The last words

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 12:00am

1. What would you like your last words to be? Usually, of course, we do not fully realise that we are about to die so our final message to the world tends to be accidental and trivial. When William Pitt, one of Britain's great prime ministers and leader of the fight against Napoleon, died in his 40s, some people heard him say: 'For Britain I die'. Others reported that he was asking for food: 'I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies.' One somehow feels that this second version is more likely to be true. Julius Caesar died asking 'Et tu, Brute?' ('Even you, Brutus?'), shocked that one of his closest friends was involved in the plot to kill him. Emperor Gaius, in a similar situation, rather optimistically announced as he died: 'I am still alive'.

2. People who are executed have an advantage - they are able to prepare their exit statements. Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer, spoke with great dignity: 'I have a long journey to take, and must bid the company farewell.' Queen Marie Antoinette was moving: 'Farewell, my children, forever. I go to your father.' She meant Louis XVI, who had already been beheaded. Another victim of the French Revolution, Georges Danton, chose to be less solemn: 'Show my head to the people; it is worth seeing.'

3. Some people comment on the process of dying. Emperor Vespasian referred to the Roman tradition of treating dead emperors as gods: 'Dear me, I believe I'm becoming a god.' Louis XIV asked his courtiers: 'Why do you cry? Did you think I was immortal?' Louis XVIII remarked: 'The King should die standing.' Karl Marx showed his contempt for final messages by grumpily telling his housekeeper: 'Go on, get out. Last words are for fools who haven't said enough.' Certainly, he had written plenty in his lifetime. Some find death uninteresting. Lytton Strachey, an English writer, commented: 'If this is dying, I don't think much of it.' The old and tired Sir Winston Churchill muttered: 'I am bored with it' as he fell into a coma. Brilliant physicist Richard Feynman said: 'I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring.'

4. Poets naturally seem to produce some of the most memorable phrases. There is something strangely beautiful about the great German poet Goethe's remark: 'More light!' Maybe this reflects the fading of the eyesight. OHenry, a short story writer, said: 'Turn up the lights. I don't want to go home in the dark.' A French poet, Victor Hugo, told people: 'I see black light.' Emily Dickinson's 'I must go in - the fog is rising' seems related, too. Byron, the great Romantic poet, ended very suitably with: 'Now I shall go to sleep. Good night.' Quite the opposite of J.MBarrie, the creator of Peter Pan, who said: 'I can't sleep.'

5. Of course, a religious person would like to die in accordance with their faith. English writer Joseph Addison said: 'See in what peace a Christian can die.' Thomas Edison, the inventor, commented: 'Oh my, it's very beautiful over there.' Gertrude Stein, a writer of strange poetry, managed to be typically sharp. Asked the answer to life's mysteries, she replied: 'What is the answer? In that case, what is the question?' Other replies to people's questions are English writer Jane Austen's ('Do you want anything?') 'Nothing but death', and Victorian era poet Elizabeth Browning's ('How do you feel?') 'Beautiful'.

6. There is something rather admirable about showing concern for others as you pass into the Beyond. Charles II worried about a woman he loved (unfortunately, not his wife): 'Don't let poor Nelly starve.' Napoleon died uttering the name of the great love of his life: 'Josephine ...' Beethoven gave a rather sad little bow: 'Friends, applaud: the comedy is finished.' Queen Elizabeth I realised the emptiness of human wealth and power: 'All my possessions for a moment of time.' American writer William Saroyan showed us our ability to delude ourselves: 'Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. What now?' Captain Oates, during an attempt to reach the South Pole, felt that his poor health was endangering everyone's lives, so he left a note and nobly walked out into the snow and ice: 'I'm just going outside and may be some time.' Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa wanted his life to have meaning and produced the heroic cry: 'Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something...' Let's all try to make our lives say something, too.

A. Go through the passage and find as many verbs as you can that denote speech. You should be able to find at least 10.

B. Which of the last words in the passage are your favourite? Produce suitable last words for yourself and some famous people.

C. Find words meaning:

Para 1 - unimportant; hopefully

Para 2 - goodbye; serious

Para 4 - dying

Para 6 - go without food; clap; fool

D. Black humour

Fill in the blanks to complete these possible last words.

1. Do not _________.

2. They'll never ________ for us in here.

3. Does anyone in here have a ______?

4. Yes, that dress does make you look _________.

5. ______ the red wire.

6. Don't worry. The gun's not ___________.

7. Hey, __________, just come outside and say that again.

8. Hey, throw me that ___________.

9. I've ___________ my parachute.

10. Of course, they drive on the __________ in China.

11. These mushrooms are perfectly ____________.

12. Pay no attention - it's only a fire ______________.


A. report/ask/announce/speak/comment/remark/tell/say/mutter/reply/utter

C. Para 1 - trivial/optimistically; Para 2 - farewell/solemn; Para 4 - fading; Para 6 - starve/applaud/delude

D. Suggested answers:

1. open; 2. look; 3. light/match; 4. fat; 5. Cut;

6. loaded; 7. Tyson; 8. axe; 9. forgotten; 10. left; 11. safe; 12. drill


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