think, quite appropriately playing on the age-old question of the origin of life, the chicken or egg problem Such a beginning recalls “Loss of Breath,” which is also built around an extended pun, this time on such colloquial expressions as “I am out of breath,” and “I have lost my breath.” In “The Duc,” the egg is metamorphosed into De L’Omelette, while the chicken is translated into the ortolan; thus the tale opens by informing the reader that the egg was felled by the chicken, just as Keats was by “a criticism” and Montfleury by L’Andromache. The Judeo-Christian answer to the biological question of the origin of life is that living creatures were created and then told to multiply; the chicken, that is, was first. Poe, however, inverts the expression so that it addresses itself only to the fact of death rather than to the cycle of life. The chicken neither comes from nor brings forth the egg. Rather, the chicken destroys the egg: “De L’Omelette perished of an ortolan.”

This initial concern with death is emphasized by the allusion to the death of Keats, which must be taken as referring nor only to the actual life (or, more accurately, death) of the poet, but also to the elegy that made the death “immortal,” Shelley’s “Adonais,” which perpetuated the belief that Keats did indeed die of a criticism and not, as the literal-minded biographer might have it, of tuberculosis. This allusion, like so many of Poe’s, may be a double one. In reviewing Shelley’s poem, a Blackwood’s [page 37:] writes had asserted that the hostility of critics “is not necessary to help a consumption to the death of a poor sedentary man, with an unhealthy aspect and a mind harassed by the first troubles of verse-making. The New School, however, will have it that he was slaughtered by a criticism. . . .” (8) Insofar as Poe’s allusion may be to the poem itself, we should, perhaps, directly examine that portion of Shelley’s elegy dealing with this issue.

It is clear that in Shelley’s view the criticism by which Keats died was a blow to the spirit. The critic who performed the deed is represented as a serpent (“be thou free / To spill the venom when thy fangs o’erflow . . . ,”9) who, like the Edenic serpent, has destroyed Keats’ body but, in so doing, has enabled his “pure spirit” to “flow / Back to the burning fountain whence it came, / A portion of the Eternal, which must glow / Through time and change, unquenchably the same . . .” (stanza 38). As is frequency the case in Romantic works, the poem refers to the realm of Neoplatonism. The pure spirit of Keats, an emanation of the Absolute World-Spirit, has disengaged itself from the burden of the material body and returned to its source. Keats has, as Shelley puts it, “awakened from the dream of life,” and yet he has also been

. . . made one with Nature: there is heard

His voice in all her music, from the moan

Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird

He is a presence to be felt and known

In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,

Spreading itself where’er that Power may move

Which has withdrawn his being to its own. (stanza 42)

Although Keats’ spirit has merged with the Divine Immanence, yet he is to be seen in all matter because all matter is suffused with Spirit. Shelley moves between Neoplatonisrn and the closely related doctrine of pantheism. And the pantheistic doctrine here expressed in which the spirit leaves the body and then returns to infuse the whole of Nature, is akin to the doctrines of metempsychosis around which Poe had centered other early tales.

Having raised the issues of death, of the relationship of body and soul, and of metempsychosis with his allusion to “Adonais,” Poe’s narrator continues in the tone of unrelieved banter with this description of the ortolan’s journey:

A golden cage bore the little winged wanderer, enamored melting, indolent to the Chasusee D’Antin, from its home in far Peru. From its queenly possessor La Bellissima, to the Duc De L’Omelette, six peers of the empire conveyed the happy bird. (II, 197)

Here the powerful image of horse and rider as body and soul, that had appeared as the central organizing metaphor in “Metzengerstein,” is replaced by the image of the caged bird, an image less violent but projecting the same dualism, as it does also in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (“Thou west not born for death, immortal bird”) and Shelley’s “To a Skylark” (“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert . . .”). Moreover, this passage implies that the soul, as in The Phaedrus, is capable of contemplating beauty, for the bird has been in the possession of “La Bellissima,” the most beautiful, or, perhaps, ideal beauty.

Poe appears to combine a parody of the Romantic soul-bird with the age-old image of Revelation (“Babylon . . . [column 2:] is become . . . the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird”). The bird in a golden cage suggests an ambivalence, on one hand perhaps satirizing the Duc’s epicureanism, his indulgence in the pleasures of the senses and of the soul’s material adornment, the body; on the other hand, suggesting that the body is the perfect adornment for the soul. With the “six peers of empire” who “conveyed the happy bird,” Poe renders a comic image of the doctrine of metempsychosis. The soul, represented by the bird, has traveled in space (from Peru) and time (through six lives). Such an interpretation is supported by the vague verb “convey,” which means, etymologically, a journeying together — cum (together) plus via ( way) .

The epicurean duke awaits the bird with the eagerness of a lover:

He buries his face in the pillow. The clock strikes! Unable to restrain his feelings, his Grace swallows an olive. At this moment the door gently opens to the sound of soft music, and lo! the most delicate of birds is before the most enamored of men! (11, 1 97- 1 98)

But the bird, “cet oiseau modeste” in the Duc’s words, is served naked of its plumes and “sans papier”; in the face of this horror, “the Duc expire[s] in a paroxysm of disgust” (II, 198) . He dies, that is, by exhaling (Latin ex + spirare, an outflow of breath or spirit) an excess of air, occasioned by a revulsion of the senses (gustare, to taste). The comic point here, as becomes clear in the later scenes of the tale, is that the sensualist Duc cannot contemplate the notion of the soul naked and unadorned by the body.

At this point, the second part of the story commences, with the Duc assuming the same relationship to the Devil that the ortolan had to the Duc, as is apparent three days later when the Duc finds himself confronting the Devil in Hell. Poe shifts from the image of the immortal soul housed in the “golden” cage of the body to one of the soul cast into the underworld still clinging to its earthly “clothing” Instead of soaring, like Keats’ soul, to the Divine Immanence, the Duc’s soul is weighted down by the grossness of his sensualism. This sudden transition may be illuminated to some extent by one of the Cabalistic doctrines of reincarnation. According to this doctrine,

Each soul which is united with a body is to undergo a period of trial in this world, and if it is found able to preserve its original purity it returns immediately at death to its place of heavenly origin. If, on the other hand, it falls into sin it is subjected to a purification, and is obliged to remain in lower forms of existence, such as animals, trees, stones, and rivers, until it has atoned for its evil and has regained the purity requisite for its return to its celestial home. Occasionally, however, the sin-laden soul wanders in the world with its fellows, naked and ashamed, until it finally receives its purification in hell (10).

But the Duc, as one might expect from his response to the naked ortolan, has no intention of wandering “naked and ashamed” or of being purified.

When the Devil orders him to strip, the Duc replies,

“Strip, indeed! — very pretty, i’ faith!C no, sir, I shall not strip.” The Devil’s command suggests that this soul in Hell now faces loss of its body. This connection is supported by the echoed phrases in the narrative, one referring to the bird (“tu as servi sans papier!”) and the other to the [page 38:] Duc himself (“to say nothing of taking my hair out of paper . . .”). Still further is the fusion between Duc and bird confirmed by the narrator’s telling us that “Having become satisfied of his identity, [the Duc] took a bird’s eye view of his whereabouts” (my italics). Finally, the Devil tells the Duc “I took thee, just now, from a rosewood coffin inlaid with ivory. Thou west curiously scented, and labelled as per invoice” (II, 198). The parallel between the ortolan shipped in a golden cage and the Duc shipped in a coffin inlaid with ivory is obvious. But the situations on earth and in Hell are actually inverted mirror images of one another, for the ortolan is served naked and sans papier to the Duc, while the Duc is delivered to the Devil elaborately clothed and with his hair in paper — adomments that he is by no means willing to give up.

The Duc is restrained from leaving the Devil’s apartment, which has no ceiling and is fittingly decorated with objects of its owner’s own erotic taste for the sensual, including a hidden mistress, paintings, and “statues of gigantic proportions [whose] beauty was Grecian . . ., deformity Egyptian, and tout ensemble French.” Amidst all these splendors, the Duc experiences a sudden fit of despair. Through the window “gleams the most ghastly of all fires,” so that he cannot “help imagining that the glorious, the voluptuous, the never-dying melodies which pervaded that hall, as they passed filtered and transmuted through the alchemy of the enchanted window-panes, were the wailings and howlings of the hopeless and the damned” (11). Poe’s description here constitutes another reversal of the usual Romantic and Platonic image structure. The “never-dying melodies” are not those unheard “ditties of no tone” of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, neither are they the celestial harmony of Plato, the “soft melodies” that accompany the bird. They are, rather, the cacophonous “wailings and howlings” of those cast into outer darkness, presumably after they have been “stripped” by the Devil.

The Duc, however, determines to resist:

De L’Omelette is himself again. There were some foils upon a table — some points also. The Duc had studied under B; il avait tue ses six hommes. Now, then, il peut s’echapper. He measures two points, and, with a grace inimitable, offers his Majesty the choice. Horreur! his Majesty does not fence!

Mais il joue! — how happy a thought! — but his Grace had always an excellent memory. He had dipped in the “Diable” of the Abbe Gualtier. Therein it is said “que le Diable n’ose pas refuser un jeu d’ecarte.” (11, 201)

The Duc’s six victims tally with the six peers that conveyed the ortolan from Peru, again suggesting a soul’s transmigration through various bodily incarnations. In the game of cards that follows, the stakes are double or nothing:

But the chances — the chances! True desperate; but scarcely more desperate than the Duc. Besides, was he not in the secret? — had he not skimmed over Pere Le Brun? — was he not a member of the Club Vingt-un? “Si je perds,” said he, je serai deux fois perdu — I shall be doubly damned — voila tout! (Here his Grace shrugged his shoulders.) Si je gagne, je reviendrai a mes ortoians — que les cartes soient preparees!” (II, 201)

The reward of victory will be the epicure’s return to his sensuous pleasures on earth — in effect keeping his soul coupled with its present bodily form and the life it obviously enjoys therein. [column 2:]

During the game, the body/clothing motif occurs again: “The cards are dealt. The trump is turned — it is — it is — the king! No — it was the queen. His Majesty cursed her masculine habiliments. De L’Omelette placed his hand upon his heart” (II, 201). The queen is the last in the sequence of significantly dressed or undressed figures in the tale. Her appearance in the card game links with the original “queenly possessor” of the ortolan, La Bellissima, with the ortolan itself, which had appeared “deshabille” of its feathers, and with the Duc, who refuses to strip off his elegant clothes. It seems fitting that the Duc must win his contest with the Devil by defeating the ill-clothed Queen and that he does so with the king, a figure that is, by implication, more appropriately dressed in “masculine habiliments.”

Finally, the Duc “slips a card,” presumably up the sleeve of his “roloe-de-churm/3re”: ,,uC’est a vous a fatre,’ said his Majesty, cutting. His Grace boweul, dealt, and arose from the table en presentunt le Roi” (II, 202). Having outwitted the Devil (a common folk motif), the Duc leaves with the comment that had he not been himself he would not object to being the Devil, a compliment undoubtedly referring to the sensuous pleasures the latter enjoys in his sphere. The victor implicitly leaves Hell and, as the epigraph relates, “step[s] at once into a cooler clime.”

Although this tale is in some respects “a trifle,” as A. H. Quinn says (12), it is nevertheless quite remarkable in its symmetry and suggestiveness. It comically treats one of Poe’s favorite subjects, metempsychosis, although it is difficult to determine whether the comedy is intended to undercut the motif as well as to satirize the strength of the Duc’s commitment to the pleasures of his current incarnation. In later tales like “Ligeia” and “Berenice,” Poe presents the motif with much greater authority. The journey into the underworld, which in “The Duc” is mock heroic allegory, becomes, in such stories as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a powerful extended metaphor. And bird-as-soul image returns, of course, in greatly altered form in “The Raven.” What is perhaps most important in this early tale is its demonstration both of Poe’s awareness of the visionary tradition in British Romantic poetry and of his willingness to take an anti-visionary stance.



(1) For analyses of these tales with relation to the Folio Club, see Alexander Hammond, “A Reconstruction of Poe’s 1833 Tales of the Folio Club: Preliminary Notes,” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 2532; “Further Notes on Poe’s Folio Club Tales,” Poe Studies, 8 (1975), 38-42; “Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Folio Club: The Evolution of a Lost Book,” The Library Chronicle, Univ. of Pennsylvania, 12 (1977), 13-43.

(2) Hammond, “Evolution,” p. 18.

(3) Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 52-67.

(4) Throughout this essay I shall cite the titles and texts of the Courier tales as they appear in their later, revised forms in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpr. New York: AMS Press, 1965). For the original forms of these stories, see Edgar Allan Poe and the Philadelphia “Saturday Courier,” ed. John Grier Varner (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1933); the revisions, extensive in the case of several of these tales, are not pertinent for my reading of “The Duc De L’Omelette.” [page 39:]

(5) Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis (London: Hogarth, 1951), p. 297.

(6) “Evolution,” p. 15.

(7) For a review of the sources, see Thompson, pp. 216-217, and Hammond, “Reconstruction,” p. 30. My reading of the story does not preclude Hammond’s identification of the narrator as Mr. Rouge-et-Noir, nor is it intended to deny Poe’s parody of specific literary sources and his caricaturing of N. P. Willis, matters that are well established by historical scholarship. Poe’s genius, however, certainly lay in part in his ability to create literary works with multiple meanings, some of which pertained to the local and immediate situation and others to more enduring human problems.

(8) Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 10 (December 1821), 697.

(9) Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton and Co., 1977), stanzas 37 and 38, p. 401.

(10) The New Schaff-Herzoq Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1958), 11, 328.

(11) II, 199-200. For Poe’s sources here, see William Forrest, Biblical Allusions in Poe (New York: Macmillan, 1928). For this particular story, Forrest cites Rev 21:18-21, 14: 10-11, to these may be added Rev 18: 15, 19.

(12) Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941; rpt. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1963), p. 193.


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[S:0 - PS, 1977]