As this lame opening sentence itself attests, beginnings are hard to do. Everyone likes to focus on the near impossibility of producing a satisfactory ending, both in life and in art. Breakups, divorces, and death are the most common conclusions to relationships. Usually an author can find some way to pad the blow, and as disappointing as literary conclusions can be, they are at any rate rarely as disappointing as conclusions in life. Literary beginnings must necessarily involve an even greater degree of artificiality than endings, if only because we are never conscious of beginnings in our lives. Nothing gets a preface or an introduction, and while you could pithily epigrammatize some lived experience, you can only do it retrospectively.
In antiquity, you could botch an ending just as badly as people do today, but the beginning had to be good for the simple reason that the earliest literature, that is to say poetry, was often remembered by reference to its first line. When that poetry was recited and heard, the audience needed a hook or a preview – something to prime the old pump. When transcribed onto scrolls, the impossibility of flipping casually through the contents for something appealing required that the first unfurling reveal some treasure.
We all know that the Iliad begins in dramatic fashion with the word wrath. As an opening word, it couldn’t be more heavily-weighted, and it’s clear that the anger precedes the singing of it. One would think that anyone possessed of any admiration for Homeric poetry would think that it admits of no improvement, but Aristoxenus records a flat variant to the famous proem:
Tell me now Muses having Olympian homes, how wrath and anger seized the offspring of Peleus and the shining son of Leto; for he was angry with the king…
῎Εσπετε νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι ᾿Ολύμπια δώματ’ ἔχουσαι,
ὅππως δὴ μῆνίς τε χόλος θ’ ἕλε Πηλεΐωνα,
Λητοῦς τ’ ἀγλαὸν υἱόν· ὁ γὰρ βασιλῆι χολωθείς.
The only thing which can be said for this opening is the interest which stems from the parallelism between Achilles and Apollo, both of whom are taken by anger, both of whom work destruction on the Greeks, and both of whom feature in the post-Iliadic episode in which Apollo guides Paris’ arrow to slay Achilles. But by achieving this parallelism, the tragedy of specifically human experience is undermined as comparatively more power over the narrative’s direction is granted to the gods.
Homer was not the only epic artist to suffer some flattening in the hands of improving versifiers. For the choice of thematic opening words, you cannot beat Vergil:
Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris…
Step aside Muses, Vergil is singing here! We will forgive the man – he was a paid pen, and it takes a remarkable man to own his hackwork instead of attributing it to other sources. Perhaps we shouldn’t put too fine a point on it, but Vergil’s shift from the imperative to the bold first person singular contains in itself the loss of religious feeling effected by seven centuries of philosophy. Ironically, the arma portion of the poem is mostly forgettable, and probably would be entirely forgotten if it hadn’t received top billing in the opening credits. At any rate, the Vergil syllabus from antiquity onward has been heavily weighted toward the virum end of things, and most readers seem most thrilled with a rehash of the greatest hits (the retrospective about the fall of Troy and Aeneas’ Odyssey in books 2&3), the romantic tragedy (Dido and Aeneas in book 4), or the curious admixture of occult arcana and SPQR propaganda theater in book 6.
But even all of the resounding majesty of good old arma virumque has not been granted unquestioned primacy of place. Here is the alternative opening to the Aeneid:
It is I, who once measured out my song on the slender reed, and setting out from the forests compelled the neighboring fields to yield to the farmer, however greedy, that work so pleasing to the people of the fields, but now I sing Mars’ horrible arms and a man…
Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulatus avena
carmen, et egressus silvis vicina coegi
ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono
gratum opus agricolis, at nunc horrentia Martis
arma virumque cano
If the phrase at nunc horrentia Martis were left in this fragmentary form without the other baggage weighing it down, it would suggest so much more, and make for a far more enticing opening. The mystery – what came before ‘at nunc’ – would have heightened our enjoyment of the passage. Yet the banality of what comes before should remind us that maybe some of our most enticing and suggestive fragments are better off in their fragmentary form. Indeed, maybe Kubla Kahn achieves in its incomplete form a kind of perfection which would have been impossible had Coleridge not been hurried off to Porlock.
Milton, though steeped in ancient learning, flouted the weightier classical models in one bold respect. Homer and Vergil both began their poems with potent thematic words: wrath, a man, arms. Milton takes a cue from Ovid and uses a preposition to begin Paradise Lost:
OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
Milton yielded nothing to the ancients in his ability to begin a sentence with what is properly a subordinate element and then string them into quite a page-buster of a sentence. But nevertheless, the opening is memorable, and more interesting than the poem when taken as a whole. Some things are better in prospect, or in trailer form. Homer and Vergil had their endings down, but even in them we can detect a tendency for the epic middle to sag under its own weight. The buckling knees of the epic form finally gave way under Milton, who can still be read profitably for anyone in search of language. But as the long-spun proem may suggest, the language is all there is.
As in literature, so in life. The middle portion is an amorphous mass without always possessing an apparent structure, direction, or point – it is just there for us to experience. Literary beginnings are hard to manage because the beginning of life is hard to manage. We – that is, our conscious selves – are never around for the inception of life, so we are forced to begin our own narratives at some arbitrary and dimly-remembered point. What is my first memory? I don’t know. I can think of several early recollections, but it would be hopeless to impose any sequence or time stamp on them. They simply were experiences, re-experienced and likely transformed over time through the very process of recollection, just as any copy of anything gradually becomes a less faithful representation of its early exemplar.
When the poet brings us abruptly in medias res, he is faithfully representing the experience of life itself, which surely had a beginning, but is not experienced or remembered that way. The scholar’s urge to systematize, to ask where it all began and deduce the history from that point – all of that is impossible and played-out. Forget about the Bible and its “In the beginning…”s. Forget about the universal history of systematizers like Zonaras. Forget about Ovid’s primaque ab origine mundi (“from the first origin of the world…”). But don’t forget about the forgetting – about the fact that your memory is more lacuna than recollection. That middle might sag quite a bit, and the waters of Lethe might wash clean most of what lies between the cradle and the headstone, but you can still keep searching for the perfect word to open that narrative.