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Poetical and Grammatical Deaths

IT will appear by the following anecdotes, that some men may be said to have died poetically and even grammatically.

There must be some attraction existing in poetry which is not merely fictitious, for often have its genuine votaries felt all its power on the most trying occasions. They have displayed the energy of their mind by composing or repeating verses, even with death on their lips.

The Emperor Adrian, dying, made that celebrated address to his soul, which is so happily translated by Pope. Lucan, when he had his veins opened by order of Nero, expired reciting a passage from his Pharsalia, in which he had described the wound of a dying soldier. Petronius did the same thing on the same occasion.

Patris, a poet of Caen, perceiving himself expiring, composed some verses which are justly admired. In this little poem he relates a dream, in which he appeared to be placed next to a beggar, when, having addressed him in the haughty strain he would probably have employed on this side of the grave, he receives the following reprimand:

Ici tous sont égaux; je ne te dois plus rien;
Je suis sur mon fumier comme tai sur le tien.
Here all are equal! now thy lot is mine!
I on my dunghill, as thou art on thine.

Des Barreaux, it is said, wrote on his death-bed that well-known sonnet which is translated in the “Spectator.”

Margaret of Austria, when she was nearly perishing in a storm at sea, composed her epitaph in verse. Had she perished, what would have become of the epitaph? And if she escaped, of what use was it? She should rather have said her prayers. The verses, however, have all the naïveté of the times. They are—

Cy gist Margot, la gente demoiselle,
Qu’eut deux maris, et si mourut pucelle.
Beneath this tomb is high-born Margaret laid,
Who had two husbands, and yet died a maid.

She was betrothed to Charles VIII. of France, who forsook her; and being next intended for the Spanish infant, in her voyage to Spain, she wrote these lines in a storm.

Mademoiselle de Serment was surnamed the Philosopher. She was celebrated for her knowledge and taste in polite literature. She died of a cancer in her breast, and suffered her misfortune with exemplary patience. She expired in finishing these verses, which she addressed to Death:

                             Nectare clausa suo,
Dignum tantorum pretium tulit illa laborum.

It was after Cervantes had received extreme unction that he wrote the dedication of his Persiles.

Roscommon, at the moment he expired, with an energy of voice that expressed the most fervent devotion, uttered two lines of his own version of “Dies Iræ!” Waller, in his last moments, repeated some lines from Virgil: and Chaucer seems to have taken his farewell of all human vanities by a moral ode, entitled, “A balade made by Geffrey Chaucyer upon his dethe-bedde lying in his grete anguysse.”

Cornelius de Witt fell an innocent victim to popular prejudice. His death is thus noticed by Hume. “This man, who had bravely served his country in war, and who had been invested with the highest dignities, was delivered into the hands of the executioner, and torn in pieces by the most inhuman torments. Amidst the severe agonies which he endured he frequently repeated an ode of Horace, which contained sentiments suited to his deplorable condition.” It was the third ode of the third book which this illustrious philosopher and statesman then repeated.

I add another instance in the death of that delightful poet Metastasio. After having received the sacrament, a very short time before his last moments, he broke out with all the enthusiasm of poetry and religion into the following stanzas:

T’offro il tuo proprio Figlio,
      Che gia d'amore in pegno,
      Racchiuso in picciol segno
      Si volle a noi donar.
A lui rivolgi il ciglio.
      Guardo chi t’offro, e poi
      Lasci, Signor, se vuoi,
      Lascia di perdonar.

“I offer to thee, O Lord, thy own Son, who already has given the pledge of love, enclosed in this thin emblem. Turn on him thine eyes: ah! behold whom I offer to thee, and then desist, O Lord, if thou canst desist from mercy.”

“The muse that has attended my course (says the dying Gleim in a letter to Klopstock) still hovers round my steps to the very verge of the grave.” A collection of lyrical poems, entitled “Last Hours,” composed by Old Gleim on his death-bed, was intended to be published. The death of Klopstock was one of the most poetical: in this poet’s “Messiah,” he had made the death of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, a picture of the death of the just; and on his own death-bed he was heard repeating, with an expiring voice, his own verses on Mary; he was exhorting himself to die by the accents of his own harp, the sublimities of his own muse! The same song of Mary, savs Madame de Staël, was read at the public funeral of Klopstock.

Chatellard, a French gentleman, beheaded in Scotland for having loved the queen, and even for having attempted her honour, Brantome says, would not have any other viaticum than a poem of Ronsard. When he ascended the scaffold he took the hymns of this poet, and for his consolation read that on death, which he says is well adapted to conquer its fear.

When the Marquis of Montrose was condemned by his judges to have his limbs nailed to the gates of four cities, the brave soldier said, that “he was sorry he had not limbs sufficient to be nailed to all the gates of the cities in Europe, as monuments of his loyalty.” As he proceeded to his execution, he put this thought into beautiful verse.

Philip Strozzi, when imprisoned by Cosmo the First, Great Duke of Tuscany, was apprehensive of the danger to which he might expose his friends who had joined in his conspiracy against the duke, from the confessions which the rack might extort from him. Having attempted every exertion for the liberty of his country, he considered it as no crime therefore to die. He resolved on suicide. With the point of the sword, with which he killed himself, he cut out on the mantelpiece of the chimney this verse of Virgil:

Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor.
Rise, some avenger, from our blood!

I can never repeat without a strong emotion the following stanzas, begun by André Chenier, in the dreadful period of the French Revolution. He was waiting for his turn to be dragged to the guillotine, when he commenced this poem:

Comme un dernier rayon, comme un dernier zéphyre
            Anime la fin d’un beau jour;
Au pied de l’échafaud j’essaie encore ma lyre,
            Peut-être est ce bientôt mon tour;
Peut-être avant que l’heure en cercle promenée
            Ait posé stir l’émail brillant
Dans les soixante pas où sa route est borée
            Son pied sonore et vigilant.
Le sommeil du tombeau pressera ma paupière———

Here, at this pathetic line, was André Chenier summoned to the guillotine! Never was a more beautiful effusion of grief interrupted by a more affecting incident

Several men of science have died in a scientific manner. Haller, the poet, philosopher, and physician, beheld his end approach with the utmost composure. He kept feeling his pulse to the last moment, and when he found that life was almost gone, he turned to his brother physician, observing, “My friend, the artery ceases to beat,”—and almost instantly expired. The same remarkable circumstance had occurred to the great Harvey; he kept making observations on the state of his pulse, when life was drawing to its close, “as if,” says Dr. Wilson in the oration spoken a few days after the event, “that he who had taught us the beginning of life might himself, at his departing from it, become acquainted with those of death.”

De Lagny, who was intended by his friends for the study of the law, having fallen on an Euclid, found it congenial to his dispositions, that he devoted himself to mathematics. In his last moments, when he retained no further recollection of the friends who surrounded his bed, one of them, perhaps to make a philosophical experiment, thought proper to ask him the square of 12: Our dying mathematician instantly, and perhaps without knowing that he answered, replied “144.”

The following anecdotes are of a different complexion, and may excite a smile.

Père Bouhours was a French grammarian, who had been justly accused of paying too scrupulous an attention to the minutiæ of letters. He was more solicitous of his words than his thoughts. It is said, that when he was dying, he called out to his friends (a correct grammarian to the last), “Je VAS, ou je VAIS mourir; l’un ou l’autre se dit!”

When Malherbe was dying, he reprimanded his nurse for making use of a solecism in her language! And when his confessor represented to him the felicities of a future state in low and trite expressions, the dying critic interrupted him:—“Hold your tongue,” he said; “your wretched style only makes me out of conceit with them!”

The favourite studies and amusements of the learned La Mothe le Vayer consisted in accounts of the most distant countries. He gave a striking proof of the influence of this master-passion, when death hung upon his lips. Bernier, the celebrated traveller, entering and drawing the curtains of his bed to take his eternal farewell, the dying man turning to him, with a faint voice inquired, “Well, my friend, what news from the Great Mogul?”


Editor’s Notes

 § A footnote was appended to this article in later editions of the Curiosities, further to the mention of Chaucer’s last words:

Barham, the author of the Ingoldsby Lengends, wrote a similar death-bed lay in imitation of the older poets. It is termed “As I laye a-thinkynge.” Bewick, the wood-engraver, was last employed upon, and left unfinished at his death, a cut, the subject of which was “The Horse waiting for Death.”

 ¶ This article is revised and expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. One brief anecdote included in the 1793 version of the piece, but omitted here, is:

Salmasius, when young, struck with a most dangerous malady, while he was preparing to die, composed his epitaph in verse.
And, regarding de Witt’s grisly demise, D’Israeli formerly continued,
…It is difficult to restrain our tears, on the dreadful fate of this illustrious philosopher and statesman.
Such persons realise that beautiful fiction of the ancients, who represent the swans of Cayster singing at their death.