Monday, January 16, 2017

`I Had a Wonderful Life'

One would like to go out with a quip on one’s lips, a zinger, a piquant retort to life (or impending death), a consummately quotable Q.E.D., rather than the more likely and banal scream, moan, gasp or cough. But mortality trumps wit. Even a well-rehearsed final declaration is likely to go unspoken in our waning moments. And yet, when William Hazlitt died on Sept. 18, 1830, his last words were supposed to have been: “I have had a happy life.” The final utterance of Gerard Manley Hopkins, as he lay dying of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889, was reported as: “I am happy, so happy.” And Ludwig Wittgenstein must have surprised everyone on April 29, 1951, when he chirped his last: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life!” None was renowned in life for a sunny disposition. All three reports are fairly reliable, but one remains dubious. Were they having second thoughts? Was it a last-minute editing of the narrative of their lives? Or mere babbling, a random firing of electrons?

In a late collection, Rovigo (1992), Zbigniew Herbert includes another of his elegies, “To Piotr Vučič” (trans. Alissa Valles, The Collected Poems 1956-1998, 2007). In the poem’s final lines, he both echoes the trio cited above and adds a characteristically terse and acerbic coda:

“I once heard an old man recite Homer
I have known people exiled like Dante
I saw all Shakespeare’s plays on stage
I was lucky
You might say born with a silver spoon

“Explain that to others
I had a wonderful life

“I suffered”

At least in translation, Herbert echoes Whitman: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”

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