Page images
PDF
EPUB

grams in name, but they have not the ancient mark of epigrammatic writing. They are like the cankered blossom of a noble tree upon which the blight has settled.

Towards the close of the eighteenth century epigramwriting declined. The finer ancient models had been gradually more and more neglected. Loose satire and personal invective had become its chief characteristics ; and men of taste saw in its modern style nothing that was noble, everything that was debasing. Sunk into vicious imbecility, it lost all claim to respect. Fallen from respect, even the few who strove to retain for it a position of honour, were powerless to save it from degradation. One man stands prominently forward, to whom must be accorded the unenviable distinction of doing more than any other to de base our lighter poetic literature With the knowledge and the power which enabled him to vie with some of the best epigram-writers, as is shown by a few of his pieces, Dr. Wolcot (Peter Pindar) prostituted his talents to the most virulent satire and the lowest lampoons. The following personal epigram, published in his Works, 1812, is a specimen of his gross vulgarity. “ To Lady Mount Edgcumbe, on the Death of her Pig, Cupid":

Oh dry that tear, so round and big;

Nor waste in sighs your precious wind !
Death only takes a single pig :

Your lord and son are still behind. Men, however, there have always been who, even in the worst times, have written with purity and taste, and to their epigrammatic writings the appeal must be made against any general denunciation of that style of literature. In the present day there are signs of a reaction. Satire is no longer considered necessary to the epigram, nor is Martial allowed the high rank he has hitherto held. Translations of the purest Greek epigrams are becoming popular, and the national taste is showing satisfactory evidence that it appreciates the beauty of the ancient inscriptions. Supply will follow the demand, and Epigrammatists may be expected to arise, who will follow in the steps of those who in past times made Simonides and Plato, Leonidas and Meleager, their models.

The declension of epigram-writing is much to be lamented. For two reasons in particular.

First, as a loss in a literary point of view. There is no class of poetry which displays more prominently the taste and skill of the poet. It is far from being an easy style in which to gain proficiency; and therefore it is one which tests the merit of the writer. It is, moreover, a style which requires peculiar adaptation to the work; one in which many a true poet may fail, while another, incapable of producing a continuous poem, may admirably succeed. Cowper was a man of real poetic power, but he was a poor Epigrammatist. Dr. Jortin takes no rank as a poet, but the few epigrams he has left are of singular beauty. A talent is thus lost; powers which exist are untried ; and the world is deprived of enjoyment, which might be conferred by the development of a capacity for epigram-writing. Again, the terseness required in an epigram is of great use for the acquisition of elegance in general literature and conversation. This is well put by Graves in his essay in the “Festoon ": " Young people might receive the same advantage to their style in writing, and to their manner of expressing themselves in conversation, from being accustomed to the force and conciseness peculiar to an epigram, as it is allowed they generally do, to their way of thinking and reasoning, from the close method of argumentation essential to mathematical writings." The composition of Latin epigrams is retained as an exercise in some of our schools, Westminster in particular; and the prizes established at Cambridge by the eccentric physician and scholar, Sir William Browne, for Greek and Latin epigrams, keep up the habit in that University. If it be advantageous for boys and young men to write graceful Latin epigrams for the promotion of terse classical composition, it must be also advantageous to write English epigrams with the same object in reference to their native language. English epigram-writing was formerly common among schoolboys, and many of our greatest poets and wits tried their powers as Epigrammatists, whilst they played at Eton or at Westminster, or musingly sauntered on the banks of the Isis or the Cam.

Secondly, the declension of epigram-writing is to be lamented as a loss in an historical and national point of view. Epigrammatic literature displays national history. The various turns of events, as they quickly pass, are caught and, as it were, photographed in the epigrams of the day; and minor circumstances, which may eventually enable the historian to discover the small causes of great changes, are chronicled in a serious distich or a witty quatrain. It reflects, too, the national mind. The characteristics of the time; the temperament, manners, and habits of the people are portrayed. “The great writer of each particular period,” says the author of an article on the “Life of Bentley,” in the 46th volume of the “ Quarterly Review,” “is the image and representative of the state of the public mind during his own age. The popular poet embodies the passions and feelings of his time; he is the perpetual record of the tone of thought, of taste, of imaginative excitement prevalent in his own country and during his own day. . . . . There is always a strong reciprocal action and reaction of the popular mind on the literature, as well as of the literature on the public mind; it is at once an exciting cause and the living expression of the events, the manners, the character of each separate period of history.” True as this is of poets in general, especially is it true of Epigrammatists. Authors of this class have, from the earliest times, not only been affected by the passions and feelings of the people, but have worked upon those feelings, and directed their course. This is seen most distinctly in the Greek epigram-writers. The warlike character of his countrymen is reflected in the soul-stirring inscriptions of Simonides, and none can doubt the effect which those burning words must have had in rousing the martial spirit of the people to yet greater deeds of glory. In later times we view the decay of Greek prowess in the silence of the Epigrammatists on warlike themes. Love and wine are the subjects of their verse, as marrying and giving in marriage and convivial entertainments were the chief care of the people in the days of their national humiliation. So, in Roman times, when, amidst excessive luxury and effeminate pleasures, the ruin of the empire was slowly but surely advancing, we see

in the conviviality and the lewdness of the epigrams of Petronius Arbiter, a reflection of the manners of his countrymen, sunk in debauchery and sloth; and we cannot doubt that the vices were aided by the vicious teaching of the poet.

In modern times the same effects may be observed. The reaction from Puritanism is displayed in the epigrams of the reign of Charles II., and the passions excited by the Revolution are strongly reflected in those of the reign of William III. The decline of epigrammatic literature at the time when Napoleon was devastating Europe, makes any reference to that period of more doubtful import: but even the inferior epigrams written during the war, which may be found in abundance in such works as the “Spirit of the Public Journals," display decided evidence of the influence of popular feeling on these productions, though it can hardly be supposed that epigrams of so low a class, and of such halting numbers, can have had much effect on the passions of the people. But if epigrammatic literature should rise again from its low estate, and take once more its place in the high ranks of poetry, we may expect that it will again exercise a legitimate power, and stir the public sentiment. The purer its character, the holier will be its influence; the nobler its sentiments, the more beneficial will be its results. Should domestic troubles come, it will inspire loyal and patriotic aspirations. Should war be sent to scourge us, it will incite to valour.

THE EPIGRAMMATISTS.

GREEK EPIGRAMMATISTS.

B.C. 690-A.D. 530.

ARCHILOCHUS. Flourished B.C. 690. He was born in the Isle of Paros, and in his youth emigrated to Thasos. It is said that the Lacedæmonians laid a prohibition on his verses on account of their immorality. His humour was malevolent, and his habit of raillery and abuse made him many enemies. ON THE LOSS OF HIS SHIELD (Jacobs I. 41, iii.).

Translated by Merivale.
The foeman glories in my shield-
I left it on the battle field;
I threw it down beside the wood,
Un-cath'd by scars, unstain'd with blood.
And let him glory! Since, from death
Escap'd, I keep my forfeit breath,
I soon may find, at little cost,

As good a shield as that I've lost. Archilochus, who threw away his shield, and thus endeavours to put a fair face upon his cowardice, seems to have held the view of the man of peace, whom Massinger makes to say (“ The Picture, " Act I. sc. 2, :

This military art
I grant to be the noblest of professions ;
And yet (I thank my stars for 't) I was never
Inclin'd to learn it, since this bubble honour
(Which is, indeed, the nothing soldiers fight for,
With the loss of limbs or life) is in my judginent
Too dear a purchase.

« PreviousContinue »