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Famous last (and first) words

Before we get down to business in this blog post, where does the phrase "famous last words" come from, anyway? Nobody knows who actually said it first, but before the 20th century it was used only to refer to the actual last words of prominent people before they died. Winston Churchill's last words before he slipped into a coma were reportedly, "I'm bored with it all." Vladimir Nabokov, an amateur entomologist as well as author, declared on his deathbed, quite poetically, "A certain butterfly is already on the wing." Emily Dickinson, poet to the last, whispered as her last words, "I must go in, for the fog is rising." And it is well known that Apple founder Steve Jobs, who must have been seeing something wonderful as he crossed that bridge, said these last words to his sister, "Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow."

Only in the 20th century did "famous last words" gain popularity as an ironic or sarcastic exaggeration. This usage possibly arose from a Civil War incident in 1864, when U.S. Union Army General John Sedgwick, calming his troops, who thought they saw distant snipers, said, don't worry, "they couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." He was immediately shot dead by a sniper. Thus, Sedgewick's actual famous last words (before dying) issued "famous last words" into its ironic use that we know today.

But I digress. Can one digress when one hasn’t even started? (That in itself seems to be a digression.)

Back in the mists of time, when I was a teacher of kids in grades five and six, I sometimes gave them this writing assignment: Compose an amazing first and last line for the great novel that you may someday write. Unfortunately, I did not record any of these, but, wandering through this particular corner of my increasingly unruly mind, I retrieved the idea and thought that great first and last lines of literary works might make a good blog topic.

Here are two that I remember being struck by in my own reading youth. The first line of the novel "Scaramouche," by Rafael Sabatini: "He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad."

The last line of the short story "Mr. Valdimar," by Edgar Allen Poe: "An oozing liquid putrescence was all that was left of Mr. Valdimar." This one should be recited aloud, slowly, in lugubrious tones.

I was so thrilled by the first line of the book I am reading now – a narrative history of the British MI6 agent Kim Philby, who spied undetected for the Soviets for decades – that I immediately had to read it aloud to my husband: "Beirut, 1964. Two middle-aged spies are sitting in the Christian Quarter, sipping tea and lying courteously to each other, as evening approaches." This line says so much, and sets such a mood, that it brilliantly presages the story and the style that are to follow.

Some last words of characters in literature become iconic. Hamlet, as he dies in his friend Horatio's arms, says his last words: "The rest is silence." Unrelated to the story of Hamlet, this phrase became the name of at least one book, two movies, several songs and a song lyric in the musical "Hair."

Returning to the idea of great first and last lines for the same literary work, many would say that Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" is the winner. Its wonderful opening and closing lines have both been widely quoted, misquoted, and used in other contexts. Something about a great line sticks in the collective consciousness. The novel's opening line is often remembered just for its first twelve words, but it should be remembered in full: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Somewhat less wordy, and no less memorable (also quoted and used in other contexts) is the closing line: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Were we all to sit down and write our autobiographies, we could have a lot of fun coming up with intriguing first lines (last lines TBA; perhaps someone else should write those, you know, after) so that people would want to read our books. Off the top of my head, I might use one of these to get the story started: "When my mother brought me home from the hospital, my two-year-old sister hated me on sight and immediately tried to bite me." Or, mysteriously, "Much of what you will read here is exaggerated, and some of the rest is lies; nevertheless, these things really happened to me."

Have a good think about what yours would be. It's actually quite illuminating, from a psychological perspective. And here's my last line, for now:

Till next time.

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