“This Did Something To Me” : Authors’ Favorite First Lines

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.

2 thoughts on ““This Did Something To Me” : Authors’ Favorite First Lines

  1. Much as I admire her choice, I cannot help but feel that Lydia Davis has strayed beyond the meaning of “first lines of books.” After all, Sonnet 73 is hardly the first of The Sonnets, and her admired second line, is not really the first, is it? She has actually quoted the first sentence, which is the first quatrain of Sonnet 73 (actually, the first 4 lines of a 24 line poem, the double sonnet, composed of Sonnets 73 and 74, but I won’t get into that now). Isn’t it unfair to compare an entire quatrain of a poem to a mere first line of a book?—it gives the poem an unfair advantage. In fact, many of Shakespeare’s sonnets have two quatrains (eight lines) as their first sentence, such as the beautiful Sonnet 23: “As an unperfect actor on the stage…” And there are even those like Sonnet 118 (Like as to make our appetites more keen…) that carry the sentence all the way through 12 lines, right up to the couplet.

    But to answer your question, Duane, I think Richard III is the winner:

    Now is the Winter of our discontent
    Made glorious summer by this son of York;
    And all the clouds that low’rd upon our house
    In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

    Next would be Twelfth Night:

    If music be the food of love, play on,
    Give me excess of it ,that surfeiting,
    The appetite may sicken, and so die.

    After these, there are virtually no memorable first lines in the plays, due to Shakespeare’s habit of opening the action in the middle of a situation, or even in the middle of a dialog. This dramatic trick gets the audience involved immediately as they try to figure out what is going on (annoys me no end when modern directors forget this and open a play with an interminable prelude).

    Straying from Shakespeare, it is hard not to mention “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick, of course) or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (Tale of Two Cities).


  2. "O for a Muse of Fire" has to be on that list somewhere, right? It's a dream for a director too. Play it up to the gods and it jolts the audience to attention; play it soft and apologetic, and you're suddenly opening with a joke.

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