Maximilian’s Grafitti

I’ve been reading about the history of the Habsburg Empire, and I expect that will excuse most of my readers to quickly move on from this post, but, please stay with me for just a moment!

Maximilian I (1459-1511) was kind of a big deal.


He was Holy Roman Emperor, which involved managing and defending large swaths of Europe—from Spain to France to Hungary and as far south as Italy. (As an aside, Voltaire said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.)

Maximilian was also the first of a 600-year line of the House of Habsburg, emperors, kings and queens who basically oversaw the development of modern Europe. The Habsburg’s (generally speaking) weren’t as colorful as some of the English and French monarchs, which is one of the reasons I think we don’t know much about them. And, the Habsburg coat of arms, war-like twin eagles, is impressive:


I you like classical music, you should feel some warmth toward the Habsburg’s: Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Strauss and Bruckner and Brahms, to name a few, all did their work, for at least a time, within the Habsburg realm, although Haydn had to shuffle up to England to be fully appreciated. The Habsburg’s also turned Vienna into a brilliant European city, and the thing didn’t fall apart until after WWI, when the Austria-Hungary empire was pulled apart (because they lost the war).

So, here’s what I wanted to say about Maximilian. He was pretty busy fighting territorial wars, but when he could, he’d take off to his Tyrolese and Styrian castles and ride about in the woods, hunting stag and wild boar with nothing but a horse and a long bow. During one of his stays, he wandered down to the cellar and scribbled this four-line poem the cellar wall:

Live, don’t know how long;

And die, don’t know when;

Must go, don’t know where;

I am astonished I am so cheerful.

There’s lots, of course, to say about this. The first two lines, one could say, are existential questions that we all wonder about–perhaps as we are trotting down the basement stairs! And I don’t think anyone would be surprised if they were penned by a Holy Roman Emperor or 16-year old in Des Moines. The third line, though, coming on the heels of the first two, feels more desperate: “I’ve got to move on, but I don’t have a map” Maximilian seems to be saying, either because he is pursued by work, armies, or perhaps internal demons. This sentiment, of course, seems like it would precede more confusion as in, “I am really lost and I don’t know what to do with myself.” But, it takes another emotional turn, into a place of joy in the face of imminent (and undefined) threats—astonishment at a state of happiness.

I read this poem—or is it graffiti?– this morning as I was taking my first sips of coffee and before the children trundled down the stairs (who knows what they were thinking!).

And I’ve been repeating it to myself over and over since then.

2 thoughts on “Maximilian’s Grafitti

  1. I love this! It’s fascinating that the first three lines don’t have any agency⎯there’s no “I” there to do the living, the dying, the going, and the not knowing. It’s not until he identifies his emotional reactions to these existential crises that he inserts himself into the poem, “I am,” with a positive response to these big ideas. I love the thought that the living and dying and going just happen to us, and no one really knows how long, when, or where, but it’s our emotions and reactions that help us process the weird, unknowable happenings of life. Plus, I love how Maximilian is so self aware and reflective: he’s not just blindly cheerful, but he’s astonished at his own emotions. Writing this poetic graffiti is helping him further process how he fits into this whole living, dying, and going thing. This is a beautiful little poem that really brightened my day! Thanks for sharing! 😀

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