Thursday, October 01, 2015


Imperial Verses?

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), A Time of Gifts (1977; rpt. New York: New York Review Books, 2005), pp. 232-233:
Prompted by my recent preoccupations, perhaps, the conversation veered to Charles V's grandfather, the first Maximilian: The Last of the Knights, as he was called, half-landsknecht, and, until you looked more carefully at Dürer's drawing, half playing-card monarch. Someone was describing how he used to escape from the business of the Empire now and then by retiring to a remote castle in the Tyrolese or Styrian forests. Scorning muskets and crossbows and armed only with a long spear, he would set out for days after stag and wild boar. It was during one of these holidays that he composed a four-line poem, and inscribed it with chalk, or in lampblack, on the walls of the castle cellar. It was still there, the speaker said.


I must have asked him to write it out, for here it is, transcribed inside the cover of a diary I began a fortnight later — frayed and battered now — with the old Austrian spelling painstakingly intact. There was something talismanic about these lines, I thought:
Leb, waiss nit wie lang,
Und stürb, waiss nit wann
Muess fahren, waiss nit wohin
Mich wundert, das ich so frelich bin.*
They have a more hopeful drift than the comparable five lines by an earlier Caesar, especially the last line. I preferred Maximilian's end to Hadrian's desolating
Nec ut soles dabis jocos.
* Live, don't know how long,
And die, don't know when;
Must go, know not where;
I am astonished I am so cheerful.

Stop press! I've just discovered that the castle is called Schloss Tratzberg. It is near Jenbach, still standing, and not very far from Innsbruck.
The "talismanic lines" are probably not by Maximilian I (1459-1519). See here for a brief discussion with bibliography.

Here in full is the poem attributed to Hadrian:
Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos?
In A. O'Brien-Moore's translation:
O blithe little soul, thou, flitting away,
Guest and comrade of this my clay,
Whither now goest thou, to what place
Bare and ghastly and without grace?
Nor, as thy wont was, joke and play.
Doubt has been cast on Hadrian's authorship of this poem. See, e.g., Timothy D. Barnes, "Hadrian's Farewell to Life," Classical Quarterly 18.2 (Nov., 1968) 384-386. Alan Cameron, "Poetae Novelli," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 84 (1980) 127-175 (at 167-172), defends the attribution to Hadrian.

Practically every paragraph of Leigh Fermor's book cries out for annotation and illustration. Here is Dürer's drawing of Maximilian I:

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