A Few Words about First Lines: Poetry Edition

As promised, here’s the companion to my post on opening lines, this time turning the focus to poetry.

John Donne, “The Canonization”

For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love,

Come on, who (besides Samuel Johnson) doesn’t love a beginning like that? It’s short and snappy, it’s to-the-point, and it brings that immediacy that is Donne’s signature. While some will fault Donne for his seeming lack of restraint, for the way his words and emotions seem to tumble out one on top of the other in his poems, some of us consider that less of a weakness and more of an asset. If Donne’s poetry is breathless and excited, it’s because he is breathless and excited and wants to impart a sense of that to his readers. It’s not a style that’s going to suit all tastes, but it does suit my taste.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover”

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding

A lot of poets talk about marrying sound to sense in their poetry, but no poet does it better than Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here, all of these repeated words, sounds, and syllables make you rush along with the poem, giving you that sense of uplift and ecstasy that Hopkins is trying to express. Where Donne turned his excitement into long strings of words and complex conceits, Hopkins achieved a similar effect, but better, from repeated sounds and careful attention to rhythm.

W. B. Yeats, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,

There: without knowing a thing about Aengus (at least, I didn’t when I first read this), you’re instantly transported far and away. Maybe something about the idea of having a fire in one’s head (but won’t that burn you horribly?) lends it the sort of “diverting newness” that makes poetry worth reading in the first place: it arrests you for a moment, takes you out of your present place and circumstances, and encourages you to investigate something outside of them.

Paul Celan, “Corona” (tr. by Vivian Smith)

Out of my hand autumn eats its leaf: we are friends.

Similar to the Yeats poem, this line has a kind of strangeness about it that I find intriguing. If you go on to read the rest of the poem, you’ll see how it has a sort of triumphant tone to it, of the lover who feels he can conquer the world and everything in it on the strength of his love. That tone comes out in this line too, I think, with the speaker seeming already to have claimed part of the world as his own, so that it must eat out of his hand.

So, there’s another list for you. Do tell me about your favorite opening lines in poetry in the comments section.

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