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Famous First Words

“All those routines!/And unhappiness can be alike.”

All happy families are alike

but an unhappy family is

unhappy after its own fashion.


It’s a famous opening, often

quoted with a nod of approval

as though incontrovertibly true.


“How profound!” we murmur. “Tolstoy knew.”

Did he? Family happiness, too,

can take such very different forms.


What makes you happy wouldn’t work for us

and vice versa. All those routines!

And unhappiness can be alike.


Ask Coleridge: “A grief without a pang,

void, dark, and drear…” Familiar?

All that tiptoeing on eggshells, tensed


for ambush, anger, blackmail. Those words

the years can never excoriate;

those actions never to be undone.


So, that opening: could it not have been

a reader-tease? A Tolstoyan riddle

only our own living can unravel?.


Harry Ricketts is a poet, biographer, editor, and essayist. Born and brought up in England, he lives in Wellington, Aotearoa, New Zealand, where he taught for many years in the English program at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. 

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