There are great lines in poems and songs and novels and essays and plays and anecdotes and declarations and last words and letters and diaries and jokes and pieces of advice and maybe even in dreams. Great lines resonate in the lives of more than the person who composed them. They create conversation while transcending it. They find their way into the personally inhabited spaces where this flame of who we are gives light and fuel and perhaps even inspiration. Light seems a metaphor for being able to see. Fuel implies movement. Inspiration can imply anything.
There is that line from Gatsby about forever wedding his visions to her perishable breath- That part of that sentence has always had a grip on me. A great line may happen when it reveals an internal truth that accurately depicts how things really are for you. The complete line is, “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” But the rest of it did not speak to me the same way to me as those few words. Those few words are what makes it a great line for me and they are taken out of context.
There is an aspiration to a great line. “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free…” Another fragment from a longer line that was meant to be sung. It inspires as much as it depicts. I know that I have longed to dance beneath that diamond sky since I first heard that line. I believe that I have longed to wed my visions to something that may be perishable. Is that a wish to keep the perishable longer alive?
Great lines can be funny. My wife contributes, “The check is in the mail.” At first I scoff and say that it is not a great line. It’s just a line. It is as pedestrian as it gets. But upon reflection it may speak volumes. It became a standard, a cliché. There is life circumstance embedded in that line. It means more than it says.
Must great lines have literary value?
A great line is sometimes a lament, or longing that will always be sought and yet never be totally attainable. What is it about our spirit that attempts the implausible, the impossible, and the ridiculous? What about that attracts us?
I am intrigued by the great lines that have changed people’s lives. I know the great lines that have entered my life by heart. Which means more than I have memorized them; I know them through emotional heart. If they are parts of songs, I replay them over and over, hoping that the doors of perception do not close but, by the incantation of repetition, open further. The poetry is recited in my head. “Therefore let the moon Shine on thee in thy solitary walk; and let the misty mountain-winds be free to blow against thee” There is a line that I have repeated to myself over and over. I don’t know why. I am not a devotee of Wordsworth, but for me that is a great line. The light of the moon and the inspiration of those winds seduce me.
I love novels but it is rare that I remember a passage to quote. Songs and poems have voices inside me. It is my prayer that I am worthy to live inside of them. Perhaps it is the romantic expression of the wish that creates the line. It is rare for me that the imagery of a novel can be conveyed in a line. There are exceptions, but mostly the novel needs at least a paragraph. Songs and poems are different.
“Don’t ya ride the Queen of Diamonds boy, she’ll beat you if she’s able. Ya Know the Queen of Hearts is always your best bet.” I envision these Queens as the Queens of my heart. When choosing it is not as much the allure of the beauty of the diamond as it is the warmth of the heart. And so I review my life, looking for where the diamonds trumped the hearts. But maybe the lens needs to be cleared, maybe diamonds and hearts get confused.
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee
There it is. Incantation and dreams. Simplicity and devotion- It’s another fragment.
So I dream on great lines and you dream on yours and we become part of the dreams and the lines.
“I’m holding out my only candle, though it’s so little light to find my way.”
Our great lines are our candles. We keep the light.