What are the best opening lines in all of English verse? There are many contenders here, so whittling them down to a shortlist of the ten greatest and most famous opening lines of poetry didn’t exactly prove an easy task. Below, we quote the opening lines, but if you follow the link provided you can read the poem in full.
1. William Shakespeare, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’
What better place to begin a list of great opening lines than with the English poet who gave us more famous and oft-quoted lines than any other?
‘To be, or not to be’; ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’; ‘But soft! What light through yonder window breaks’, and so on. But in his Sonnets, Shakespeare also gave us many well-known opening lines, and nowhere more so than in his opening line for Sonnet 18, which sees the Bard praising the Fair Youth and promising to immortalise him in verse…
2. William Blake, ‘Tyger! Tyger! Burning Bright’.
The opening line from Blake’s 1794 poem ‘The Tyger’, these four arresting words in strong trochaic metre immediately set the scene for Blake’s awe-struck and slightly ‘fearful’ celebration of the tiger. What sort of divine being could have forged such a fiery and fearsome creature?
3. Robert Burns, ‘O, My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose’.
A big influence on Bob Dylan (according to the songwriter and Nobel Laureate himself), this Burns song gave us one of love poetry’s most memorable and quotable first lines: the opening stanza of this poem sees the poet likening his beautiful beloved to a red rose ‘newly sprung in June’.
4. William Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’.
Although this poem is often called ‘Daffodils’, it was actually untitled in Wordsworth’s own lifetime, so its well-known first line, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, even doubles up as its ‘title’.
The poem is one of English Romanticism’s finest statements about the communion between man and nature, as Wordsworth observes the daffodils in his beloved Lake District, and later, when he recollects them, his heart dances with them.
5. Robert Browning, ‘Oh, to Be in England’.
This poem is actually titled ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’ – Browning was living in Italy at the time with his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning – but its opening line has become more famous to readers, especially those who share the sense of patriotic nostalgia summoned by Browning’s line (and the ensuing poem).
6. Emily Dickinson, ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died’.
Few poets have managed quite such a high tally of brilliant and arresting opening lines than the nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86).
Here, Dickinson immediately grabs our attention by juxtaposing the everyday and unremarkable – the fly buzzing – with the momentous event of the speaker’s death.
7. Rupert Brooke, ‘If I Should Die, Think Only This of Me’.
Perhaps Brooke’s best-known poem, ‘The Soldier’ is a war sonnet written in 1914, which opens with the unforgettable words: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.’
The poem is another patriotic one, arguing (in the early stages of the First World War when the mood was still hopeful) that to fight and die for one’s country was the highest honour.
8. T. S. Eliot, ‘April is the Cruellest Month’.
These are the opening words of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, his landmark modernist poem of 1922 which overturned so many traditional, romantic aspects of English verse. But they’re not quite the full opening line, as the poem (linked to above) makes clear.
As we read on, we learn why April is far from being a sweet month of spring showers: because it breeds new life out of the dead land, and disturbs painful memories (not least because of the recent war that Rupert Brooke, above, had died in).
We have analysed these famous opening words in more detail here.
9. W. H. Auden, ‘Stop All the Clocks, Cut off the Telephone’.
Here’s another poem which had no official title when it was initially published. Indeed, when this poem, now popularly known as ‘Funeral Blues’, was first published, it was in a satirical play, The Ascent of F6 (1936), which Auden wrote with his friend Christopher Isherwood.
What has since become one of the most famous funeral elegies in the world (thanks largely to the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral) actually began as a parody of public obituaries. But hear that opening line now and many people will recall John Hannah’s recital of the poem in the Mike Newell film, written by Richard Curtis…
10. Philip Larkin, ‘They F**k You Up, Your Mum and Dad’.
Without doubt the naughtiest opening line on this list (we thought we would censor the rude word here, but you can read the uncensored version by following the link provided), the first line of Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’ sees Larkin speaking to us in a bluff, blokey, colloquial voice which later gives way to a more thoughtful and lyrical tone, meditating on how our parents shape us into the sort of people we become.
Mark but this flea…
How about: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall? Robert Frost, Mending Wall. There is an interesting anthology called The Top 500 Poems editd by William Harmon. Supposedly of the most popular poems. The criterion is the ‘most often anthologised.’
Thanks for mentioning the Harmon anthology – one to add to my wish list, I think!
Great list. The last entry is quite timely and funny to me. I teach high school seniors in an AP Literature class, and we just read aloud Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” on Friday!
Great timing indeed! That first line is brilliant for the subtle pun lurking in the … um, second word in the line. And the distance travelled between the first line and last line of the poem is significantly more than the dozen lines of the poem would suggest.
Ha! I’d never thought of the first line as involving a pun, but it’s there. Quite clever.
I very much agree about the tonal distance traveled in the poem. It starts out playful and gently comic but then ends with an almost cold and bitter tone.
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Given the overwhelming choice you were presented with – I think you’ve done an excellent job:))
Thanks! It wasn’t easy, as many lines suggested themselves – but these are some of my favourites. Memorable for all sorts of reasons :)
Well, what about the curfew tolls the knell of parting Day???