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Poetry and the Tsarina?

Included amongst the works read as a young woman by Princess Alix of Hesse, later Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918), were – according to letters that she wrote to her eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg – Guizot’s Reformation de la Litterature, the Life of Cromwell and Raumer’s nine-volume set, Geschichte der Hohenstaufen (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, the Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 14). I want however, to explore the possible significance of poetry for the future Tsarina.

Princess Alix of Hesse gave a book, The Iron Pirate, to her fiancé, the Tsarevich Nicholas, in the year of their engagement – 1894 – and he read Pierre Loti’s Matelot (1893) to her when they spent time together at the house rented by Princess Louis at Walton-on-Thames, before they went on to Windsor. When Princess Alix arrived in England on 22 April 1894 – just over two weeks after their engagement at Coburg – she took with her both her own personal Bible and a prayer book to Windsor (Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 59). In May 1894, prior to his joining Alix in England as a guest of Queen Victoria, the Tsarevich Nicholas received a letter from Alix’s elder sister, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna: ‘I send you some religious books you might bring her…’ (cit., Ibid, 69).

During this month, Princess Alix was in Harrogate, undergoing a cure for sciatica and had taken her Russian language manuals with her to Yorkshire. She would be received into the Orthodox Church as it happened, the day after the death of Tsar Alexander III, at Livadia, the Russian imperial resort in the Crimea. Princess Alix wrote in the diary of the Tsarevich, shortly before the Tsar’s death: ‘I have been able to pray with you in church for your darling father. What a comfort! You near me, all seems easier. I know you will always help me’ (cit., Buxhoeveden, 39). All these then were the kind of books Alix was reading in 1894.

But what of poetry?

This habit of writing in the diary of the Tsarevich Nicholas was a practice that Princess Alix began during the period of their engagement. It seems she ended up abandoning her own journal for 1894 in the process, because there are no further entries in her diary for 1894 after 11 May, as the State Archives of the Russian Federation (GARF) in Moscow, confirmed to the present author (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Princess Alix’s Visit to Harrogate, Royalty Digest Quarterly, 1/2018, 39).  In addition to private messages to the Tsarevich, this practice of writing in his diary also occasionally included writing lines of poetry, or whole poems, giving us another possible indication of the future Tsarina’s reading matter, or at least, choice of words which she was using to express particular feelings. These sentences in the Tsarevich’s diary were sometimes written in the margin and are revealing of Alix’s private emotions at this time. She also doodled, one example being a drawn heart and the words in French, ‘Toi toi toi toi’ (ed. Alexander Bokhanov et al., The Romanovs, Love, Power and Tragedy, 77).

I want to explore the future Tsarina’s possible relationship with poetry, as whilst it is certainly less of a feature than the religious matter or contemporary novels that she read, she does seem to have turned to it as a medium to lend expression to her thoughts on occasion. Several poetry books that she owned also shed interesting light on personal family gifts, although these, of course, were typical of their time and need not demonstrate a particular love for the genre. They could have been all the more cherished because of the family connection.

Photographs of Princess Alix often include a book in formal studio portraits, and whilst this was an unremarkable prop in itself, Alix does seem to have enjoyed reading. She is supposed to have sketched herself holding a book in her hands, with her feet raised on a reclining chair, if the author Elisabeth Heresch has identified the sketch correctly, as the source is unnamed (Elisabeth Heresch, Tragik und Ende der letzten Zarin, 39). The activity is at least correct. Like her brother, Ernst Ludwig remembered in his memoirs: ‘Alix read much, mostly history, philosophical and religious works…’ (cit., Ernst Ludwig, Erinnertes, 72). One of the closest friends of her youth Toni Becker-Bracht, gave her a bookmark, probably for Christmas 1892.

Alix included English and German poems in her letters to another close friend, Magarete ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice. On a small card, to which a small forget-me-not bunch was pressed, the young Tsarina wrote: ‘That His Peace may tend you, and His love caress you, is the wish I send you in the words: ‘God bless you’. Alix 1895′ (cit., ed. Heinrich Graf von Spreti, Alix an Gretchen: Briefe der Zarin Alexandra Feodorovna aus den Jahren 1891-1914 an Freiin Magarete von Fabrice, 45). She included an English poem by H. M. Burnside, on her greeting card for Christmas 1910/New Year 1911: 

There’s a cheery sound in the very name, of Christmas that is healing, for every care and a potent claim on every kindly feeling: Joy may it bring to your heart, my friend, And on every face that meets you affection beam – and its gladness lend to every voice that greets you” (cit., Ibid, 180).

Alix shared a favourite author with Queen Victoria, admiring the emotionally florid works of Marie Corelli, whom the Queen once remarked to her eldest daughter, Crown Princess Victoria, would one-day number amongst the greatest writers in the world (Greg King, The Last Empress, 40). Like Queen Victoria, however, Princess Alix was in many ways, the very opposite of Victorian, with passionate emotion beneath a surface layer of shy reserve, as her correspondence with her fiancé and future husband, Nicholas clearly demonstrates. On one occasion, Alix actually borrowed a line from Corelli to copy into Nicholas’s diary: ‘For the past is past and will never return, the future we know not, and only the present can be called our own’ (cit., King, 71).

It was typical of Princess Alix’s warm feeling of friendship that she would write personal dedications with her gifts, to her friends to whom she was devoted. Such dedications were not confined merely to books, however. The letter-opener she sent to her former governess, Margaret Hardcastle Jackson, contained a handwritten dedication in pencil, which used to be attached to the inner lid.

We know that Princess Alix took hundreds of books with her to Russia which had formerly belonged to her mother, Grand Duchess Alice of Hesse (ed. Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey, Nicholas and Alexandra: At Home with the last Tsar and his family, 116). The books in the Tsarina’s personal library often contained her own bookplates and also her autograph, to indicate the time that she got or was given, the book. The selection gives us an interesting insight into the Tsarina’s preferred reading matter at this time, which included novellas, religious works and collected works of literature, in both German, English and French. Several of these were clearly of personal significance, directly relating to her mother, Grand Duchess Alice, as they included a German version of her published book of her mother’s letters, autographed ‘Alix von Hessen, 1884, Darmstadt’ and a book, Gleanings from Pious Authors, Montgomery, London 1850, which Grand Duchess Alice autographed, when Princess Alice: ‘Somi Rolland de la Sang from Princess Alice/Windsor Castle/1850’ (ed. Swezey, 116).

Poignantly, the book of letters of Grand Duchess Alice contains in its appendix – at least in my English version – a memorial poem for the Grand Duchess Alice: ‘In Memoriam’ by the author ‘TRUTH’ (Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 404). As Grand Duchess Alice lay in state, a poetic scroll was laid by ‘two ladies deeply veiled‘ (cit., Ibid, 393): ‘A hurricane, charged with destruction, O palm, swept o’er thee…’ (cit., Ibid, 393). If this book was in Princess Alix’s library later as Tsarina, this surely could have been poetry that aroused particular emotion.

Of particular interest is a book which was given to Princess Alix by her English cousin, Princess Maud of Wales, entitled Heavenly Dew, London 1880s, bound in paper and silk. The little book contained Bible quotations and accompanying poems and bore the inscription: ‘For dearful Alicky for her confirmation. March 1888. From her Mail-loving cousin, Maudy’ (Ibid). This book is preserved in the State Museum Preserve of Tsarskoe Selo, St Petersburg, as is another book, English Sacred Poetry, which contains the label: ‘Alexander Palace/Maple Room/Empress Alexandra Feodorovna/Number 286’. The dedication inside is from Queen Victoria to Princess Alix: ‘Alix fr. Grandmama, Xmas’ (Ibid). As Tsarina, Alexandra kept personal mementoes of Queen Victoria in her Pallisander Room at the Alexander Palace, along with items from her babyhood, in a so-called ‘memory chest’ (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Birth in Darmstadt, Princess Alix of Hesse, Royalty Digest Quarterly 3/2017, 10).

In 1885, her thirteenth year – one year after she first visited Russia – she doodled a poem in one of her early diaries, as Princess of Hesse. On the opposite page, is a drawing of a woman in Russian court dress and Alix wrote opposite: ‘There is one, and he is a love, and so are you, you little dove’. (ed. Bokhanov et al., 63). The young Alix has crossed through in pencil the next verse, which I read as: ‘You are an angel, but I shall give you a bangle’. A bangle is correspondingly drawn in pencil, beneath (Ibid, 63).

Nor is this the earliest instance of Alix’s writing poetry, or writing down poems. In the Hessian State Archives in Darmstadt, is preserved an image of a handwritten poem by Princess Alix in German, framed and dated 1881. Also preserved in the Darmstadt archives, is a small book of poetry – leather bound in gilt – which Princess Alix gifted to the close friend of her youth, Toni Becker-Bracht, in 1887. Alix included a German poem in a letter to Toni, in 1891.

Contained within the appendix of the published correspondence of the Tsarina with her close friend, Magarete ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice, are two undated poems from the ‘very’ young Princess Alix of Hesse. One is a German poem on a page:

Frag alle Bekannten, frag alle Verwandten, frag alle Verliebten, frag alle Betrübten, Frag Himmel & Erden, als Antwort nur werden sie sagen, es sei nichts schöner als Treu...” (cit., ed. Heinrich Graf von Spreti, 204). [Ask all acquaintances, ask all relations, ask all those in love, ask all those who are miserable, ask heaven and earth, for their answer, they will say, there is nothing more beautiful than loyalty…’ (Author’s translation).

One further poem, also un-dated on paper reads as follows:

O frage nicht, was ich Dir wünsche, was Dir mein Mund erflehet heut’, Wünscht dir mein Herz doch jetzt und immer, was Erd’ und Himmel irgend bieten, Komm’, blick hinein in seine Tiefen und sieh was dort geschrieben steht: vielhundertausend treue Wünsche, und jeder Wunsch ein still Gebet!” (cit., Ibid). [O don’t ask was I wish you, what my mouth beseeches for you today, this my heart wishes you now and always, what earth and heaven every offer, Come, look into its depths and see what therein lies written: Many hundred thousand loyal wishes, and each wish, a quiet prayer!] (Author’s translation).

We must imagine that as Princess of Hesse, Alix liked this poem, because she copied it into a letter to Toni Becker-Bracht in 1891.

During the period of her engagement to Tsarevich Nicholas, Alix increasingly seems to have used poetry to express herself, as she included it in the entries she made in the Tsarevich’s diary. A typical page reads thus, for October 1894: ‘For my own beloved darling Nicky dear, from y. deeply loving, truly devoted Alix’: “May love and peace/and Blessing without end/Wreath all your path with flowers/ Oh my friend!/And if a thorn should touch/you where they grow/Believe, indeed I would not/have it so” (cit., Bokhanov et al, 68).

Another poem was dedicated to him: ‘The clock is striking in the belfry tower, and warns us of the ever fleeting hour, but neither needs time, which outward glides, for time may pass away, but love abides. I feel his kisses on my fever’d brow; If we must part, why should it be now? Is this a dream? Then waking would be pain, oh! do not wake me, let me dream again’ (cit., Ibid, 77; cit., King, 70).

Nicholas also seems to have appreciated poetry. He was given some French poetry amongst other gifts from his parents, Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Marie Feodorovna, for his birthday in May 1894 (Maylunas & Mironenko, 65). He exchanged verses with Alix, shortly before they parted in Coburg. His poem for her was as follows:

Peace be around thee where’er thou rovest and all that thou wishest and all that thou lovest. Come smiling around thy sunny way. If sorrow o’er this calm should break may even thy tears pass off so lightly, that like spring showers they’ll only make the smiles that follow, shine more brightly…’ (cit., Bokhanov et al., 74). ‘Sunny’, would later become one of the private names that Tsar Nicholas II would call his wife.

Her poem in reply was her ‘spell’: “I want a heart not heeding what others think or say, I want a humble spirit to listen and obey, to serve Thee without ceasing, tis but a little while, My strength, the Master’s promise, My joy, the Master’s smile’ (cit., Ibid).

One further poem from this time reads more like a lullaby. This is perhaps especially touching because we know from the engagement correspondence that Princess Alix sometimes wrote to Nicholas, or re-read his letters to her, before going to bed (Maylunas & Mironenko, 57, 67):

Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber Holy Angels guard thy bed Heavenly blessings without number Gently falling on thy head Better, better every day’ (cit., King, 70).

I have checked the books belonging to the Tsarina, according to a translation of the French edition compiled by Sokolov, as part of the investigation he headed, at Ekaterinburg, after the murder of the Russian Imperial Family. This part of the list translates as ‘Books found in the Ipatiev House and its outbuildings, Books of the Empress’. Alexandra’s books are listed nos. 195-203.

The only books found not of a religious nature were two books by Avertchenko and some volumes ‘Books II, VIII, XIII’ of A.P. Chekhov’s works. The remaining books are religious, perhaps comment as to the Tsarina’s deep faith and need at this time for spiritual material, as opposed to classic romanticism. There are no books of poetry belonging to the Tsarina that were found at Ekaterinburg, according to this list of items in the translated (French) edition. Among the books listed for Grand Duchess Olga Nikolevna, the eldest of the four imperial daughters, is a book bound in English brocade, written on the verso, ‘V. K Olga 1917. Mama. Tobolsk’. On a piece of paper contained within the book was a poem by Sully-Prudhomme, entitled The Broken Vase. The Empress had written some English verse in her hand and drawn a cross on the first page.

Poetry, was perhaps, much less needed. I view its place in the Tsarina’s life, as not insignificant. Alexandra clearly turned to poetry to give expression to emotions concerning those closest to her, at a particular point in her life. As such, it also featured amongst the gifts that she both made and received.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and radio, including the BBC.