It’s always said that first impressions are important, and texts are no different. Regardless of the book you are reading, the opening line is important. It’s the quickest way to draw your reader in and set up for the kind of story you want to tell. For instance, just about everyone knows the opening line to Charles Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities” that is “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” The opening line is memorable, meaningful, and momentous. That brings me to the topic of this essay, what are the opening lines of three epics, The Iliad, The Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy, and what can they tell us about the work and the historical context behind their creators.

Starting with Homer’s “The Iliad” let’s dive right in with the opening line using Fagle’s translation. We get, “Rage, goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles.” The opening line serves a myriad of functions, it tells us what the story will be about, who is involved, and reaffirms some things we may have already known. What is the story about? Well, it is about rage. Rage is not only the first word but appears twice, the second time it assigns the rage to someone, though not directly, “…rage of Peleus’s son…” Strange isn’t it? It doesn’t come out directly to say the name of the son, but rather mention’s the main character’s father first. It is possible and very likely that people of the time this is written knows of Peleus already. However, let’s not take in any other context when looking at this line. What can we infer from the mention of family relations? It is possible the work will mention other family bonds throughout and that mentioning it off the bat will have the reader keeping it in mind. So, who is this story about beyond someone’s son? Achilles. But who is telling us this story? “Goddess, sing the rage…” Our narrator immediately hands the story off to a third party, a goddess. This reaffirms what we know of the Ancient Greek culture, the strength of their beliefs in their gods and goddess, so much so that Homer here is depending once more on a goddess to tell the story. So, what is the Iliad about? The opening line tells us everything we need to know; it is about Achilles’s rage.

Moving on to Virgil’s Aeneid, the opening line, again using Fagle’s translation, is “Wars and a man I sing-an exile driven on by fate.” Just like the opening line to the Iliad, this is doing many things at once, but this time it leaves some information out. Firstly, is it about? “Wars and a man.” That is simple enough and immediately lets the reader know what to expect from this work. It does a little more as well, saying “wars” and “man” so closely together can let us know that the man is probably a soldier or general, anything somehow directly related to war, because, it wouldn’t make much sense to bring him up otherwise. Who is “a man” anyway, who can we expect this work to be about? We don’t know, but we do get some background on the character with “an exile driven on fate.” This character, whoever it is, is currently exiled and fate plays a big part in that. The mention of fate also lets us know that it should be on our mind. Perhaps this character deals with choices whose consequences are out of his control, maybe he has no choices to make as things are always destined to be. A reader will have these themes on their mind now as they read through the text. This roundabout way to mention the character by what they are like, but without saying who it is has historically happened before and Virgil knows it. Virgil here is addressing a work by Homer, the Odyssey. I won’t go into too much detail here, but just doing a side-by-side will show the resemblance. The Odyssey, translation Fagle’s, opens “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns” whereas The Aeneid is again “Wars and a man I sing-an exile driven on by fate” Both feature a nameless man described only by what they are going through. The main difference is who is telling the story. Homer again calls upon a muse to tell the story, but who is narrating The Aeneid? “Wars and a man I sing…” Virgil is aware of the Greek epics, but he needs to make his better, needs to make Rome’s better. To achieve this he owns the Aeneid, it isn’t a story being told through him, but rather it is one he is in control of and putting down on paper.

Lastly, let us move on to Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically the Inferno for its opening line translated this time by Mark Musa, “Midway along the journey of our life.” Arguably, this doesn’t tell the reader much other than the character is about halfway through their life, or middle-aged. We will extend the parameters for the first time to better understand the beginning. This gives us “Midway through the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path.” Again, this tells us a lot. We get a setting, a theme, and introduced to who this is about. We already tackled the first line so moving on we get “I woke to find myself in a dark wood” A dark wood here obviously means a forest, which isn’t a great place to find yourself, there are many dangers lurking there and it would be easy to get lost. I generally skipped the narrator until last and focused on everything first, but it is hard to name the character without giving away the narrator at the same time with this work. That’s because they are one and the same. Dante is both narrator and character. Who finds themselves lost in the forest in the middle of their life? Dante does. He isn’t telling a story about someone else’s war exploits; he is telling of events that have happened to him personally. He is still aware of the Epics before him echoing Virgil and Homer as he adds “for I had wandered off from the straight path.” This seems close to Homer’s description of the charter in the Odyssey as being “the man of twists and turns,” because, well, a non-straight path must be made of twists and turns. This echoes Virgil a little more passively, if Virgil was trying to mark his epic as a departure from the norm (he is not being used by a god to write) then Dante takes it further by not even writing of someone else’s experiences, but of his own. Dante is the man of twist and turns this time around.

To conclude, the opening lines of a work can make or break it. They serve to not only tell us what the work will be about but can touch on the theme, setting, and historical context. Looking at the three works, The Iliad, The Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy show an evolution in style and ownership of the work. We go from a story told by a goddess, to one told by the narrator, and lastly to one told by and experienced by the narrator themselves. That evolution marks how works became more personal as time went on.