Saturday, December 13, 2014
Samuel Johnson's Last Words
The dying words of 'blinking Sam' Johnson were uttered 230 years ago today, St. Lucy's Day, but what were they? On the premise that biographers and pious witnesses are either shameless ventriloquists or wilfully embellish and reorder events for their own purposes, I opt for the most banal of the three versions recorded. 'Iam moriturus' would have to have been shouted from bedroom to dining-room by a patient in severe respiratory distress*, and as last words, 'God bless you' have a conventional piety about them that arouse suspicion, although they may well have been spoken that day. The third version, John Hoole's — 'he said something upon its [a cup of warm milk] not being properly given into his hand' — is made doubly insipid as dying reported speech. Presumably, Frank or someone else attending Johnson, had put the cup directly to his lips and so 'encumber[ed] him with help'. And perhaps the dying man, momentarily irked, had struggled to marshal his ebbing strength to grasp the cup himself, as he had done countless times daily for decades with his beloved cups of tea. The metaphor of 'holding onto life' has its corollary in this last simple act of will on the part of a man helplessly bedridden. Exactly what the speech-act consisted of we will never know, but it brings into focus Johnson's quintessential humanity no less than any studied utterances of blessing or foreboding.
* see Mary Jane Hurst, "Samuel Johnson's Dying Words," English Language Notes 23 (1985) 45-53