Ave Faustina Imperatrix, morituri te salutant.
Lean back, and get some minutes’ peace;
Let your head lean
Back to the shoulder with its fleece
Of locks, Faustine.
The shapely silver shoulder stoops,
Weighed over clean
With state of splendid hair that droops
Each side, Faustine.
Let me go over your good gifts
That crown you queen;
A queen whose kingdom ebbs and shifts
Each week, Faustine.
Bright heavy brows well gathered up:
White gloss and sheen;
Carved lips that make my lips a cup
To drink, Faustine,
Wine and rank poison, milk and blood,
Being mixed therein
Since first the devil threw dice with God
For you, Faustine.
Your naked new-born soul, their stake,
Stood blind between;
God said “let him that wins her take
And keep Faustine.”
But this time Satan throve, no doubt;
Long since, I ween,
God’s part in you was battered out;
Long since, Faustine.
The die rang sideways as it fell,
Rang cracked and thin,
Like a man’s laughter heard in hell
Far down, Faustine,
A shadow of laughter like a sigh,
Dead sorrow’s kin;
So rang, thrown down, the devil’s die
That won Faustine.
A suckling of his breed you were,
One hard to wean;
But God, who lost you, left you fair,
We see, Faustine.
You have the face that suits a woman
For her soul’s screen —
The sort of beauty that’s called human
In hell, Faustine.
You could do all things but be good
Or chaste of mien;
And that you would not if you could,
We know, Faustine.
Even he who cast seven devils out
Could hardly do as much, I doubt,
For you, Faustine.
Did Satan make you to spite God?
Or did God mean
To scourge with scorpions for a rod
Our sins, Faustine?
I know what queen at first you were,
As though I had seen
Red gold and black imperious hair
Twice crown Faustine.
As if your fed sarcophagus
Spared flesh and skin,
You come back face to face with us,
The same Faustine.
She loved the games men played with death,
Where death must win;
As though the slain man’s blood and breath
Nets caught the pike, pikes tore the net;
Lithe limbs and lean
From drained-out pores dripped thick red sweat
To soothe Faustine.
She drank the steaming drift and dust
Blown off the scene;
Blood could not ease the bitter lust
That galled Faustine.
All round the foul fat furrows reeked,
Where blood sank in;
The circus splashed and seethed and shrieked
All round Faustine.
But these are gone now: years entomb
The dust and din;
Yea, even the bath’s fierce reek and fume
That slew Faustine.
Was life worth living then? and now
Is life worth sin?
Where are the imperial years? and how
Are you Faustine?
Your soul forgot her joys, forgot
Her times of teen;
Yea, this life likewise will you not
For in the time we know not of
Did fate begin
Weaving the web of days that wove
Your doom, Faustine.
The threads were wet with wine, and all
Were smooth to spin;
They wove you like a Bacchanal,
The first Faustine.
And Bacchus cast your mates and you
Wild grapes to glean;
Your flower-like lips were dashed with dew
From his, Faustine.
Your drenched loose hands were stretched to hold
The vine’s wet green,
Long ere they coined in Roman gold
Your face, Faustine.
Then after change of soaring feather
And winnowing fin,
You woke in weeks of feverish weather,
A new Faustine.
A star upon your birthday burned,
Whose fierce serene
Red pulseless planet never yearned
In heaven, Faustine.
Stray breaths of Sapphic song that blew
Shook the fierce quivering blood in you
By night, Faustine.
The shameless nameless love that makes
Hell’s iron gin
Shut on you like a trap that breaks
The soul, Faustine.
And when your veins were void and dead,
What ghosts unclean
Swarmed round the straitened barren bed
That hid Faustine?
What sterile growths of sexless root
What flower of kisses without fruit
Of love, Faustine?
What adders came to shed their coats?
What coiled obscene
Small serpents with soft stretching throats
But the time came of famished hours,
Maimed loves and mean,
This ghastly thin-faced time of ours,
To spoil Faustine.
You seem a thing that hinges hold,
With clockwork joints of supple gold —
No more, Faustine.
Not godless, for you serve one God,
Who metes the gardens with his rod;
Your lord, Faustine.
If one should love you with real love
(Such things have been,
Things your fair face knows nothing of,
It seems, Faustine);
That clear hair heavily bound back,
The lights wherein
Shift from dead blue to burnt-up black;
Your throat, Faustine,
Strong, heavy, throwing out the face
And hard bright chin
And shameful scornful lips that grace
Their shame, Faustine,
Curled lips, long since half kissed away,
Still sweet and keen;
You’d give him — poison shall we say?
Or what, Faustine?
Faustina was the wife of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled Rome from AD 161-80.
In 1862, when Swinburne and several friends were on a suburban railway train, they had a bet as to who could produce the greatest number of rhymes for the name “Faustine”. Swinburne, with his usual facility, wrote the entire poem between Waterloo and Hampton Court, winning the bet.