In his last letter to his sister Gloria Williamson, written shortly before he succumbed to cancer, Guy Davenport wrote, “”I hope you’re as happy as I am.”
In an essay on Gerard Manly Hopkins, Davenport quoted the poet’s last words: “I am so happy.” Another Davenport essay about Ludwig Wittgenstein gives the philosopher’s last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Elsewhere Davenport quoted the ancient Egyptian adage “A man’s paradise is his own good nature.”
It’s entirely characteristic of Guy Davenport that while composing what he knew might be his last letter to his sister he was making a complex allusion to some beloved writers.
To be sure, Davenport was very interested in last words, even if they were unedifying or bizarre. He also took note of Noah webster’s last words: “The room is growing crepuscular.” Walt Whitman’s last word were “shift.” As Davenport explains it was a “request to be turned on his water bed.” This was noted by Whitman’s acolyte Horace Traubel, whose own last words, uttered exactly one hundred years after Whitman’s birth, was, “Walt says come on, come on.”
Davenport was also interested in funerals and wakes, and gave a wonderfully moving account of a memorial service for the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. It, like the best of Davenport’s essays, can be found in his book The Geography of the Imagination.
Literature has many uses, not least of which is teaching us how to die and how to remember the dead.