When I see articles like The Atlantic’s “‘This Did Something Powerful to Me’: Authors’ Favorite First Lines of Books,” the first thing I think is, of course, “Anybody going to mention Shakespeare?”
Yup. I don’t know who Lydia Davis is but she’s my new best pal because not only does she bring Shakespeare into a discussion where no less than 3 others went with “Call me Ishmael”, she goes where you wouldn’t expect:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
That’s the opening to Sonnet 73, in case you don’t recognize it. How about that? 38 or so plays to choose from and 153 other sonnets, and she reaches right into the middle of the pack to pluck that one.
But wait, there’s more! Look at what she says about why that choice: “the interesting order of the second line.” I love how specific she gets. I assume she’s referring to the “none, or few” bit rather than “few, or none”. It’s a good point. Had Shakespeare said “leaves, or few, or none” there’s a linear (and therefore anticipated) sequence there. But to go the other way like he did makes it more random and unpredictable. Some trees will still have their leaves. Some will have none, some will have few. There’s no pattern.
What do you think? Even if you kept it to the realm of Shakespeare and somebody asked you to name your favorite first line, what would your choice be?
I quite like Sonnet 104’s “To me fair friend you never can be old,” though I’m not sure I’d so quickly throw it out there as my absolute favorite. Have to think more about it.