From Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977), the first of three volumes recounting the writer’s 1933–1934 walk across Europe. As Leigh Fermor prepares to leave Vienna, he hears a story about the Holy Roman Emperor Maxmilian I:
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.Whoever tells the story writes out the poem, “with the old Austrian spelling painstakingly intact”:
Leb, waiss nit wie lang,Leigh Fermor’s translation:
Und stürb, waiss nit wann
Muess fahren, waiss nit wohin
Mich wundert, das ich so frelich bin.
Live, don’t know how long,These lines remind me of a sentence from Guillaume Apollinaire: “la beauté de la vie passe la douleur de mourir.” And of lines from Frank O’Hara: “Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible.” All wonderful, compact philosophies of life.
And die, don’t know when;
Must go, don’t know where;
I am astonished I am so cheerful.
“Footpads and knaves” : From A Time of Gifts : Leigh Fermor’s Brueghel : Leigh Fermor’s eye : One word from A Time of Gifts
[The poem exists in several versions and is also attributed to the theologian Martinus von Biberach. The Apollinaire sentence is from the calligram “La cravate et la montre” (The Tie and the Watch). The O‘Hara lines are from “In Memory of My Feelings.” Relineated, they appear on O’Hara’s grave marker.]