Saturday, 27 August 2011

Famous Last Words

05:35:00 Posted by Ashley Lister 4 comments
By Ashley Lister

“They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist. . . .”
General John Sedgwick, killed in battle during US Civil War

The frustrating thing about having the Saturday slot is that I’ve got to follow five intelligent writers talking about a specific subject.

“I've had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that's the record…”
Dylan Thomas

This week I’ve got to follow five intelligent writers talking about last lines. And I’m expected to say something that sounds clever and vaguely original.

“Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
Oscar Wilde

However, instead of saying something clever or original, and only veering slightly away from the topic, I thought I could have a bit of a giggle with some famous last words.

“Go away. I'm all right.”
H. G. Wells

Except it wasn’t much of a giggle. Whilst those first few quotes listed above (all supposedly the last words of famous speakers) are darkly amusing, I came across some truly heartbreaking last lines.

Lady Nancy Astor woke briefly during her last illness and found all her family around her bedside. She asked, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?” Charlotte Bronte, talking to her husband on her deathbed said, “Oh, I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy.” The deeply troubled Edgar Allan Poe’s last words were, “Lord help my poor soul.” And then there are the last words of US President James K Polk. “I love you Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”

I wanted to take this macabre tangent from this week’s topic because I know a lot of people place great emphasis on last words. I think some people place too great an emphasis on their importance.

Consider the purported last words of the legendary Tallulah Bankhead, “Codeine… Bourbon…” Or the surreal final exclamation from Lou Costello: “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted.

It would be a shame to remember any person solely for their final words, just as it would be a shame to remember a whole novel or poem simply for that last line – whether it worked or it didn’t. Just like some writers are strong at the start and some are weak in the middle, it would be a shame to condemn every writer who is not strong on that all-important last line.

Or, as Karl Marx said when his housekeeper asked him for his last words so she could write them down for posterity: “Go on, get out - last words are for fools who haven't said enough.


Lindsay said...

Great post Ash, I liked "Am I dying or is this my birthday?" there, close family then.

Anonymous said...


I was impressed by H G Wells's line. Polk and Poe both made me very sad.


vicky ellis said...

Aww, poignant and funny. A good mix and an interesting angle on the theme.

I knew you had a soft centre. They said you were pure evil but I knew different ;P

Ashley R Lister said...

Please don't let it get out that beneath soft mushy exterior there is a soft mushy interior. I don't wish to be known as the 'soft-and-mushy-man.' I fear someone would find a way to abbreviate such a name.