Start and Stop
Here is a riddle for you: Everybody knows that Albert Einstein was one of the world’s greatest physicists – but nobody knows his last words, even though they were clearly heard by somebody who was with him at the time. How can this be? (The other person present was an intelligent adult.)
Speaking of words and fame, one of the most famous lines in Shakespeare occurs in the play called The Winter’s Tale. It is not a line of dialog, but a stage direction, and consists of seven words: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Why is it so famous? Perhaps in part because it is so short. (It follows a long speech by a character named Antigonus. Other dramatists, of whom George Bernard Shaw is a good example, often wrote directions that filled pages.) But also, because it is sort of startling, and leaves so much to the imagination. How could they have a bear on the stage?
Actually, in the London of Shakespeare’s time, bears were more common than they have since become. Among other reasons, they were an essential part of what were considered “sporting” events, particularly “bear baiting,” a kind of spectacle, in which a chained wild bear was set upon by a pack of dogs. So, bear skins were also plentiful.
Incidentally, that play The Winter’s Tale, may not be one of Shakespeare’s better-known works, but it has a fascinating plot, which, besides the bear, includes an insanely jealous husband, an infant princess abandoned in the wilderness and found by shepherds, and a statue apparently coming to life.
But there are, of course, whole collections of “Famous Last Words” (although that expression has become an ironical comment on something unrealistically optimistic somebody has said about their own situation). Somehow, what you say, when you have nothing more to say, seems very important to those who survive you. My own favorite such quote is attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
But probably the most famous unintentionally last words were those uttered by a Union Army Major General named John Sedgwick in the American Civil War. In the most popular version of the incident which has come down to us almost as a legend, Sedgwick was trying to calm and encourage the troops near him who were afraid that their exposed position on a ridge facing Confederate lines made them an easy target for enemy fire. His reputed last words were: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dis–”
But what about famous first words? Those of God are well-known, since they’re almost the first words of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament: “Let there be Light.” (Which no doubt Einstein would never have quarreled with, since his whole Relativity Theory depended on the speed of light, which had been measured only a few years earlier, when that Theory was written.)
And, speaking of God, we must not forget the first words publicly transmitted (using Morse Code) on that wonderful new invention, the telegraph, in 1844, by its inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT,” a direct quote from the King James version of the Book of Numbers.
As for my own first words, I can’t tell you from memory, but, according to family lore, my first coherent statement was uttered when I was two, after my newly arrived sister was brought home with my mother from a maternity hospital. Looking at the baby for the first time, I am said to have commented that “It’s crying.”
What about my last words? As you may know, I’m the author of 10,000 epigrams, of which there are several which might be considered appropriate in that connection. One that I particularly like for a possible epitaph says:
At the end of my life, there’ll be a good long rest –
and no further activities are scheduled.
But one of my lines has already been used (with permission, and with a copyright notice) on somebody else’s tombstone (in the cemetery at Buena Vista, Colorado).
Before I knew the best part of my life
had come, it had gone.
Oh yes, you’ve read this far, hoping to be told the answer to my riddle – why nobody knows Einstein’s last words. The answer is simple: He died in Princeton, New Jersey. He naturally spoke those final words in his native language, which was German – and which, sadly, his American nurse did not understand.