Guy Davenport: Learning How to Die

Guy Davenport, 1964, as recorded by Jonathan Williams.

 

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.

2 thoughts on “Guy Davenport: Learning How to Die

  1. Wonderful post. Thanks. It is refreshing to read your comments on Davenport. He was so wonderful a thinker yet remains, for many, an unknown.

    Favorite last words: Thoreau: “Indian, Moose…”

  2. Thank you for the perceptive post and the wonderful photograph. Impels me to go pull out Davenport’s book of essays Geography of the Imagination and read once again his comments on the painting “American Gothic.” Thanks for keeping his memory and his work in our minds.

    Poor Hopkins had such a generally miserable, misunderstood life that I’ve always wondered if his last words – “I’m so happy” – expressed his deep religious conviction that soon he would be with God in Heaven, relief that he didn’t have to continue living, or euphoria from a dose of morphine. I do wish he could have known how many people would one day hold his poems so close to their hearts. I don’t think that the importance that his work had on English literature once they were finally published would have meant as much to him, but he might have enjoyed seeing the direct (and acknowledged) influence of his work on the poetry of someone such as Seamus Heaney.

    And I’ve always wondered if Noah Webster’s last words: “The room is growing crepuscular” was a spontaneous comment by a man with an enormous vocabulary, or something he’d spent some time planning. I

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