Edgar Allan Poe: there's nothing like a good opening line…

Edgar Allan Poe is – despite or perhaps because of  his proclivity for writing scary stories – one of our most beloved writers. Chief among Poe’s charms for the reader is his ability to grab us with a riveting opening line. As proof of Poe’s rare talent for the stunning opener, here for your Halloween Arts Week pleasure is a sample of great opening lines from the master of terror….From “The Tell Tale Heart”:

“TRUE! – nervous – very, very nervous I am and had been and am; but why will you say I am mad?”

From “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

“DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”

From “The Pit and The Pendulum”:

“I WAS sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.”

From “The Black Cat”:

“FOR the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.”

From “The Premature Burial”:

“THERE are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction. These the mere romanticist must eschew, if he do not wish to offend or to disgust.”

From “The Masque of the Red Death”:

“THE “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood.”

From “Hop-Frog”:

“I NEVER knew anyone so keenly alive to a joke as the king was. He seemed to live only for joking.”

From “Ligeia”:

“I Cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much suffering.”

From “The Cask of Amontillado”:

“THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could ; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

From “Never Bet the Devil Your Head”:

‘_CON tal que las costumbres de un autor_,’ says Don Thomas de las Torres, in the preface to his “Amatory Poems” _’sean puras y castas, importo muy poco que no sean igualmente severas sus obras’_ — meaning, in plain English, that, provided the morals of an author are pure personally, it signifies nothing what are the morals of his books. We presume that Don Thomas is now in Purgatory for the assertion.”

I’ve said nothing of Poe’s poetry, at least a line or two of which almost all of us know. The opening of “The Raven” may be the most famous opening lines in American poetry:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visiter,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.'”

But here are a couple of others you may not know that also meet E.A.P.’s high standard for opening lines:

From “The City in the Sea”:

“Lo! Death has reared himself a throne/In a strange city lying alone /Far down within the dim West/Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best/Have gone to their eternal rest.”

From “Ulalume”:

“The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere –
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year:”

You can read all of these stories and poems plus many more at this excellent Poe site.

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I WAS sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.

12 replies »

  1. As much Poe as I’ve read, I honestly never thought about this before now. Maybe it’s been too long since I read him. But that first line – you’re right. If the first line hooks the reader, it buys a lot of space to begin developing the body of the tale. And I can’t think of many who have ever done it better.

  2. I’m with Sam. I never considered Poe’s opening lines before, nor had I considered that the opening lines of “The Raven” might be the most famous in American poetry, even if they have to compete with “Hiawatha” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” for the honor. Thanks for this, Jim.

    As an aside, for anyone who wants to play, I’m fascinated by the fact that Shakespeare penned many famous lines, but only two of his plays (well, maybe three) open with lines that are instantly recognizable to most well-read people. What are they? (You don’t get to answer, Jim 😉 ).

  3. And could you please change “Allen” to “Allan” in the title? It drives me nuts. More nuts.

  4. Ann,

    Yep. Those are the two. And I wasn’t thinking about MacB as the third, but that’s a good candidate. I was thinking of Romeo and Juliet. The prologue was made somewhat famous by the Zeferilli film.

  5. As someone who tries to write fiction, it’s damn hard to write the opening line or two and grab the reader. And it’s critical for a short story, because you have so little text to work with at all.

    I personally love ending lines, where the climax is literally in the last line or two, but if the author hadn’t grabbed me with a good opening first, I wouldn’t have read to discover the end.

  6. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen my share of “horror” films — that which Hollywood presumes will scare the bejezus out of us.

    But I have never been as frightened as I was the day that my freshman high-school English teacher, Bart “Bowling Ball” Boyden, walked into the classroom book in hand, turned off the lights, pulled down the shades, and read to us in his Shakespearian voice “The Raven.”

    I entered the classroom with white undies; I left with brown.

    Thanks, Jim.

  7. Ann: Sorry about the Allan error – did this late at night – and I’m just getting freaking old….

    JS – Agree wholeheartedly about the plays you and Ann mentioned for their opening lines. But the one that always haunts me is the opening line of HAMLET: “For this relief much thanks. Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart….” Gee, maybe I’ve got a topic for next week! 🙂

    Sam – Joan Didion says that once you’ve written the first line that the story’s fate is decided – it can only go one way from there – if that’s the case, Poe seemed to choose opening lines that led to brilliantly frightening tales instinctively. As Count Floyd would say, “Scary stuff….”

  8. Denny,

    I think I might be able to top that. My FOURTH GRADE teacher read “The Pit and the Pendulum” to us very, very, very slowly, complete with realistic heart thumping sounds. I very nearly peed in my pants.

  9. Well done – Poe’s first lines are real hooks. I’d make the same argument for his last lines, though. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for example, ends with: “It is the beating of his hideous heart!” Another one? “The Masque of the Red Death” ends with “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” There are more, but these are the ones from memory. Probably the best is “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (go read it. NOW).

    For more Poe goodness, feel free to check out my web site.