Follow by Email

Thursday, April 30, 2015

On First Lines

The "Shakespeare In Community" class on Coursera.org opens by discussing briefly the first lines of Hamlet. But what of first lines?
 
It feels like a worn-out subject - an elementary thing - to consider first lines. Are they powerful? Yes. It is the ending any writer is aiming to have remembered, but usually it is the first line that everyone can quote verbatim.
 
Some of my favorites are:
 
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
 
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett) Never read this book, but that is profoundly true.
 
"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939) Finnegans Wake is a pure delight, beginning to end, is it not?
 
"Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested." —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925; trans. Breon Mitchell) This book haunts me every day.
 
"It was like so, but wasn't." —Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2 (1995) Never read this book either, but that has to be the most intriguing opening line ever conceived. That could also be the most concise definition of poetry available.
 
But the one first line that is always mentioned first:
 
"Call me Ishmael." —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
 
That shouldn't be a first line success story. It tells you nothing. Sets you up for nothing. Is only mildly intriguing and not at all interesting. It's like opening a book with small talk. Even cashiers at check out registers have name tags but most people don't care to read them unless they intend to file a complaint. "Call me Ishmael."
 
So why does it succeed? Because names are at the most primal of human instincts and needs. In the Bible, the first assignment God gave to Adam (before creating Eve and therefore predating the commandment to "fill the earth") was that of naming the various creatures that co-inhabited Earth with him. Names are so deeply integral to our psyche that often we name our phones and other devices, even our cars. I know an extreme case where a man named each of his fingers. Herman Melville revealed his genius when he appealed to that by beginning his meandering masterpiece with "Call me Ishmael."
 
First lines are the spine on which all other hangs in literature. Shakespeare was keenly aware of that. So he opened Hamlet with "Who's there?" A call to attention that requires an instant answer. An action phrase to begin a play of action and deeply pregnant with all the paranoia and uncertainty that drives Hamlet all the way to its bloody conclusion. By the time he has a character utter "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark", the repetition of that paranoia is already stifling and choking like flame without air.
 
First lines are even more important in today's post post-modern poetry. It has been said that a poem must be composed entirely of first lines to keep a reader engaged all the way to the end. Hamlet's constant refrain of paranoia (beautifully illustrated in The Royal Shakespeare Company's production starring Patrick Stewart and David Tennant with the ever-present motif of security cameras and hidden spying eyes - "A rat! A rat!") seems to foreshadow this development. Some are put off by Shakespeare's dogged repetition; to me is seems somewhat mantic. He seems to be pointing to this time when the power of first lines has become so strong as to be everything, as to be poetry itself, when poetry cannot survive unless it be composed entirely of first lines.