Famous Last Words

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From Marie Antoinette to Dylan Thomas, death be not eloquent.

With few exceptions, the last words of history’s great players have been about as interesting and uplifting as a phone book. We may expect pearls of profundity from our expiring artists, philosophers, and world leaders, but more often we are left with dry-as-dust clichés.

Admittedly, it’s not exactly fair to expect deep insights into life’s mysteries when the dying clearly have other things on their minds—hell, for instance, or unspeakable pain. Bullet-riddled Francisco “Pancho” Villa was probably preoccupied when he told a comrade, “Don’t let it end this way. Tell them I said something.” But don’t we have the right to expect eloquence in the final stanzas of legendary wordsmiths like Lord Byron and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Byron couldn’t be bothered to work up a decent rhyme: “Now I shall go to sleep. Good night.” Goethe’s last words were so dull biographers have been obliged to edit creatively: “Open the second shutter so that more light may come in” became the more sublime “More light!” (There is, by the way, some debate whether Goethe’s last words were not, in fact, “Come my little one, and give me your paw.”)

And one is loath to mention Walt Whitman’s last barbaric yawp: “Hold me up; I want to shit.” Legendary wag Oscar Wilde’s last words were nothing more than shop talk. Commenting on a novel he had recently read, Wilde said, “This is a fine study of the American politician and possesses the quality of truth in characterization. What else has the lady written?”

Queens have left little more for the living to chew on. Elizabeth I was whiny (“All my possessions for a moment of time”), while Marie Antoinette was clumsy but polite: “Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur,” she said, after treading upon her executioner’s toe.

Ironically, it may have been the relatively obscure who delivered history’s best exit lines. Has anyone departed the scene better than minor English playwright Henry Arthur Jones, who, asked whom he would prefer to sit with him during the evening, his nurse or his niece, replied, “The prettier. Now fight for it.” Actor Edmund Gwenn was terse: “Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult.” And you have to admire the singleness of purpose in the last words of French gra mmarian Dominique Bouhours: “I am about to—or I am going to—die; either expression is used.”

For sheer entertainment value, you can’t beat the last words of condemned prisoners, particularly if you have a fondness for graveyard humor. Asked by the firing squad commander if he had a last request, James Roges said, “Why yes. A bulletproof vest!” And you’ve got to love a condemned murderer who can continue to cut up from the electric chair. “How about this for a headline in tomorrow’s paper,” James French said. “French Fries!”

Some last words will forever remain an enigma, their meaning gone to the grave along with their speakers. Henry David Thoreau’s “Moose, Indian,” for instance, and the eerie last words of John Wilkes Booth as he emerged from a burning barn, fatally wounded, looked at his hands and muttered, “Useless, useless.” In a similar vein, what to make of conductor Leonard Bernstein’s last words—”What’s this?”—or novelist Victor Hugo’s “I see black light”?

To me, the most genuine last words are those that arise naturally from the moment, such as Voltaire’s response to a request that he forswear Satan: “This is no time to make new enemies.” Compare that to the stagy, obviously rehearsed “Now comes the mystery” (Henry Ward Beecher) or Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Friends, applaud. The comedy is over.”

It may well be that planning your last words is no more profitable a pursuit than preparing your Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Who can say when the Grim Reaper will tap a bony finger on your shoulder? It is unlikely that poet Dylan Thomas thought “I’ve had 18 straight whiskeys. I think that’s the record” was going to be his swan song.

Could it be that “great last words” are a myth of the hale and hearty, and that the expiring understand that the deathbed is no place for 11th-hour philosophizing? Didn’t Christ himself sign off with the unpretentious “It is finished”? Besides, why should the mundane act of dying bring one any closer to the truth? Karl Marx may have had it right, for once, when he answered his housekeeper’s request for last words with: “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”

Christopher Orlet is a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in Salon.com, Exquisite Corpse, and Pif. From The Vocabula Review, a monthly Web publication dedicated to the proper and elegant use of the English language. 

Image courtesy Kevin Dooley, licensed under Creative Commons

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