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Lucheni had waited all day in the pines

above the lake. When she passed, he begged.

Her equerry dismissed him. As always,

self-absorbed, she saw nothing: an anarchist

with a grand and personal design.

On the quayside at Geneva, a week

later, Lucheni, the labourer,

stabbed Elizabeth, Empress of Austria,

with a homemade knife. Her husband foresaw,

like her assassin, anarchy: armies

entrenching in Bohemia; riders

galloping from Buda; at the Hofburg,

Jews and republicans!


The Empress and her only son discovered

the twentieth century. Rudolf

was cavalry, and a liberal. ‘ After

a long period of sickness,’ he wrote,

‘a wholly new Europe will arise

and bloom.’ Father misunderstood him.

At Mayerling, Rudolf shot Marie Vetsera

and then himself. Elizabeth travelled

from grief or disillusion: obsessive,

dilettante, naive and beautiful.

They died before their time, believing

their neuroses symptoms of the age, the world’s

contours shaped like their hearts.


On Corfu, she built The Achillean,

a kitsch imitation of the attic.

She peopled the palace’s emptiness

with statues of soldiers and poets –

like Heine, her favourite. “Another

subversive Jew!” the Emperor observed.

‘Ich hatte einst ein schones Vaterland.’

The Dying Achilles, nude except for

his helmet, was turned to face the north – Berlin

Vienna, Sarajevo. After

her death, the Kaiser bought the palace,

sold off Heine and replaced her Achilles

with his, The Victorious.


Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria,

King of Jerusalem, Duke of Auschwitz,

wore, on his wedding night, dress uniform.

He signed his letters to Elizabeth,

‘Your lonely manikin.’ After he had read

the telegram informing him of her death,

“No one knows,” he said, “how much we loved

each other.” ‘Es traumte mir von einer

Sommernacht.’ Across the darkening straits,

lamps are lit on the Balkan mainland.

On the empty terrace, a march or perhaps

a waltz wheezes from the orchestrion.

Fireflies blink with passion.



Note: The poem was first published on the site in May 2010.

© Copyright David Selzer
3 Responses
  • Alan Horne
    December 2, 2016

    This interested me as we had a family holiday last year in Vienna and in Bad Ischl, the summer home of Frank Josef and Elisabeth, who the locals (or maybe just the tourist bureau) call Sisi and seem to regard as a romantic cult figure. Both places, but especially Vienna, seemed wholly locked into past glories, even in comparison to Brexit-era UK. The poem gives a lovely sense of them as hugely privileged but also completely trapped by their grandeur.

  • David Selzer
    December 4, 2016

    One of my favourite films is ‘The Third Man’ and my favourite plays ‘Measure for Measue’, in part because both are set in Vienna, which I’ve never visited. Here’s a poem combining both – .

    Om her travels, Sissi spent some time as a guest of the Duke of Westminster at his Chester seat, Eaton Hall. She also stayed at St George’s Hotel, Llandudno. At a different time, Bismarck was a guest at both establishments. Their stay in Llandudno features in one of my filmscripts, ‘Loyalties’. It’s off the site at the moment being considered by an independent producer.

  • Hugh Powell
    December 6, 2016

    Another corner of our world picture lit up. Sad the Brexiteers regard our European heritage as someone else’s.

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