Most people can quote a line or two from a movie, novel, speech, advertisement, or other source that for some reason stuck in their head. For this article, we’ll look at some great lines from poems and songs. And to make sure we include Shakespeare’s plays, we’ll allow his blank verse since technically that’s poetry.
So what characteristics does a line need to be a candidate for a best line ever? After looking at a lot of great quotes, these things come to mind:
- Memorable. If you can’t remember how the line goes, then it may not be all that great and you’ll probably soon forget about it no matter how witty or profound it is.
- Relatively short. This is probably connected to the line’s memorability, but also forces it to be about only one thing.
- More than just a phrase. So Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” doesn’t qualify, although the full line “To be, or not to be: that is the question” probably does.
- Standalone. The line doesn’t require a setup or explanation.
- Surprising, wry, or funny. The line functions almost like a short joke, with a punchline (or punch) at the end.
Let’s look at some example lines and see whether they meet these requirements.
“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”
This is from Shakespeare’s rom-com Much Ado About Nothing and is a line delivered by Beatrice at Benedick during their insult match. As in a modern rom-com, insults like this might be a hint that the two characters are secretly crazy about each other. One problem with this line is that it’s prose, not poetry, so technically it’s ineligible. Romeo and Juliet speak blank verse to each other, but in this play the lovers speak prose.
“Men were deceivers ever, / One foot in sea and one on shore, / To one thing constant never”
This is also from Much Ado, part of the song “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more” that presumably was sung in the earliest productions, although we no longer have the tune if so. It’s a little long, but memorable because of two things: the linking through rhyme of “ever” and “never,” which are opposite in meaning, and the image that the middle line summons of figures standing half in water, half on land, surely a perfect metaphor for indecisiveness. It reminds me of the lines in the old folk song, “House of the Rising Sun”: “Well it’s one foot on the platform / And the other foot on the train.”
“Now you’re telling me / You’re not nostalgic / Then give me another word for it”
This is from Joan Baez’s song “Diamonds and Rust.” That’s a terrific zinger at the end, but by itself that line probably isn’t enough and including the setup makes it a little clunky. But this song is just full of great lines, so maybe something else would work.
“Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe / And to love you”
This is from the song “The Air That I Breathe” by the Hollies, who probably couldn’t be accused of having a poetic bone in their body during their 60s heyday, and yet still found this early-70s gem, which really pings the best line meter. Note how it’s realistically conditional: sometimes, not always or forever. For those struggling to write about love in a song, this is how you do it. Just don’t spend almost two minutes getting to the chorus the way the Hollies do, risking a nomination for the E.B. Browning enumeration award.
So much for lines about relationships. How about some great lines about what Bob Dylan calls “life, and life only”?
“[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”
This is from the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. Is it odd that Shakespeare the actor and playwright has Macbeth, who has nothing to do with the stage, describe life as a play? It reminds me of the engineer narrator and his dentist in Günter Grass’s 1969 novel, Local Anaesthetic, who view the world in terms of their respective occupations. William Faulkner took the title of his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury from these lines, as well as inspiration for the point of view of the novel’s first section, which is narrated by a mentally disabled man.
“Hope is the thing with feathers”
After the bleakness of Macbeth’s speech, this line from Emily Dickinson’s well-known poem sounds quite cheerful. Hope as a bird that survives even the storms of life feels like a fairly ordinary metaphor, but where Dickinson shines is how she describes ordinary things with such originality. Instead of beginning with “Hope is like a bird” or “Hope sings its little song,” as a lesser poet might, she starts out telling us that hope has feathers.
“I read the news today, oh boy”
This line that John Lennon sings in the Beatles’ song “A Day In The Life” is a good example of how they mixed plain-looking lyrics with sophisticated music, thus ensuring that this avant-garde song remained accessible to their fans.
And finally, some lines about the self.
“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
That’s from the final part 52 of Walt Whitman’s long poem “Song of Myself.” This is typical of Whitman’s embrace of himself as rugged individual. Incidentally, “yawp” had been around in English for centuries, yet his use of it is fresh, perfectly suggesting the sound he wants us to hear.
“I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
That’s from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In contrast to Whitman’s point of view, Eliot’s lines sound very 20th century, the speaker anxious, maybe depressed, even if the rhyme makes you smile. Eliot was only a college student when he wrote the first draft of this poem, but his speaker sounds so much older.
© 10 Franks 2022