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Famous last words

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Strange: a dismal subject like last words had me chortling. Not because this book is funny — it isn’t — but because it reminded me of Demonax, a 2nd-century CE Greek philosopher who lived in Athens.

had a reputation for puncturing pretension. According to his student Lucian of Samosata’s Life of Demonax, a poet named Admetus once boasted of having composed a one-line poem to be engraved on his own tomb: “Admetus’ husk earth holds, and Heaven himself.”

“What a beautiful epitaph, Admetus!” said Demonax, “and what a pity it is not up yet!”

The dazzling put-down is among the treasures of that ancient literary trope, the anecdote. The Greeks and Romans loved anecdotes, and the British after them. Lucian’s biography of Demonax is nothing but a collection of anecdotes; and Lucian’s modern translators were British (the Fowler brothers, Henry Watson and Francis George, of the eponymous guides to English usage).

Anecdotes are not just satisfying to read – each one is, after all, a very short story – they are good at showing what sort of behaviour the subject was best known for, what public persona they had, how they spoke and saw themselves, how they are remembered. When the chronicles say the Byzantine emperor (i.e. Bulgar-slayer) captured 14,000 Bulgars in 1014 CE, blinding 99 out of every 100 and leaving the 100th man with just one eye to guide the 99 survivors home, we get a picture of his times.

So it is not enough to have just the last words; there must also be context. Unless the speaker was to be executed or knew that death was due, he or she would have had little time in which to prepare a valediction. Thus, among the studied examples, “This is the last of Earth! I am content!” said John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the USA, dying from a stroke. “Come, come, no weakness; let’s be a man to the last!” said Lord Byron, dying of a fever in Italy. “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone,” said Edith Luisa Cavell, a British nurse and agent executed by the Germans in 1915. And so on.

Of the 370 people quoted in this book – by British business lecturer and writer – few said anything profound. “God damn you!” mumbled King George V to his nurse. Plain reality and pathos, but Breverton dresses up this small end properly: ‘His physician, Lord Dawson, issued a bulletin: The King’s life is drawing peacefully to a close.’ ... Dawson also wrote that he hastened the king’s end by giving him a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine, to prevent further strain on the family and so that his death could be announced in the morning edition of The Times.”

That should make you sit up. A king, hurried to his death by a spin doctor.

To put it plainly, the “last words” will stand only with the scaffolding of anecdote. Therein lies the value of this book. On the Internet there are many collections of “last words” of famous people. They are nearly all in a basic “name plus dying words” format. Such websites have composer Ludwig van Beethoven say: “Applaud friends, the comedy is over.” One site explains that this was aimed in sarcasm at the priest who had just completed the final benediction.

How much better is Breverton, when he indicates the operatic intensity of the scene, with the great composer raising his head and right arm at the last moment, “like a general giving orders to an army” (a quote from a biographer). He also tells us the “correct”, Latin version, “Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est” and explains that it was the conventional closing line to a performance of commedia dell'arte, a sort of improvisational comedy.

Breverton has designed his book cannily. Each subject gets one page, with a capsule biography and a description of the circumstances of the death. When the actual last words are not noteworthy, he picks some other phrase to highlight at the top of the page. In the Introduction Breverton glosses this slippery trick by writing that “the deathbed has inspired some of history’s most memorable, poignant, uplifting and occasionally humorous remarks” (my italics).

On M K Gandhi’s page, therefore, the highlighted phrase is not the famous (possibly apocryphal?) “He Ram”, but a line from Nehru’s radio broadcast after Gandhi’s assassination: “The light has gone out of our lives.” On Emily Brontë’s page, it is “No coward soul is mine”, a line from her last poem. Salvador Dalí’s is “I do not believe in my death”, from a TV interview 31 years before he died.

So Breverton was looking for mass appeal. The shape of the book says as much. A compact hardback, it’s exactly the kind of thing you would leave on the bedside table or take to the toilet. You can make it last for months.

Apart from entertainment, what is a collection of last words for? In Christianity there may be a notion that a person on the verge of death has special insight, and there is a long tradition of allowing those about to be executed a last word, possibly to express Christian contrition (but “Kiss my ass,” said American serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who is not in this book). There’s really not much of a moral nature to be learnt from these words, except the one lesson that we work hard to ignore: everyone dies.


IMMORTAL LAST WORDS
History’s Most remarkable Dying Remarks, Deathbed Declarations and Final Farewells
Terry Breverton
Quercus
384 pages; Rs 399

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