I’m thinking about creative first lines for the first, naturally enough for a bookhound. What are the most famous first lines in English? I guessed three. Of course, there’s the one that makes reference to its own place in the book, “In the beginning…” Then there’s “To be, or not to be…”. While not an official opening line, it is the first line of the speech.
I also guessed “T’was the night before Christmas…” That one got me started thinking about time in first lines, and, of course, “Once upon a time” may be the most well-known beginning there is. I assume many languages have their version of it to turn to. It’s interesting that two literary classics begin, or almost begin with it. Poe’s “The Raven” at least starts “Once upon”, if only to plunge us into, not a time, but a timeless “midnight dreary” where Life and Rationality get crept up on by their opposites.
James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, despite being a modernist classic, does begin “Once upon a time…” because the main character’s uncle is telling baby Stephen a story about a little boy and a cow. If you’re a Literary Geek, this is kinda funny.
Of course, Dickens left the timestampers in the dust with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”. A lot of first lines like to pin down time, as if this is the information we want and need first. A personal perennial favorite is: “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.” How dull, really. But he will shortly meet an unusual person who might look like Basil Rathbone or Benedict Cumberbatch or my friend Donald. This will shake him up a bit and liven the storytelling considerably.
For the sake of my friend and fab fellow blogger, I have to add to this category “Captain’s Log, Stardate series of numbers I’m sure the Trekkies have sorted out into a calendar”.
I suppose marking time– sunlight, seasons, writing deadlines– is a survival tactic as old as our ability to do it. I almost don’t dare write that I hope today is a marker pointing in some good directions, but I suppose Betty White would want me to do it. And then to say swear words and laugh a lot and say/do something kind.
Another first line I’ve known nearly forever came to my mind, and I’ll end on it. It sounds dire, asking a heavy question rather than offering safe information to hold on to: “‘Where’s Pa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother…” It’s the first line of Charlotte’s Web, and it doesn’t begin to hint at the wonder, writing, Love, and “the glory of everything” to come. I think it’s the first line I need today.
Its author, E. B. White, is a favorite of my dear friend Bob Colonna, to whom this first post of 2022 is dedicated with all my spun-silk love.
(The photo is E. B. White and Minnie.)