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What is an Epigram? Famous Poetry Example

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

EPIGRAM, properly speaking, anything that is inscribed. Nothing could be more hopeless, however, than an attempt to discover or devise a definition wide enough to include the vast multitude of little poems which at one time or other have been honoured with the title of epigram, and precise enough to exclude all others. Without taking account of its evident misapplications, we find that the name has been given—first, in strict accordance with its Greek etymology, to any actual inscription on monument, statue or building; secondly, to verses never intended for such a purpose, but assuming for artistic reasons the epigraphical form; thirdly, to verses expressing with something of the terseness of an inscription a striking or beautiful thought; and fourthly, by unwarrantable restriction, to a little poem ending in a “point,” especially of the satirical kind. The last of these has obtained considerable popularity from the well-known lines—

“The qualities rare in a bee that we meet

In an epigram never should fail;

The body should always be little and sweet,

And a sting should be left in its tail”—

which represent the older Latin of some unknown writer—

“Omne epigramma sit instar apis: sit aculeus illi;

Sint sua mella; sit et corporis exigui.”

Attempts not a few of a more elaborate kind have been made to state the essential element of the epigram, and to classify existing specimens; but, as every lover of epigrams must feel, most of them have been attended with very partial success. Scaliger, in the third book of his Poetics, gives a fivefold division, which displays a certain ingenuity in the nomenclature but is very superficial: the first class takes its name from mel, or honey, and consists of adulatory specimens; the second from fel, or gall; the third from acetum, or vinegar; and the fourth from sal, or salt; while the fifth is styled the condensed, or multiplex. This classification is adopted by Nicolaus Mercerius in his De conscribendo epigrammate (Paris, 1653); but he supplemented it by another of much more scientific value, based on the figures of the ancient rhetoricians. Lessing, in the preface to his own epigrams, gives an interesting treatment of the theory, his principal doctrine being practically the same as that of several of his less eminent predecessors, that there ought to be two parts more or less clearly distinguished,—the first awakening the reader’s attention in the same way as an actual monument might do, and the other satisfying his curiosity in some unexpected manner. An attempt was made by Herder to increase the comprehensiveness and precision of the theory; but as he himself confesses, his classification is rather vague—the expository, the paradigmatic, the pictorial, the impassioned, the artfully turned, the illusory, and the swift. After all, if the arrangement according to authorship be rejected, the simplest and most satisfactory is according to subjects. The epigram is one of the most catholic of literary forms, and lends itself to the expression of almost any feeling or thought. It may be an elegy, a satire, or a love-poem in miniature, an embodiment of the wisdom of the ages, a bon-mot set off with a couple of rhymes.

“I cannot tell thee who lies buried here;

No man that knew him followed by his bier;

The winds and waves conveyed him to this shore,

Then ask the winds and waves to tell thee more.”


“Wherefore should I vainly try

To teach thee what my love will be

In after years, when thou and I

Have both grown old in company,

If words are vain to tell thee how,

Mary, I do love thee now?”


“O Bruscus, cease our aching ears to vex,

With thy loud railing at the softer sex;

No accusation worse than this could be,

That once a woman did give birth to thee.”


“Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason?

For if it prospers none dare call it treason.”


“Ward has no heart they say, but I deny it;

He has a heart, and gets his speeches by it.”


From its very brevity there is no small danger of the epigram passing into childish triviality: the paltriest pun, a senseless anagram, is considered stuff enough and to spare. For proof of this there is unfortunately no need to look far; but perhaps the reader could not find a better collection ready to his hand than the second twenty-five of the Epigrammatum centuriae of Samuel Erichius; by the time he reaches No. 11 of the 47th century, he will be quite ready to grant the appropriateness of the identity maintained between the German Seele, or soul, and the German Esel, or ass.

Of the epigram as cultivated by the Greeks an account is given in the article Anthology, discussing those wonderful collections which bid fair to remain the richest of their kind. The delicacy and simplicity of so much of what has been preserved is perhaps their most striking feature; and one cannot but be surprised at the number of poets proved capable of such work. In Latin literature, on the other hand, the epigrammatists whose work has been preserved are comparatively few, and though several of them, as Catullus and Martial, are men of high literary genius, too much of what they have left behind is vitiated by brutality and obscenity. On the subsequent history of the epigram, indeed, Martial has exercised an influence as baneful as it is extensive, and he may fairly be counted the far-off progenitor of a host of scurrilous verses. Nearly all the learned Latinists of the 16th and 17th centuries may claim admittance into the list of epigrammatists,—Bembo and Scaliger, Buchanan and More, Stroza and Sannazaro. Melanchthon, who succeeded in combining so much of Pagan culture with his Reformation Christianity, has left us some graceful specimens, but his editor, Joannes Major Joachimus, has so little idea of what an epigram is, that he includes in his collection some translations from the Psalms. The Latin epigrams of Étienne Pasquier were among the most admirable which the Renaissance produced in France. John Owen, or, as he Latinized his name, Johannes Audoenus, a Cambro-Briton, attained quite an unusual celebrity in this department, and is regularly distinguished as Owen the Epigrammatist. The tradition of the Latin epigram has been kept alive in England by such men as Porson, Vincent Bourne and Walter Savage Landor. Happily there is now little danger of any too personal epigrammatist suffering the fate of Niccolo Franco, who paid the forfeit of his life for having launched his venomous Latin against Pius V., though he may still incur the milder penalty of having his name inserted in the Index Expurgatorius, and find, like John Owen, that he consequently has lost an inheritance.

In English literature proper there is no writer like Martial in Latin or Logau in German, whose fame is entirely due to his epigrams; but several even of those whose names can perish never have not disdained this diminutive form. The designation epigram, however, is used by earlier English writers with excessive laxity, and given or withheld without apparent reason. 691The epigrams of Robert Crowley (1550) and of Henry Parrot (1613) are worthless so far as form goes. John Weever’s collection (1599) is of interest mainly because of its allusion to Shakespeare. Ben Jonson furnishes a number of noble examples in his Underwoods; and one or two of Spenser’s little poems and a great many of Herrick’s are properly classed as epigrams. Cowley, Waller, Dryden, Prior, Parnell, Swift, Addison, Johnson, Goldsmith and Young have all been at times successful in their epigrammatical attempts; but perhaps none of them has proved himself so much “to the manner born” as Pope, whose name indeed is almost identified with the epigrammatical spirit in English literature. Few English modern poets have followed in his footsteps, and though nearly all might plead guilty to an epigram or two, there is no one who has a distinct reputation as an epigrammatist. Such a reputation might certainly have been Landor’s, had he not chosen to write the best of his minor poems in Latin, and thus made his readers nearly as select as his language.

The French are undoubtedly the most successful cultivators of the “salt” and the “vinegar” epigram; and from the 16th century downwards many of their principal authors have earned no small celebrity in this department. The epigram was introduced into French literature by Mellin de St Gelais and Clément Marot. It is enough to mention the names of Boileau, J.B. Rousseau, Lebrun, Voltaire, Marmontel, Piron, Rulhière, and M.J. Chénier. In spite of Rapin’s dictum that a man ought to be content if he succeeded in writing one really good epigram, those of Lebrun alone number upwards of 600, and a very fair proportion of them would doubtless pass muster even with Rapin himself. If Piron was never anything better, “pas même académicien,” he appears at any rate in Grimm’s phrase to have been “une machine à saillies, à épigrammes, et à bons mots.” Perhaps more than anywhere else the epigram has been recognized in France as a regular weapon in literary and political contests, and it might not be altogether a hopeless task to compile an epigrammatical history from the Revolution to the present time.

While any fair collection of German epigrams will furnish examples that for keenness of wit would be quite in place in a French anthology, the Teutonic tendency to the moral and didactic has given rise to a class but sparingly represented in French. The very name of Sinngedichte bears witness to this peculiarity, which is exemplified equally by the rude priameln or proeameln, of the 13th and 14th centuries and the polished lines of Goethe and Schiller. Logau published his Deutsche Sinngetichte Drey Tausend in 1654, and Wernicke no fewer than six volumes of Ueberschriften oder Epigrammata in 1697; Kästner’s Sinngedichte appeared in 1782, and Haug and Weissen’s Epigrammatische Anthologie in 1804. Kleist, Opitz, Gleim, Hagedorn, Klopstock and A.W. Schlegel all possess some reputation as epigrammatists; Lessing is facile princeps in the satirical style; and Herder has the honour of having enriched his language with much of what is best from Oriental and classical sources.

It is often by no means easy to trace the history of even a single epigram, and the investigator soon learns to be cautious of congratulating himself on the attainment of a genuine original. The same point, refurbished and fitted anew to its tiny shaft, has been shot again and again by laughing cupids or fierce-eyed furies in many a frolic and many a fray. During the period when the epigram was the favourite form in Germany, Gervinus tells us how the works, not only of the Greek and Roman writers, but of Neo-Latinists, Spaniards, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Englishmen and Poles were ransacked and plundered; and the same process of pillage has gone on in a more or less modified degree in other times and countries. Very noticeable often are the modifications of tone and expression occasioned by national and individual characteristics; the simplicity of the prototype may become common-place in the imitation, the sublime be distorted into the grotesque, the pathetic degenerate into the absurdly sentimental; or on the other hand, an unpromising motif may be happily developed into unexpected beauty. A good illustration of the variety with which the same epigram may be translated and travestied is afforded by a little volume published in Edinburgh in 1808, under the title of Lucubrations on the Epigram—

Ε? μ?ν ?ν μαθε?ν ? δε? παθε?ν,

κα? μ? παθε?ν, καλ?ν ?ν τ? μαθε?ν

ε? δ? δε? παθε?ν ? δ? ?ν μαθε?ν,

τ? δε? μαθε?ν; χρ? γ?ρ παθε?ν.

The two collections of epigrams most accessible to the English reader are Booth’s Epigrams, Ancient and Modern (1863) and Dodd’s The Epigrammatists (1870). In the appendix to the latter is a pretty full bibliography, to which the following list may serve as a supplement:—Thomas Corraeus, De toto eo poëmatis genere quod epigramma dicitur (Venice, 1569; Bologna, 1590); Cottunius, De conficiendo epigrammate (Bologna, 1632); Vincentius Gallus, Opusculum de epigrammate (Milan, 1641); Vavassor, De epigrammate liber (Paris, 1669); Gedanke von deutschen Epigrammatibus (Leipzig, 1698); Doctissimorum nostra aetate Italorum epigrammata; Flaminii Moleae Naugerii, Cottae, Lampridii, Sadoleti, et aliorum, cura Jo. Gagnaei (Paris, c. 1550); Brugière de Barante, Recueil des plus belles épigrammes des poètes français (2 vols., Paris, 1698); Chr. Aug. Heumann, Anthologia Latina: hoc est, epigrammata partim a priscis partim junioribus a poëtis (Hanover, 1721); Fayolle, Acontologie ou dictionnaire d’épigrammes (Paris, 1817); Geijsbeck, Epigrammatische Anthologie, Sauvage, Les Guêpes gauloises: petit encyclopédie des meilleurs épigrammes, &c., depuis Clément Marot jusqu’aux poètes de nos jours (1859); La Récréation et passe-temps des tristes: recueil d’épigrammes et de petits contes en vers réimprimé sur l’édition de Rouen 1595, &c. (Paris, 1863). A large number of epigrams and much miscellaneous information in regard to their origin, application and translation is scattered through Notes and Queries.

See also an article in The Quarterly Review, No. 233.

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