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Rant #315
(published February 1, 2007)
Last Words of Great Men
by Mark Twain
Marshal Neil's last words were: "L'armée française!" (The French army.)
What a sad thing it is to see a man close a grand career with a plagiarism in his mouth. Napoleon's last words were: "Tete d'armee." (Head of the army.) Neither of those remarks amounts to anything as "last words," and reflect little credit upon the utterers.

A distinguished man should be as particular about his last words as he is about his last breath. He should write them out on a slip of paper and take the judgment of his friends on them. He should never leave such a thing to the last hour of his life, and trust to an intellectual spirit at the last moment to enable him to say something smart with his latest gasp and launch into eternity with grandeur. No—a man is apt to be too much fagged and exhausted, both in body and mind, at such a time, to be reliable; and maybe the very thing he wants to say, he cannot think of to save him; and besides there are his weeping friends bothering around; and worse than all as likely as not he may have to deliver his last gasp before he is expecting to. A man cannot always expect to think of a natty thing to say under such circumstances, and so it is pure egotistic ostentation to put it off. There is hardly a case on record where a man came to his last moment unprepared and said a good thing hardly a case where a man trusted to that last moment and did not make a solemn botch of it and go out of the world feeling absurd.

Now there was Daniel Webster. Nobody could tell him anything. He was not afraid. He could do something neat when the time came. And how did it turn out? Why, his will had to be fixed over; and then all the relations came; and first one thing and then another interfered, till at last he only had a chance to say, "I still live," and up he went.

Of course he didn't still live, because he died—and so he might as well have kept his last words to himself as to have gone and made such a failure of it as that. A week before that fifteen minutes of calm reflection would have enabled that man to contrive some last words that would have been a credit to himself and a comfort to his family for generations to come.

And there was John Quincy Adams. Relying on his splendid abilities and his coolness in emergencies, he trusted to a happy hit at the last moment to carry him through, and what was the result? Death smote him in the House of Representatives, and he observed, casually, "This is the last of earth." The last of earth! Why "the last of earth" when there was so much more left? If he had said it was the last rose of summer or the last run of shad, it would have had as much point in it. What he meant to say was, "Adam was the first and Adams is the last of earth," but he put it off a trifle too long, and so he had to go with that unmeaning observation on his lips.

And there we have Napoleon's "Tete d'armee." That don't mean anything. Taken by itself, "Head of the army," is no more important than "Head of the police." And yet that was a man who could have said a good thing if he had barred out the doctor and studied over it a while. Marshal Neil, with half a century at his disposal, could not dash off anything better in his last moments than a poor plagiarism of another man's words, which were not worth plagiarizing in the first place. "The French army." Perfectly irrelevant—perfectly flat utterly pointless. But if he had closed one eye significantly, and said, "The subscriber has made it lively for the French army," and then thrown a little of the comic into his last gasp, it would have been a thing to remember with satisfaction all the rest of his life. I do wish our great men would quit saying these flat things just at the moment they die. Let us have their next-to-the-last words for a while, and see if we cannot patch up from them something that will be more satisfactory.

The public does not wish to be outraged in this way all the time.

But when we come to call to mind the last words of parties who took the trouble to make the proper preparation for the occasion, we immediately notice a happy difference in the result.

There was Chesterfield. Lord Chesterfield had laboured all his life to build up the most shining reputation for affability and elegance of speech and manners the world has ever seen. And could you suppose he failed to appreciate the efficiency of characteristic "last words," in the matter of seizing the successfully driven nail of such a reputation and clinching on the other side for ever? Not he. He prepared himself. He kept his eye on the clock and his finger on his pulse. He awaited his chance. And at last, when he knew his time was come, he pretended to think a new visitor had entered, and so, with the rattle in his throat emphasised for dramatic effect, he said to the servant, "Shin around, John, and get the gentleman a chair." And so he died, amid thunders of applause.

Next we have Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, the author of Poor Richard's quaint sayings; Franklin the immortal axiom-builder, who used to sit up at nights reducing the rankest old threadbare platitudes to crisp and snappy maxims that had a nice, varnished, original look in their regimentals; who said, "Virtue is its own reward;" who said, "Procrastination is the thief of time;" who said, "Time and tide wait for no man" and "Necessity is the mother of invention;" good old Franklin, the Josh Billings of the eighteenth century—though, sooth to say, the latter transcends him in proverbial originality as much as he falls short of him in correctness of orthography. What sort of tactics did Franklin pursue? He pondered over his last words for as much as two weeks, and then when the time came, he said, "None but the brave deserve the fair," and died happy. He could not have said a sweeter thing if he had lived till he was an idiot.

Byron made a poor business of it, and could not think of anything to say, at the last moment but, "Augusta—sister—Lady Byron—tell Harriet Beecher Stowe"—etc., etc.,—but Shakespeare was ready and said, "England expects every man to do his duty!" and went off with splendid eclat.

And there are other instances of sagacious preparation for a felicitous closing remark. For instance:

Joan of Arc said, "Tramp, tramp, tramp the boys are marching."

Alexander the Great said, "Another of those Santa Cruz punches, if you please."

The Empress Josephine said, "Not for Jo-" and could get no further.

Cleopatra said, "The Old Guard dies, but never surrenders."

Sir Walter Raleigh said, "Executioner, can I take your whetstone a moment, please?" though what for is not clear.

John Smith said, "Alas, I am the last of my race."

Queen Elizabeth said, "Oh, I would give my kingdom for one moment more —I have forgotten my last words."

And Red Jacket, the noblest Indian brave that ever wielded a tomahawk in defence of a friendless and persecuted race, expired with these touching words upon his lips, "Wawkawampanoosucwinnebayowallazvsagamoresa- skatchewan." There was not a dry eye in the wigwam.

Let not this lesson be lost upon our public men. Let them take a healthy moment for preparation, and contrive some last words that shall be neat and to the point. Let Louis Napoleon say, "I am content to follow my uncle—still, I do not wish to improve upon his last word. Put me down for 'Tete d'armee.'"

And Garret Davis, "Let me recite the unabridged dictionary."

And H. G., "I desire, now, to say a few words on political economy."

And Mr. Bergh, "Only take part of me at a time, if the load will be fatiguing to the hearse horses."

And Andrew Johnson, "I have been an alderman, Member of Congress, Governor, Senator, Pres—adieu, you know the rest."

And Seward., "Alas!-ka."

And Grant, "O."

All of which is respectfully submitted, with the most honorable intentions.

M. T.

P. S.—I am obliged to leave out the illustrations. The artist finds it impossible to make a picture of people's last words.

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