La Pompe Funèbre

Félix François Faure, President of the French Republic, died on February 16, 1899 in his chambers at the Palais de l’Elysée, while being fellated by his mistress Marguerite Steinheil. Forever after, Madame Steinheil was known as La Pompe Funèbre, which in French can mean either “funereal solemnity” or “funereal fellatrix.”
 
           He called and said “Please come this afternoon—
           Le salon bleu at five o’clock.”  As soon                     
           As I was bathed and perfumed and attired
           I got a carriage.  In fact, I was inspired
5         To tell the driver “Straight up to the Palace.”  
           What was it—pride, bravado, or sheer malice
           To have him drop me at the Elysée
           (The front gates!) just as if I had entrée
           As free as any minister?  Once there,
10       I strode right past the gendarmes with an air     
           Of utter self-assurance and aplomb
           Saying “Do not detain me—I have come
           At the request of la plus grosse légume.”
           They knew precisely what I meant.  A groom
15       Was offered as an escort.  I refused.     
           When visiting Le Président, I used
           My own especial shortcut through the halls.
           The company of others only calls
           Attention to a visit.  He was shy,
20       Dear Félix was, and wanted no one by          
           When we were in his chambers.  What a hush
           Of silence in that salon!  I would blush
           Whenever we disrobed.  I thought I felt
           Ambassadors and courtiers and the svelte  
25       Transit of ladies in their evening best.    
           No matter.  We were all alone.  He pressed
           Me for “one special favor,” so I knelt
           And slowly worked the buckle on his belt
           To heighten the anticipation.  Winking
30       Up at his face, I saw that he was thinking              
           Only of pleasure, not affairs of state.
           The Russian treaty, colonies, the fate
           Of Dreyfus—none of these were on his mind.
           His hands were in my hair; he liked to wind
35       My tresses in his fingers as I made
           His manhood… well, there’s no need to parade
           The details.  Suddenly his body froze.
           I thought “Perhaps we’re coming to the close
           Much faster than is usually the case…”
40       I looked up at Le Président.  His face  
           Was turned to a mask of choler and distress.
           I asked “Dear Félix, what is wrong?”  My dress
           Was half undone; my stays were at my hips.
           He gave no answer.  Then I came to grips
45       With what would be the worst scenario:         
           What if this little tête-à-tête were so
           Blistered by passion that his heart gave out?
           He was not young; his health had been in doubt.
           I reached up and took hold of his left wrist.
50       The other hand was balled into a fist    
           And held my hair so tight I was in pain.
           I managed, nonetheless, to find a vein.
           Was there a pulse?  No… nothing… Sacrebleu!
           I sensed the opéra bouffe that would ensue.
55       And all at once a wildly panicked surge      
           Rose from my stomach’s pit.  I felt the urge
           To get my hair untangled and just flee.
           But no—that might make matters worse.  They’d see
           Some sort of plot, a coup, assassination…
60       I’d earn the wrath of France—the entire nation.      
           Better to stay, pretend he simply died
           As we sat in the salon, side by side.
 

       ~~~

           I rang for servants, and I did my best
           To get my hair arranged, my person dressed
65       Before they all arrived.  To my chagrin,              
           I still was tucking up when they came in.
           I mumbled some excuse, to no avail—
           The man’s unbuttoned trousers told the tale.
           The staff then summoned doctors, and a priest,
70       Though it was clear to all he was deceased.     
           The gendarmes snickered, let me out the back
           In order to avoid the coming pack
           Of ministers, reporters, and police.
           Le Président has had a good release,”    
75       One of them whispered smiling, as I reddened.                   
           I gave him no reply.  My tongue was deadened
           By what had just occurred.  How would I handle
           The inquiries, the firestorm of scandal,
           My friends, my husband, everyone I knew?
80       Brazen it out is what I’d have to do.       
           I hadn’t been caught naked, in flagrante,
           Like Paolo and Francesca were in Dante.
           If that had been the case, I’d have been wrecked.
           A crime unproven saves one’s self-respect.
85       Dear Félix, thank you for your small request,
           Which left me only partially undressed.
           Imagine if you’d asked for soixante-neuf!
           Mon Dieu—what you requested was enough.
           Besides, the honor of La République
90       Depended on my pious lie.  A leak                  
           Of what had really happened would defile
           The purity of Marianne.  So while
           All France knew very well what passed between us,
           No one breathed a word about your penis. 
95       They gave you your due funeral of state       
           Recording “apoplexy” as your fate.
           France and a mistress can be quite efficient—
           In statecraft, lies, and love we are proficient.
           And though all men must pass through death’s dark valley,
100     I never dreamt I’d be your grand finale.  
 
 
 

Notes and Commentary

Marguerite Steinheil (née Japy) was from a well-to-do Huguenot family in the territory of Belfort. Unhappily married to an older man, she lived in the swirl of parties, dances, and literary-artistic salons that characterized Parisian high society in the 1890s. She had numerous male admirers, and is reputed to have been intimate with many prominent men. A young, high-spirited woman with an impishly petite beauty, Marguerite seems to have had an electric effect on otherwise self-controlled males. In 1917, when she was nearly fifty, she managed to snag a wealthy English aristocrat, the sixth Baron Abinger, as her new husband.
 
Of course there is no absolute proof that President Faure actually died during sexual activity with Madame Steinheil.  In her self-exculpatory autobiography Marguerite insists that although she did come to the Palais de l’Elysée on February 16 at the President’s urgent request, and that she did visit him and spend time alone with him, she departed before he was fatally stricken. Madame Steinheil’s book is well worth reading (My Memoirs, London: Eveleigh Nash, 1912) even if one cannot be sure of her veracity.  The book is an absorbing account of French life during La Belle Epoque, and it also makes very clear that Félix Faure was totally infatuated with the lively and lovely Marguerite.  
 
The best accounts of Félix Faure’s death and of Marguerite’s possible involvement are in French. They are René Tavernier’s Madame Steinheil, Ange ou Démon (1976); Armand Lanoux’s Madame Steinheil ou la Connaissance du Président (1983); and Pierre Darmon’s Marguerite Steinheil, Ingénue Criminelle? (1996). The following notes are solely to clarify some of what might be the more abstruse references in the poem. 
 
He called (line 1):  Faure telephoned Madame Steinheil several times on February 16, inviting her to visit him. 
 
Le salon bleu (line 2): One of the private chambers at Faure’s residence of state.  
 
the Palace (line 5):  Palais de l’Elysée, the official seat of government in Paris.
 
la plus grosse légume (line 13): “The biggest vegetable,” French slang for “the most important personage.”
 
one special favor (line 27):  A coy circumlocution for oral sex.
 
The Russian treaty (line 32):  Faure’s government had confirmed the fateful mutual defense pact with Czarist Russia in 1897, an agreement that would drag France into World War I.
 
colonies (line 32): Faure was interested in establishing a stronger French colonial presence in Africa. The Fashoda incident (which nearly brought France and Britain to war) occurred on his watch.
 
Dreyfus (line 33):  Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer accused of spying. His trial had torn France apart, and was still a flashpoint of controversy in 1899. Faure had refused to review the case.
 
stays (line 43):  A foundation garment for women, similar to a corset or a brassiere.
 
Some sort of plot (line 59): Steinheil was in fact subsequently accused of murdering Faure by anti- Dreyfusards.
 
a priest (line 69): It is said that when a priest arrived to give Extreme Unction to the President, he asked one of the servants the following: Le Président a-t-il encore sa connaissance? The servant replied: Non, elle vient de sortir par l’escalier de service.
 
my husband (line 79):   The painter Adolphe Steinheil, a man much older than Marguerite. He tolerated her many infidelities.
 
Paolo and Francesca (line 82):  The two adulterous lovers in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno. They had been caught having intercourse by Francesca’s husband, and were killed by him. Dante places them in the second circle of hell, which is reserved for the sins of carnal lust.
 
Dear Félix (line 85):  From this line on, the poem becomes an apostrophe to the absent Félix Faure.
 
soixante-neuf (line 88): A somewhat more elaborate sexual act, which would require mutual disrobing.
 
Marianne (line 93): Popular nickname for the French republic, personified as a young girl.
 
apoplexy (line 96):  Faure’s death was politely ascribed to apoplexie foudroyante (“thundering apoplexy”) by the attendant physicians.
 
 
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About Joseph S. Salemi

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.