Magazine article The Spectator

Famous Last Words Do Not Always Ring True. or Do They?

Magazine article The Spectator

Famous Last Words Do Not Always Ring True. or Do They?

Article excerpt

AND ANOTHER THING THING

There is a rumour going around about Auberon Waugh's last words. It is said he became briefly conscious and asked, 'Have they sacked Dominic Lawson yet?' But then, like Pilate, 'would not stay for an answer'. This story evokes hoots of mirth in chattering London, so Bron, bless him, died as he would have wished, raising a laugh. If only everyone's last words were as interesting. Most, if authentic, are inconsequential, wildly inappropriate, obscure or banal. Imagine kind Charles Lamb, holding the dying Hazlitt, most unfortunate and self-- destructive of mortals, and hearing the poor sod say, 'Well, I've had a happy life.' Dickens said, 'Yes, on the ground.' (This in reply to someone who said he ought to lie down.) Hitler's last mutter was, 'It doesn't pay to be so kind.' William Pitt the Younger, a notoriously thin man more fond of liquor than solids, said, 'I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies.' Coleridge's last recorded remark was, 'My mind is quite unclouded. I could even be witty.'

Some last words are characteristic but unremarkable. Thus Thackerary: 'Bring me a brandy-and-water, if you please.' Wordsworth (being read to, but not from his own works): 'Please excuse me if I fall asleep.' Jane Austen's last saying is not recorded but the last words she wrote were: 'Rather longer petticoats than last year' -- quite appropriate from one who, had she lived in this age, might well have been editor of Vogue. Byron is supposed to have called out place-names and numbers, then names of those he loved: 'Augusta - Ada - Kinnaird - Hobhouse', and, finally, 'Io lascio qualque cosa di caro nel mondo' (I leave something dear to the world). I don't believe that Queen Victoria's last utterance was the exclamation 'Bertie!' Her much-distrusted eldest son had just come into the room. Perhaps she intended a rebuke. Or perhaps she really meant to say 'Albert!' She was present when the prime minister she most disliked, Palmerston, made his last recorded remarks. They were inspecting together a regiment of the Guards, and the Queen complained she could smell their sweat (no nonsense about 'perspiration'). Palmerston replied, 'Yes, Ma'am, it is known as esprit de corps.' That is neat, and just about credible. What I do not believe, as being too apt, is the last remark of her favourite PM, Lord Melbourne: 'Die, my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do.'

But perhaps Melbourne, who was a genuinely funny man when he chose, wanted to go with a witticism and worked the thing out in advance. And perhaps Henry James did the same with 'So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!' Such words betray the midnight oil or at least a degree of premeditation, as opposed to the agonised John Keats's sigh of relief: 'Thank God it has come at last.' Dr Johnson, I think, intended his last words to be those he addressed to his black servant: 'Attend, Francis, to the salvation of your soul, which is the object of greatest importance.' But, in the event, a Miss Morris asked for his blessing and he gave it: 'God bless you, my dear.' And even after that he said to Cawston, servant to William Wyndham, MP, who had been sharing the vigil with Francis, 'Bear my remembrance to your master.' His end, it is said, was edifying and showed no sign of his terror of dying, so acute when he was in robust health.

Be that as it may, no one wants to show a great and good man dying in fear. …

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