Entry 91: Parting Words- The amiable Duke of Gloucester, upon being presented with the second volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall… exclaimed to the author, Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon? So, you see, Prince Phillip is far from being the first aristocratic dolt when it comes to matters cerebral.
I must confess, dear listener, that the punk inside can’t help but whoop with glee: How dare people be so talented! I aimed for mediocrity and fell short… Words, words, words. I wonder what Gibbon would have made of Bo Burnham’s YouTube routine? Rather than an exploration of words, this entry narrows it to first words, last words and parting words.
First words need not detain us long as they do not overly whelm, do they? Mama, Dada, Goo-goo, Gaga. Last words are a bit more entertaining: Lady Astor, awakening briefly during her final illness to find her family gathered around her inquired, Am I dying or is this my birthday? Cautionary notes are sounded, too: I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis, Humphrey Bogart warned before shuffling off this mortal coil in 1957.
For those who prefer a more tragic tone to this most tragic of outcomes will reflect upon the final words of Caesar, Et tu, Brute? Aficionados of wit will find it hard to go past Oscar Wilde’s final observation: Either that wallpaper goes, or I do. The cats among us will relate to the Italian Renaissance painter, Pietro Perugino, the teacher of Raphael, who explained why he refused to allow a priest to hear his final confession, I am curious to see what happens in the next world to one who dies unshriven.
And so, to parting words. Some are spiteful, such as those of Malvolio, the pompous ass who has been made a fool of in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you! If you are a romantic soul, you will nod your head slowly and sing along to Nat King Cole’s 1949 recording of the wonderful For all we know, we may never meet again/Before you go, make this moment sweet again/For all we know, this may only be a dream/We come and go like a ripple on a stream.
How often have you been afflicted by staircase wit? You know, someone hits you with a zinger and you only think of the telling retort when it is too late. The phrase, staircase wit, comes from the French of philosopher, Denis Diderot who encountered such a situation at a soiree in Paris, “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the words levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs”.
Winston Churchill, for all his weaknesses, was not prone to this one. A famous exchange involving the great man and Lady Astor is well-known but worth repeating, Winston, you’re drunk!/But I shall be sober in the morning and you, madam, will still be ugly./Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your tea./Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it. Another British politician, Benjamin Disraeli, was heckled by an opposition MP, Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease./That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress, was Disraeli’s response.
And now to the inspiration for the song: The Moon and Sixpence, a novel by Somerset Maugham, one of my favourite authors, published in 1919. I am tempted to introduce the thing with a profound-ish quote such as, Money is the string with which a sardonic destiny directs the motions of its puppets, but self-awareness insists upon the use of one aimed, it seems, at me, the ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.
Ouch! The Moon and Sixpence deals with a protagonist, Charles Strickland, who abandons wife and children, is oblivious to the sufferings of others in the pursuit of his art, and who dies of leprosy in Tahiti leaving paintings of genius but whose magnum opus was painted on the walls of his final habitation, a native hut, which was burnt to the ground on his orders after his death. Although the title was not explained in the text of the novel, Maugham provided the following in a letter dated 1956, If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.
The song was written in 1979 and I was writing and drinking furiously. I was re-reading the poems in North by Seamus Heaney and in the final poem of the collection, Exposure, I found something that spoke to me as I put together the words and music of Parting Words. I was feeling cut off and uncertain of direction, and Heaney’s verse seemed particularly apt:
How did I end up like this?/ I am neither internee nor informer;/An inner emigre, grown long-haired/And thoughtful;/ Who, blowing up these sparks/For their meagre heat, have missed/The once-in-a-lifetime portent,/The comet’s pulsing rose.