ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Earlier this week, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney was laid to rest in his native County Londonderry. The 74-year-old Nobel laureate died in a Dublin hospital last week. Commentator Andrei Codrescu couldn't help but notice Heaney's last written words.
ANDREI CODRESCU, BYLINE: Minutes before he died, the poet Seamus Heaney texted to his wife in Latin: Noli timere or do not be afraid. Moving last words, and instantly subject to misquotation and controversy. First revealed at the funeral by his son Michael, the familiar biblical phrase was changed by The Times of London from noli timere to nolle timere, which is nonsense. The source was disputed as well: Was it from Matthew 14:27 when Jesus braves a storm to tell his stranded disciples to not be afraid or from Matthew 1:20 where the angel tells Joseph not to fear wedding Mary, who is with child implanted in her by the Holy Spirit?
None of this matters, of course, because the poet was writing to his wife, not to the savants of the Internet. He was comforting her with words both of them must have known and understood. On the other hand, how could the blogosphere let go of the first last words ever texted? A poet had used one of the oldest languages to send an intimate message through one of the newest and least private technologies. Nor did the last words genre go unrewarded by renewed interest.
As genres go, last words are suspect and, generally, witty. Oscar Wilde is said to have said: Either I or these curtains must go. Goethe, the great enlightenment poet, purportedly breathed his last with the words mehr licht, more light, which was either urging his contemporaries to open their minds or to open the curtains. Seamus Heaney's words were not witty. They were meant to reinforce his dear one with the comforting belief that there is life after death, just like Jesus said. Touching, simple and direct, just like his poetry.
The well-loved Irish poet was known for his generosity and warmth, and this is what drives noli timere. Last words are not to be confused with epitaphs, which are well-thought-out summations of a life. They are not aphoristic Cliff Notes to a life's work. Dying people write no epitaphs, and they have no time to Google. The last words of poets are particularly prized as an excuse for those who've never read a line of verse to mourn with the rest of the blogosphere.
In truth, every great line of a poem contains a poet's last words, and they can go on for decades. If there is more to Seamus Heaney's noli timere than an endearing message to his wife to be strong, it has to be a message to his grieving misquoting mourners to read his poetry.
SIEGEL: Poet Andrei Codrescu lives on the Arkansas side of the Ozarks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.