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Die, my dear Doctor, that’s the last thing I shall do!

‘Famous last words’ in the literal sense means someone’s final remarks before they die, but the phrase is often said as an ironic comment on an overconfident assertion that may later be proved wrong. A classic example of the two senses combined is the case of the Union general John Sedgwick, whose last words immediately prior to being killed by enemy fire at the battle of Spotsylvania in the American Civil War were said to be ‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance’.

Polishing the lines

Last words, as handed down, are often apt but may well be apocryphal. The deaf composer Beethoven traditionally said ‘I shall hear in heaven’, while the astute politician Queen Elizabeth I is credited with ‘All my possessions for a moment of time’. Such sayings have been polished by the passage of time, and may have been much less succinct or memorable originally. In some cases we can actually see this effect in action: the dying words of the German writer Goethe are often reported as the inspiring ‘More light!’, but his real words were more prosaic: ‘Open the second shutter, so that more light can come in’. More recently, the last words of the English cyclist Tom Simpson after collapsing on Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France are frequently quoted as, ‘Put me back on my bike’. In this case the true words were simpler: ‘On, on, on’. An extreme instance of uncertainty is the case of the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, whose final words were variously reported by biographers as ‘Oh, my country! how I leave my country!’, ‘How I love my country’, and ‘My country! oh, my country!’. It is easy to see how these could have been mixed up, but less easy to see how oral tradition arrived at the alternative ‘I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s veal pies’ as his final speech.

From the sublime…

There are some last words which are forever associated with particularly heroic moments. The classic instance is the English polar explorer Lawrence Oates leaving the tent on Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’. Some ninety years later one thinks of the American businessman Todd Beamer saying ‘Let’s roll’ as he and other passengers planned to storm the cockpit of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 on 11 September 2001.

…to the ridiculous

Some people retain a sense of humour to the end, even in the most unlikely circumstances. Another British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, declined a proposed death-bed visit from from his widowed sovereign Queen Victoria with the words ‘No it is better not. She would only ask me to take a message to Albert’. Voltaire, a leading figure of the Enlightenment, was asked to renounce the Devil as his death approached. He replied ‘This is no time for making new enemies’. Sir Thomas More, having been sentenced to execution for opposing Henry VIII, lifted his beard aside after laying his head on the block and commented ‘This hath not offended the king’. But the story that Oscar Wilde said of the wallpaper in the room where he was dying ‘One of us must go’ is probably apocryphal.

Looking back and looking forward

Some people take a final look back at their lives, often appreciatively. The essayist William Hazlitt said ‘Well, I’ve had a happy life’ and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein thought much the same: ‘Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life’. An earlier philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, looked forward and traditionally said ‘I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark’. Others think of the immediate moment. When a nurse told the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen that he ‘seemed to be a little better’, he replied ‘On the contrary’. We know now that he was right. The biographer Lytton Strachey took a very poor view of his experience: ‘If this is dying, then I don’t think much of it’. Timothy Leary, who had earlier exhorted the world to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ took an equally relaxed view of death, saying ‘Why not, why not, why not. Yeah’. But perhaps the final word should go to yet another British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston: ‘Die, my dear Doctor, that’s the last thing I shall do!’