05 July 2008

Empress Elisabeth

I mentioned this poem in an earlier post - it's about Empress Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, aka Elisabeth of Bavaria. So far, it's the longest poem I've ever written. It's going to be in My Iron Spine, taking up rather a lot of pages, but I'm extremely fond of it. It also contains the line 'my iron spine', from which I have taken my title.

Empress Elisabeth
Elisabeth Wittelsbach, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary

Possenhofen, Bavaria

‘But you have to play my way
My father is a duke
yours just keeps our pigs’
But Gretel wailed
‘I don’t want to play with you anymore’
as she ran off through the corn field
and wouldn’t come back
until I said I was sorry

Papa laughed, as he always did
and tickled me under my arms
Mama sighed and sadly said
‘You should be playing with princesses’

Cousin Emperor

I was planning to run away to the circus
but Mama said, ‘Why don’t you come
to Bad Ischl instead? We are
going to marry your sister
to an emperor, she always was
the prettiest’

We arrived in our travelling clothes
my hair a thick plait heavy
between my shoulder blades
Helene smiles her sweetest smile
There are more people in the room
than I have ever seen

‘Is that the emperor?
But where is his grey hair?
This man has too much sparkle
in his eyes, is too handsome
Why does he keep looking at me?’

Helene won’t speak to me today
but Mama is happy, she says
‘One daughter is as good as another’


In the looking glass
is a bride
I wonder who she is
and what they’ve done with me

Through the carriage windows
every pair of eyes
burns into me
and Archduchess Aunt Sophie snaps
that she thanks God
I am wearing a veil
Do I want the whole country to know
that their empress is a cry baby?
I dig my fingernails
into my palms

Emperor Franzi,
Cousin Franzi, Husband Franzi
alone with you at last
What is it you are doing?
Why ...?
Don’t, no,
stop, please...

‘Have you made me an heir?’
Mother-in-law Aunt Sophie leers

I sleep with the lights on
In this city of millions
I have never been alone before

Mother of the country

I think I am getting fat
I stop eating
‘That’s my grandchild’
says Aunt Archduchess
‘Eat up’

‘I’m so happy,’ says Emperor Husband
and holds me tight against
his warm shoulder
‘Mama says you mustn’t run
mustn’t fall
you know how much she loves you’

She took my babies away from me
one by one
They said I was fragile
I should rest
I should save my strength
So I hoard it and plan my escape


New shoes everyday sounds
like a fantasy, but I am drowning
in jewelled boots, velvet
slippers, delicate leather, fine fur
I feel them crushing against my rib
cage, pushing me down
under the deluge

And after all, I have only
two feet to stand on

Patrician ladies, old enough
to be my grandmama, get
down on their arthritic knees
and kiss my hand
with their brittle lips
I blush red
Last year they would not
have troubled to notice me

Crowning glory

I can’t fit another circlet
even if I wished it
but there is no need

Braids wind and snake
about my head
the colour of leaves in
late autumn

Everyday my tresses
are brushed and dressed
twisted and smoothed
and for hours I sit
while Fanny works her magic
She once curled the locks
of the finest actresses, until
I lured her
with the wages of a professor
She is worth every cent

Every three weeks is washing day
I lie back in a low chair
Fanny applies potions and oils
she massages, moistens, rinses
Today she favours cognac and eggs

‘Your mane eats more
than you do,’ she jokes

Once, when I was alone
I let my hair free
and it waterfalled
to my ankles
I wrapped it around me
a cloak more natural
than royal robes

One night of Venus, a life-time of mercury

The whispers reach even me
and I swell with his betrayal

He whimpers outside my door
I nurse my tight joints, will not see him

I slip through his guilty fingers
to Corfu, I breathe, I recover

And see now, I am alone
on this island surrounded by sharks


There are too many hours
in each day
but I fill them

When I walk out
no one can keep up with me
I leave them all behind
at last

I hang
with the power of my own hands
from rings in midair
I lift and swing
feeling the satisfying stretch
of muscle beneath my skin

And the moment I am sewn
into my riding habit
I become a centaur
No fence is too high
no bank too steep
no mount too wild
I bare my teeth and eat my fear

Most beautiful woman in Europe

I have an album
of the faces of women
Postcards, photos
of queens, princesses
and actresses
the new aristocrats

These are my rivals
I compare myself
with each one, eye for eye
mouth for mouth

little mirrors

I am still the fairest
of them all

Hungarian victory

My enemy’s enemy
is my friend

‘The revolting Hungarians
are revolting again’
yawns Archduchess Sophie
My sudden interest in politics
surprises even me

I slip their language
onto my tongue to antagonise
the archduchess, the Viennese
but quickly I learn to love
it and them
their wildness, like mine

I have little left
of my Emperor Husband
but still I have his ear
‘Emperor Franzi, Husband Franzi
we are proud people
you must set us free’

My solution
is another coronation
a double kingdom
we are no longer
only emperor and empress but now
king and queen of Hungary
I am one of their own

My greatest triumph


My poor beloved cousin
Bavarian king
drowned, sunk beneath your swans
Mad King Ludwig they called you
and it was true
and your blood runs through my veins
your poisoned, rabid blood
‘Lace me up tight Marie
tightly tighter’
My sturdy backbone
my iron spine

I study the looking glass
and before my eyes
my face crepes and wrinkles
wizens and shrinks
‘Mirror mirror,’ she no longer
speaks to me

I ban all photographers


On the voyage I made them lash me
to the mast
so I could be swallowed
by the storm and spat out

Once I was Tatania
Queen of the Fairies
in love with a man
with the head of an ass
but no longer

Now I am Odysseus
who, in truth, was not travelling
to return to his home
he was travelling
to stay away

Luigi Lucheni

He had not met me
He didn’t even hate me
But Prince Henri of Orleans
had already left Geneva and
‘One royal is as good as another’
he said

My surprise, when he bumped me
was for his insolence
I didn’t notice the pang
of his sharpened file
entering my heart

‘Hurry up Marie
quickly, faster’
And we made it to the ferry
before I fainted on the deck

Swan song

In my father’s house
there are many rooms
and in each room there
are many draughts and
we keep ourselves warm
by dancing all night but oh
how worn my dancing shoes


Sean_Molloy said...

This is a great poem. Though I've become familiar with it over time now, I'm always struck to the core by the end stanza.

One suggestion - Are there any links that provide more background about the Empress? Many people reading this may not know much about her...

Helen Rickerby said...

What I'm going to say about her in the notes to My Iron Spine is:

Elisabeth Wittelsbach (1837–1898)

Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary. She grew up as a minor royal in a backwater of Bavaria, but became empress after marrying her cousin Franz Joseph I. ‘Mad’ Kind Ludwig II of Bavaria was another of her cousins. When the Austrian Empire’s Hungarian subjects threatened revolt, she was instrumental in negotiating for Hungary to be given limited home rule and being recognised as a separate kingdom. She spent the later years of her life travelling incessantly, avoiding court life. She was assassinated by an anarchist in Geneva.

You can find out more about her on Wikipedia, and probably some other places on the net.

Helen Lowe said...


I took the opportunity to read your Empress Elisabeth poem today and I loved it. I have always thought Elisabeth was a fascinating woman and you caught that fascination in your poem.

Helen Rickerby said...

Helen, thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. She was a fascinating person. I don't know how much resemblance the person I created in the poem bears to the real Elisabeth, but I think it captures some of her spirit at least.