Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain. — Friedrich Schiller

Elizabeth - Empress of Austria - George Upton




The Empress' Literary Tastes

Elizabeth was passionately fond of both music and poetry. From her father she had acquired a perfect mastery of the zither, but she had also a beautiful voice and was a piano pupil of Liszt, and often sung and played at court charity concerts. Her favorite composers were Rubinstein, Chopin, and Wagner, to the latter of whom she proved a true friend by sending him a large sum of money at one of his times of greatest need, and after his death she made one of her incognito trips to Bayreuth to hear the Wagner productions there.

For art, too, she had the greatest enthusiasm. Both Makart and Munkacsy were warm personal friends of hers and she would often spend hours in their studios. She never went to the theatre in her later years, but always manifested great interest in the foremost actors and actresses in Austria and showed them many kindnesses on various occasions.

It was in literature, however, and poetry in particular, that she found her greatest inspiration and distraction. She was never without a book in her hand and would sit or wander about for hours so absorbed in her reading as to completely forget the passage of time, while as for her general knowledge competent judges have declared it to be amazing. "To converse intelligently with the Empress," said Hasenauer, "one should be well versed in history, science, and art."

She translated the whole of Schopenhauer into modern Greek and was an earnest student of Rousseau and Voltaire. But her prime favorite in the literary world was Heinrich Heine, for whom she had the greatest reverence and admiration; she possessed all his works, many of them in manuscript, and many touching instances are told of her kindness to the great poet's family. She had learned to love his poems soon after her marriage, in her first days of sorrow and disillusionment, and they always found a responsive echo in her heart. Anxious that his memory should be honored publicly, she interested herself in the erection of a monument to him in some German city, heading the subscription list herself with a large sum. The plan was in a fair way to succeed, when a letter arrived from Bismarck to the cabinet in Vienna, expressing his surprise that the ruler of a friendly neighboring country should wish to do public honor to a poet who had insulted the Hohenzollerns. As a rule, Franz Joseph and Elizabeth respected each other's peculiarities and differences of taste, but in this case, on account of the Triple Alliance, the Emperor was obliged to ask his wife to remove her name from the list, and, thanks to this episode, it remains for the future to erect a monument to Heine in Germany. But Elizabeth was determined not to be thwarted and had her revenge, for, learning that the Danish sculptor Hasselriis in Rome had already prepared designs for a statue of her favorite poet, she commissioned him to execute it in marble and had it placed in front of her palace at Corfu. Apparently the Hohenzollerns did not resent this, however, for the then Emperor of Germany was most attentive to her whenever she was travelling in that country. He always made a point of calling upon her with his wife and is said to have considered her one of the cleverest women he ever met.

There were not many books that she cared for, but she loved to read her favorites again and again. Heine was the only one of the German poets whose works she understood and treasured. Neither Goethe nor Schiller appealed to her, nor did the modern French poets interest her, although she thought highly of Lamartine. In English she specially admired Shakespeare and Byron, Shakespeare indeed ranking only second to Heine in her affections. She made excellent translations of several of his plays and could repeat whole scenes from them by heart. "Hamlet" and "Midsummer Night's Dream "were her favorites, and she had a painting of Titania and her lover with the ass's head hanging in each of her palaces. "Our illusions are the asses' heads that we all kiss," she used to say.

She wrote charmingly herself, and while on the long journeys that consumed so much of her time she would send long letters every week to her husband and children, containing brilliant descriptions of her travels, bits of poetry or translations, often illustrated with exquisite pen-and-ink or water-color sketches. These valuable souvenirs are all preserved in the Hofburg, together with what she called her "day-book," a sort of diary covering many years.