How So Many People Got Seamus Heaney's Last Words Wrong

The poet sent his final lines as a text message. What did it say?
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Before his death, the poet Seamus Heaney sent a text message to his wife. It said, in Latin, “Don’t be afraid.”

Heaney’s son, Michael, disclosed those words at his father’s funeral. They were Heaney’s last. According to the Independent, Heaney’s wife and daughter, seated in the front row, cried upon hearing them repeated.

What did the text message say? I woke up Monday morning, and, lying in bed, saw tweet-length reports of the text. The first tweet merely repeated “don’t be afraid” as his last words, but it didn't cite that knowledge. The second tweet about the funeral, lower on my timeline, gave the full context, that Heaney’s last words were announced at his funeral. I retweeted it:

Later in the day, I saw a different report on Twitter:

We have two different spellings here. What did Heaney write: Noli timere, or nolle?

The discrepancy springs from an error in transcription. Heaney’s son uttered the words in a larger eulogy, reporters wrote them down, and the spellings split. The error mirrors the errors we ratify in language.

For most of its history, Latin lacked a standard orthography, a standard method of spelling. Authors and scribes wrote words somewhat by ear, and the results varied widely. It was sometimes not until the Renaissance — or later — that the “canonical” version of certain works, including the spelling of the words therein, became set.

That said, in the contemporary spellings of Classical or Church Latin, it is hard to mistake nolle for noli. Noli is imperative, second person, singular; it commands; nolle is the infinitive and means, roughly, “to not want.” Timere, too, is an infinitive, meaning “to fear” or “to be afraid.” The correct spelling is the first: Noli timere.

Chatter on Twitter, confirmed by University of Texas Classics professor Jennifer Ebbeler, was that the quote came from the New Testament book of Matthew. Noli timere, Ebbeler wrote to me, appears here and there in the classical corpus, but nowhere memorable until its Christian debut. “For an Irish schoolboy, it was definitely the Matthew that stuck in his mind,” she says.

Specifically, the quote came from Jerome’s fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible, the “Vulgate,” the standard translation of the Catholic Church. And it’s there, at Matthew 14:27, that the words appear: After Jesus feeds thousands in the desert, he sends his disciples away in a boat and goes alone on a mountain to pray. That night, a storm hits the boat, which sits out alone on the water. The disciples, panicked and trying to survive, see Jesus walking toward them, across the waves. They think he is a ghost, but he replies: Habete fiduciam ego sum nolite timere. Or: Be of good cheer, it’s me, don’t be afraid.

Nolite timere. They are the same words. Nolite differs from noli only in that it’s plural, where noli is singular. Nolite makes a request of a group. Noli makes a request of one person, like a lover, or a friend.

I was struck by that error, nolle and noli. Our organism of language mutates. It gets things wrong, by transcription or misunderstanding. Notice even this little clump of sentences that I’ve written: I’ve tried to respect Heaney, the ambiguity of his experience, the mourning ache of his family. (Is it an ache? Is such a word accurate? I don’t know.) But I’ve written about it all the same, and in doing so I have translated it. It is the same kind of translating, on a lesser, more vulgar scale, that Heaney did when he translated the Old English Beowulf into our present-day tongue.

It is a translation that his poetry will eventually require. We die and the language gets away from us, in little ways, like a dropped vowel sound, a change in prepositions, a mistaken transcription. Errors in transfer make a literature.

Like how an infant’s cells are replaced, throughout life, by other, identical versions of themselves, digital messages do not have an “original.” Did Heaney send noli timere? We can trust that his Latin was exemplary, but we have no original because there is no original. A copy of Heaney’s last words exists on his own phone. It exists on his wife’s phone. It likely exists on a server somewhere, an archive maintained by the cell provider, a stash no one will ever read. But the wires that carried it; the air through which it shimmered; the switches that transfigured it between kinds of invisible light: They have already forgotten it, for now they glow with the words of other children and children, parents and parents, and lovers and lovers.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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