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Updated: Apr 4, 2023

IN SHAKESPEARE'S RICHARD II, Richard's uncle, "old John of Gaunt," infirm, close to death, makes an observation on the value of parting words.

O, but they say the tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony:

Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,

For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.

He that no more must say is listen'd more

Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose; [1]

More are men's ends mark'd than their lives before:

The setting sun, and music at the close,

As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,

Writ in remembrance more than things long past

—William Shakespeare, RICHARD II, 2.1.5-14.

Not all "last words" are even coherent, much less oracular. Many are astounding. Just as many have been invented, fabricated (postmortem). Tyndale's "Lord, open the King of England's eyes," words attributed to him at the scaffold, may be true, but they may just be the invention of martyrologist/propagandist John Foxe (1517-1587). Either way, death, or the presence of death, is a highly motivating, highly productive muse.

The many letters of the Apostle Paul were written under the influence of this "muse." Possessing powerful literary instincts, these instincts were polished to a bright sparkle under duress. The word "inspired" doesn't seem to say it all. And Paul had a clear sense of his own end.

For I am now redy to be offered and the tyme of my departynge is at honde. I have fought a good fight and have fulfilled my course and have kept the fayth.

—2 Timothy 4, WILLIAM TYNDALE NT, 1526

Throughout Shakespeare's THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK, the poor prince is bullied by the specter of death. He wears black. He speaks to a ghost. He speaks to himself. We are allowed to "overhear" him, introducing inner monologue to the Elizabethan stage and to generations after him. He considers his own end in the most famous soliloquy in all of literature. To be or not to be . . . Written in or about 1601, this "specter" bullied Shakespeare himself, wounding him into poetry, so to speak. His father, John Shakespeare, died that same year. Robert Devereaux (1565-1601), the 1st Earl of Essex, the queen's favorite, the golden boy, the "expectancy and fair rose of the state, the glass of fashion and the mold of form, the observed of all observers . . . " was on everyone's mind at the time, having his head recently removed at the queen's request following a botched rebellion (and a serious error in judgment). [2] Shakespeare's own son, Hamnet, died three years earlier (1597). The point being, death or something close to death, moved Shakespeare's genius to a new height. Doubtless, HAMLET is his masterpiece, our English "Mona Lisa," according to T. S. Eliot.

When I hear Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech or the speech he gave the night before he died, I get chills. With the specter hovering about the house, he said "We've got some difficult days ahead."

But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Another example is 20th century novelist, Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). Wolfe died just shy of his thirty-eighth birthday. At his death, Wolfe left more than a million words behind, words that were shaped into two posthumous novels and a collection of short stories.

Having parted company with his first editor, Maxwell Perkins (editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway), at his death Wolfe's literary estate was left in the care of his new editor, Edward Aswell (1900-1958) for Harper and Brothers Publisher. Wolfe's last novel (posthumous), YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN, contains a segment on the last page that is touched with this sparkle of transcendence. To read it now, knowing what we know, what he could not have known at the time, that he would be dead within months, is marvelous, if not a touch eerie in its effect.

Shamelessly autobiographical as Wolfe's novels were, YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN is the continuing adventure of George Webber, Wolfe's fictional counter identity, his imagined other self. Webber writes a letter to his editor, Foxhall Edwards (the fictional version of Maxwell Perkins), and explains why their road together must end. Wolfe's own impending death, that came upon him swiftly and without warning shortly after this was written, makes this letter all the more powerful.

Dear Fox, old friend, thus we have come to the end of the road that we were to go together. My tale is finished—and so farewell.

But before I go, I have just one more thing to tell you:

Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken to me in the night, and told me I shall die, I know no where. Saying:

"To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth—

"Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending—a wind is rising, and the rivers flow."


In the pages that precede the above letter (pp. 574-575 in the paperback), the demonstrably opinionated Webber/Wolfe offers a statement of belief, his vision of America, of its deathless people, of its everlasting living dream, of the "enemy" it must conquer, and its indomitable strength to overcome. It is the vision of a young man at a threshold, swept up in the music at the close. "Before I go," he says, "I have just one more thing to tell you."


I BELIEVE WE ARE LOST here in America, but I believe we shall be found. And this belief, which mounts now to the catharsis of knowledge and conviction, is for me — and I think for all of us — not only our own hope, but America’s everlasting, living dream. I think the life which we have fashioned in America, and which has fashioned us — the forms we made, the cells that grew, the honeycomb that was created — was self-destructive in its nature, and must be destroyed. I think these forms are dying, and must die, just as I know that America and the people in it are deathless, undiscovered, and immortal, and must live.

I think the true discovery of America is before us.

I think the true fulfilment of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty and immortal land, is yet to come.

I think the true discovery of our own democracy is still before us. And I think that all these things are certain as the morning, as inevitable as noon.

I think I speak for most men living when I say that our America is Here, is Now, and beckons on before us, and that this glorious assurance is not only our living hope, but our dream to be accomplished.

I think the enemy is here before us, too. But I think we know the forms and faces of the enemy, and in the knowledge that we know him, and shall meet him, and eventually must conquer him is also our living hope.

I think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I think we know that all his faces wear one mask.

I think the enemy is single selfishness and compulsive greed.

I think the enemy is blind, but has the brutal power of his blind grab.

I do not think the enemy was born yesterday, or that he grew to manhood forty years ago, or that he suffered sickness and collapse in 1929, or that we began without the enemy, and that our vision faltered, that we lost the way, and suddenly were in his camp.

I think the enemy is old as Time, and evil as Hell, and that he has been here with us from the beginning.

I think he stole our earth from us, destroyed our wealth, and ravaged and despoiled our land.

I think he took our people and enslaved them, that he polluted the fountains of our life, took unto himself the rarest treasures of our own possession, took our bread and left us with a crust, and, not content, for the nature of the enemy is insatiate — tried finally to take from us the crust.

I think the enemy comes to us with the face of innocence and says to us: “I am your friend.”

I think the enemy deceives us with false words and lying phrases, saying: “See, I am one of you — I am one of your children, your son, your brother, and your friend. Behold how sleek and fat I have become — and all because I am just one of you, and your friend. Behold how rich and powerful I am-and all because I am one of you — shaped in your way of life, of thinking, of accomplishment. What I am, I am because I am one of you, your humble brother and your friend. "Behold,” cries Enemy, “the man I am, the man I have become, the thing I have accomplished — and reflect. Will you destroy this thing? I assure you that it is the most precious thing you have. It is yourselves, the projection of each of you, the triumph of your individual lives, the thing that is rooted in your blood, and native to your stock, and inherent in the traditions of America. It is the thing that all of you may hope to be,” says Enemy, “for”— humbly —“am I not just one of you? Am I not just your brother and your son? Am I not the living image of what each of you may hope to be, would wish to be, would desire for his own son? Would you destroy this glorious incarnation of your own heroic self? If you do, then,” says Enemy, “you destroy yourselves — you kill the thing that is most gloriously American, and in so killing, kill yourselves.”

He lies! And now we know he lies! He is not gloriously, or in any other way, ourselves. He is not our friend, our son, our brother. And he is not American! For, although he has a thousand familiar and convenient faces, his own true face is old as Hell.

Look about you and see what he has done.

—Thomas Wolfe, YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN (Harper and Row, 1940).


[1] glose—n. and v. (archaic variant of gloze)—to mask the true nature of something or give a deceptively attractive appearance to something. It can also mean to deal with a subject or problem too lightly or not at all. (syn. gloss)

[2] The night before the so-called Essex Rebellion, The Earl of Essex paid The Lord Chamberlain's Men (Shakespeare's acting troupe) £40 to perform RICHARD II at The Globe. RII is a play about the deposing of a king.

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