Last Words of Famous Authors

Lyle Larsen

 

Walt Whitman observed that a person's last words are not samples of the best, involving vitality at its full, and perfect control, but "they are valuable beyond measure to confirm and endorse the varied train, facts, theories and faith of the whole preceding life."

Plato could get off a good thing when he had to. He confirmed and endorsed his preceding life by remarking before he died, "I thank the guiding providence and fortune of my life: first that I was born a man and a Greek, not a barbarian nor a brute; and next, that I happened to live in the age of Socrates."

The grammarian Dominique Bouhours showed the tenor of his life in his concluding remarks. He said, "I am about to--or I am going to--die. Either expression is used."

Goethe's last words seem well-suited to close the life of an old "sturm und drang" romantic. He thundered, "More light!"

Lord Byron's last words, on the other hand, seem at first rather gentle for a man whose life had been so turbulent. But then Byron had a gentle side to his nature. Dying of a fever in Greece, where he had gone to champion Greek independence, he said simply, "Now I shall go to sleep."

Lady Mary Wortley Montague's appetite for life was reflected in her final words. Perhaps the most learned woman of her day, and one of the most elegant letter writers of 18th century England, she said, "It has all been most interesting."

Emily Dickinson, who found poetry in the most common occurrences, said just before dying, "Let us go in; the fog is rising."

Thomas Carlyle, the irascible Scottish historian, remarked, "So this is Death--well--"

Henrik Ibsen, who could be plenty cantankerous when he wanted to be, made his last remark to a nurse who said he seemed to be improving: "On the contrary!"

George Bernard Shaw, the plain-spoken playwright who lived to be 94, said to his nurse before dying, "Sister, you're trying to keep me alive as an old curiosity, but I'm done, I'm finished, I'm going to die."

Henry David Thoreau's last words may not have been his best, but they summed up much that was important in his life. He said, "Moose. Indian."

Prior to that, Thoreau was asked if he had made his peace with God. He replied, "I didn't know we had quarreled."

Edgar Allan Poe died at age 40 in a hospital room in Baltimore. He had been found several days earlier wandering the streets in a state of delirium. Brought to the hospital, he alternated between periods of calm and episodes of violence when nurses were forced to hold him down in bed. After one of these violent outbursts, he fell back exhausted, lay quiet for a short time, said, "Lord help my poor soul," and expired.

Dylan Thomas had a passion for drink, women, and poetry (not necessarily in that order). The Welsh poet died on a characteristic note, saying, "I've had 18 straight whiskies . . . I think that's the record."

In the year 1900, Oscar Wilde, perhaps the world's greatest wit, remarked on his deathbed, "Either this wallpaper goes or I do."

Wilde also said, "I am dying as I have lived, beyond my means." These were not his final words--only his final witticisms--for he grew unable to speak several days prior to his death, an event that scholars will observe next year on its centenary.

Some authors have been surprised by death, or have mistimed its arrival, and so were not fully prepared with those final words that Whitman said confirmed and endorsed their preceding lives.

The English writer Saki, pen name of H. H. Munro, was killed suddenly in the First World War by a sniper's bullet just after saying, "Put that bloody cigarette out."

Thomas Macaulay was unprepared. The last thing anyone heard him say was, "I shall retire early; I am very tired."

Washington Irving said just before he died, "Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! When will this end?" Sooner than he expected apparently.

Mark Twain once wrote that a man of eminence should not delay preparing his final utterance. He should write his last words down on a slip of paper and get the advice of his friends on them. He should never leave such an important matter to the last minute and trust to inspiration "to enable him to say something smart with his latest gasp and launch him into eternity with grandeur. No--a man is apt to be too much fagged and exhausted, both in body and mind, at such a time, to be reliable."

"There is hardly a case on record," Twain continued, "where a man came to his last moment unprepared and said a good thing--hardly a case where a man trusted to that last moment and did not make a solemn botch of it and go out of the world feeling absurd."

Mark Twain, by the way, uttered his last words on April 21, 1910. They were addressed to his daughter Clara, who stood by his bed. "Good-by," he said to her, taking her hand. He added faintly, "If we meet . . ." He looked at her a short time longer, then sank into a doze, and died several hours later.

 

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