A few years ago I wrote a column and received a few affirmatives on last lines of poems and the impact they can have. So what about first lines? What are their primary functions, secondary functions, and what are some brilliant illustrations thereof?
The primary function, it would seem, is to grab the attention of the reader like an alarm or a shark bite or a first kiss. Through either a stunning image, situation, or simply an extraordinarily lovely rhythm or set of internal felicities, the opening line of a poem galvanizes the reader’s attention.
Secondary functions might be to set the overall mood or theme of the poem, to establish the metrical pattern – i.e., three, four, five beats to the line, and/or to introduce an image that will have overtones throughout the poem.
I think, for example, of line one of Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 30 that begins: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…” wherein the poet has immediately achieved all the possibilities mentioned above. It captures our attention with its beauty and its portent of what is to come. What, we wonder, happens in those moments of privacy, quiet, and reflection? What will the poet be realizing? In addition, we learn that the poem is to be set in pentameter (five beats to the line), though in this case the first line offers us an irregular series of five stresses, and its iambic pattern only emerges in the next few lines.
Sometimes the opening line is an extension of the poem’s title and, hence, works in tandem with it. For example, William Butler Yeats’ poem “1919” begins with this line: “Many ingenious lovely things are gone…” which, of course, causes us to inquire, “Well, what things are gone in this post World War I world?” Again, a pentameter pattern is established.
Or, for violent, attention-grabbing first lines, consider Ezra Pound’s “Sestina Altaforte” – the first line: “Damn it all! All this our south stinks peace.” Hard not to want to find out where this line is going.
Or, consider this first line of a poem of the same title by Walt Whitman for sheer beauty: “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed.” The alteration of syntactic normalcy being part of its genius: not bloomed in the dooryard but “…in the dooryard bloomed.”
Robert Frost was another great genius of first lines – there are so many, in fact, one almost expects such magnificence:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”
“I found a dimpled spider, fat and white…”
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”
“Out of the mud two strangers came…”
“Whose woods these are I think I know…”
And on and on. Each achieving almost all that great first lines are capable of achieving.
Of course, many first lines are superb only in the retro-perspective of their being part of a great poem. A wonderful opening line will quickly pale if the rest of the poem is flat or inept. So that T.S. Eliot’s “Let us go then you and I” becomes a great line as J. Alfred Prufrock and the “you,” the reader, go on his 20th century journey with him. And along with him, this “you” and the “I” become “we” in the last line – “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” And, likewise, his “April is the cruelest month breeding…” achieves its unforgettable status only as we travel through “The Waste Land” to our final benediction: “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.”
On a less formidable note, Dylan Thomas created, I believe, one of the most sensual and goose-flesh producing opening lines (the title of the poem) with his: “If I were tickled by the rub of love…” Notice the wonderful assonance of the ‘i’ sounds and the more earthy internal rhyme in rub and love. Furthermore, who would not want to read to the end of a poem with such a beginning to see how the “if” clause is resolved?
So, first lines call upon us to do what Richard Wilbur says in the opening line of his poem “Praise in Summer:” “Obscurely yet most surely called to praise…”
To praise. Perhaps that is our ultimate reason for being here.