Sep. 18, 2001

The Last Words of My English Grandmother

by William Carlos Williams

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Last Words of My English Grandmother," by William Carlos Williams from Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams (New Directions).

The Last Words of My English Grandmother

There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed—

Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,

Gimme something to eat—
They're starving me—
I'm all right I won't go
to the hospital. No, no, no

Give me something to eat
Let me take you
to the hospital, I said
and after you are well

you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please—

Oh, oh, oh! she cried
as the ambulance men lifted
her to the stretcher—
Is this what you call

making me comfortable?
By now her mind was clear—
Oh you think you're smart
you young people,

she said, but I'll tell you
you don't know anything.
Then we started.
On the way

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I'm tired
of them and rolled her head away.

It's the birthday of physicist Jean Bernard Leon Foucault, born in Paris (1819). Foucault made many important discoveries, but one of the best known is the development of the Foucault pendulum, with which he demonstrated the rotation of the earth. In 1851, Foucault presented his pendulum at the Pantheon in Paris. He suspended a 61-pound iron ball from a 220-foot cable. He attached a pin to the bottom of the ball, which traced the path of the ball in a ring of sand on the floor. Even though the pendulum seems to rotate with respect to the floor, there is no force to make it rotate. Therefore, it is the floor, and by extension the earth, which is rotating. Foucault was also the first scientist to photograph the sun. He invented the gyroscope, proved that light travels slower in water than in air, and proved that humans have binocular vision, which means that the brain combines images from both eyes into a single image.

It's the birthday of poet, journalist, critic, and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield, England (1709). Johnson finally found work writing for a popular periodical, the Gentleman's Magazine, for which he wrote poetry, essays, and short biographies. His 1749 biography of a minor poet and major scoundrel, Richard Savage, achieved considerable popularity. From 1750 to 1752, he published a semi-weekly series of essays called The Rambler. In 1755, he published what was to be his greatest work, A Dictionary of the English Language, for which he was paid the huge sum of £1,575. It was immensely popular, due largely to the immense number of quotations illustrating different usages of words, culled from his own reading. In 1763, Johnson met his future biographer, the Scottish lawyer James Boswell. Ten years later, the two men made a tour of the Scottish Highlands, which Johnson chronicled in his book, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1875). After Johnson's death in 1784, Boswell wrote his biography. It was an immediate success, and confirmed Johnson's reputation as one of England's most famous characters, conversationalists, and wits. Samuel Johnson, who said: "The great source of pleasure is variety. Uniformity must tire at last, though it be uniformity of excellence. We love to expect; and, when expectation is disappointed or gratified, we want to be again expecting."

In 1851 on this day, the first edition of The New York Times was published. The paper, which was then called the New York Daily Times, was in competition with 15 other newspapers in the New York City area. The cost of the paper was one cent, and by its second week, it had 10,000 regular paying customers. In 1857, the name of the paper was changed to The New York Times.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »