Writers of all kinds yearn for the blissful experience of writing a great line, a line that will reach readers, a line that will be remembered. Readers often have favorite lines from literature, lines they can quote from memory. Here’s a story about the gods that created “great lines in literature.”
The two gods had been hanging about, not doing much of anything. There had been some desultory conversation, then a look in on the human world where things, as might be expected, were going to hell in a handbasket. Nothing new. They had played a few hands of cards but soon lost interest and threw them down on the table.
“What are some of our greatest creations?”
“Hmmm. Our greatest creations?” The older of the two gods considered. “I’m rather fond of our creation of ‘the great line in a work of literature.’”
“Yes! Bro! Wasn’t that fun? There were so many details to work out. It’s not easy to create something that both inspires and confounds. It was rather brilliant of you to add in the point about misquoting great lines. What was the ratio you used?”
“Three out of ten. Three out of ten humans who attempt to quote a great line from literature will misquote it. And one of those three misquoted lines will carry with it an unintentionally humorous or erotic interpretation.”
The younger god grinned in appreciation. “Nice touch.”
“Your contributions deserve accolades as well,” the older god continued. “Very clever to add in the bit about quoting accurately but misusing the line in a totally inappropriate way. A lot of pols and celebrities embarrass themselves royally doing that.”
“Do you think we got a little cruel with our invention?” The younger god took a sip from his wine. “When we directed the muses to put our brainchild to use, they added a few tricks of their own, like giving great lines to writers whose works will never see the light of day. Or giving great lines to writers then having editors delete them.”
“Yes. And I suspect muses might be even more cruel than gods. Maybe because they’ve spent eons giving great lines to male writers who then take all the credit, only giving lip service to the muse that actually planted the line in their brain in the first place. Muses seem to have a better relationship with women writers. I suspect women writers and muses understand each other.”
“But it’s a beautiful creation, isn’t it? Look at Shakespeare: Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. And Dostoevsky: If there is no god, everything is permitted. And Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ….
“Don’t forget Melville. Then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. That’s a great line, you gotta admit.”
“A little bleak, perhaps.”
“Bleak lines are appropriate when you’re dealing with nature. No, let me amend that—when you’re dealing with humans thinking they are the masters of nature.”
“So true. But balancing the bleak lines are the ones that express joy or optimism or strength. You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
“Ah, Maya Angelou. That one kind of sticks with you, doesn’t it? Do you know this one? He did not belong with himself any more.”
“Jack London, right? ‘To Build a Fire.’”
“Yes. Always been one of my favorites. Great lines needn’t be elaborate or lengthy. Think Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers.”
The older of the two gods picked up the cards again, studied them briefly, then tossed them back on the table. “I like lines that exhibit self-awareness and show how humans screw things up.”
“Here’s one you’ll appreciate then, a classic from the 1920s, a follow up to the Great War, handed out to Fitzgerald who shared it with the world: They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
“Ouch. Lines like that make me really glad I’m not human.” He paused to reflect. “You know, now that there’s another pandemic, there are bound to be some great lines written.”
“That’s so. But remember when we put in that provision messing around with the element of time? Some great lines will be written long before they are needed or understood or appreciated. Some lines will be written at the moment of utmost urgency, when they could make a difference, but will be ignored nonetheless. Here’s a prime example.”
He started to recite, but his companion chimed in. He, too, knew the line: “And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
“Edgar Allan Poe. ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’ Do you know when that was written?”
“Of course I know when it was written. I keep track of our creations—well, I try to, anyway, with authors I love. That story was written in 1842. Before this pandemic. Before the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I loved the 1964 Vincent Price movie adaptation. A total mash-up, but loads of fun. I took human form for a day, so I could watch it in a real movie theater holding a bucket of popcorn.”
The older god shook his head reflectively. “I haven’t taken human form since the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851 in Hyde Park. There were a lot of writers there: Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray. Charles Dickens, too, of course. The muses complained about all the extra work they were doing handing out great lines, and there were rumblings of a strike to earn time-and-a-half, but nothing came of it.”
“Is that when the muses bequeathed that Dickens line?”
“No, it was a few years later. The muses were in a good mood that day. The line they gave him was the most glorious run-on. Let me see if I can remember the whole thing.”
He cleared his throat and began: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
“That’s a good one, all right,” the younger god said.
“He was gifted that line in 1859. Could have been yesterday.”
From somewhere outside, they heard a gentle tintinnabulation – the signal that supper was ready.
They looked at each other with complete understanding. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
“Did you know the original was slightly different?” the younger god asked. “We gave it to Donne differently but it got changed in 1936. Long story. But I’ll fill you in later. Let’s eat.”
What are some of your favorite lines from literature? I’ll bet you can quote them by heart. If you’re a writer, go back and reread some of your best lines. I’ll bet you know exactly where they are.