First Lines and Sheep

By: Dennis Bates

“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 directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”

I never get tired of reading that paragraph. It is, of course, the opening paragraph of “A Tale of Two Cities,” written by Charles Dickens. It breaks a lot of the modern day rules of good writing. For example, it is far too long, and it’s all one sentence. It uses semicolons, but worst of all, it uses “was”, past tense of “is.” How totally shameful. Obviously, that Dickens fellow didn’t know that all forms of  the infinitive “to be,” are not used in good writing.

I had one well meaning writer tell me once that Dickens could never get published today because of those obvious defects in his writing. I didn’t have the heart to tell the person that books by Dickens still appear everywhere in bookstores, classrooms and private libraries 150 years after they were written.

To me, that paragraph sets the tone for the entire book, and isn’t that what a first sentence of any good piece of writing should do? I think so.

Another of my favorite first lines comes from the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Back in the day when we still had to do such things, I memorized that Psalm along with all the other people my age so we could qualify for adult membership in our church. I remember how even then I loved everything about that single line.

It set the tone for the relatively short number of lines that followed, but it always brought peace to me, even if I only read that line.

My grandparents kept a few sheep in a small pasture behind their house. One summer when they were away for a while, my mother, my younger brother and I stayed in my grandparents house and watched those sheep.

Don’t believe all the stories about being able to lead sheep anywhere. They aren’t entirely true. Almost every day at least one of those sheep managed to get out of the fenced in pasture. Sometimes they all did. My grandparent’s house sat on the edge of a small town and a busy highway went along side of it. For some reason, the sheep liked to go there as soon as they escaped. I don’t know what worried my mother more: having one of the sheep struck by a car or seeing my brother and I chasing those sheep off the highway.

Still, in spite of their bad habits, sheep can be very docile and they seem to do better when they know there is somebody like a shepherd there watching them, taking care of them, and ready to get them out of trouble. It is enough for them to see the shepherd in the area and hear his voice. They don’t need much else to remain calm.

That’s what I like about the first line of the 23rd Psalm. It reminds me of that summer at my grandparent’s house. It’s enough just to lie contentedly in a nice, green pasture knowing that my Shepherd is there, and He will always come get me off the highway when I wander away.

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2 Responses to First Lines and Sheep

  1. alvin kibaru says:

    right on point brother!!
    its very like me to wander,from right now i am going to listen when the shepherd hollers ……naaah…..when he smiles and looks at me knowingly when i am about to dip my hand in the cookie jar

    Obrigado……………mea obrigado!

    alvin kibaru
    Kenya

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