« PreviousContinue »
made their religion not only a beautiful poetic fiction, but a reality to themselves, evidence of which is sought in vain in the merely voluptuous worship of the Romans. The epigram is on a statue of Venus on the sea-shore (Jacobs I. 131, v., translated by Bland):
Cythera from this craggy steep
Awed by the smile of Beauty's Queen.
Dexionica, with a limed thread,
And shed a sweet tear from my silent eyes ! The Greeks, whatever the theme of their epigrams, were always most happy, when Nature in its varied forms or the natural objects around them supplied their similitudes, and pointed their aspirations. The struggling bird seeking pity from Dexionica, affords the illustration of the state of the lover, enthralled in the chains of beauty. Could he excite compassion by his tears, as the bird by its cries, he might have hope, for near akin to pity is love in every maiden's breast. Such a similitude would be far from the thoughts of a modern. He would scorn the homely idea, forgetting that the nearer the writer is to nature the nearer always he is to truth, and that simplicity is the best guarantee for fidelity.
The date of the latest of the authors quoted is previous to B.c. 200. At this early period scarcely any epigrams of a sarcastic character are to be found. Nothing was required to constitute a Greek epigram but brevity and unity of thought. There is no point, such as is found in
modern times. Hence it is, that these refined verses have gained little favour with those whose vitiated taste is pleased with such epigrams as the quatrain describes:
The qualities rare in a bee that we meet,
In an epigram never should fail :
And a sting should be left in its tail. The author of the Dissertation on Epigrammatic Writing," in the “ Collection of Epigrams," 1735, says of the Greek epigrams: “ They are only capable of giving pleasure to very delicate tastes, by a natural and elegant expression ; now and then a pleasing hyperbole, or an ingenious anti. thesis, may be found in them, which is the most they can ever pretend to: we are not to seek for point in them; good sense, and pure language, somewhat raised abové ordinary conversation, are all that are necessary to constitute a Greek epigram. But the moderns will not allow these any share of perfection; the French wits call any insipid copy of verses, Epigramme à la Grecque.'” This cold praise suited the days in which it was written. But even the French wits, if they had deigned to examine the Anthology with any attention, might have found some epigrams more to their taste in the latter part. Lucian and Lucillius and those who came after them, though they penned many pieces which show all the grace and beauty of an earlier period, fell often into sarcasms and strained conceits, which contrast unfavourably with the simple style of their predecessors. Even the worst of modern epigrams is scarcely inferior to one by Lucian (Jacobs III. 23, x., translated by Bland):
You feed so fast-and run so very slow
Eat with your legs, and with your grinders go! Ammianus lowered himself by writing with silly humour on long noses (Jacobs III, 95, xv., translated by Major Macgregor):
Proclus' hand can never wipe his nose ;
Yet the same author could compose as beautiful an epigram as any of those of an earlier date. So, Palladas could be satirical upon women (Jacobs III. 115, vi., translated by Merivale):
All wives are bad-yet two blest hours they give,
When first they wed, and when they cease to live. And yet he penned some of the finest and most touching epigrams in the Anthology. Witness the following on Life (Jacobs III. 141, cxxviii., translated by Bland):
Waking, we burst, at each return of morn,
Unfortunately the noblest and purest epigrams of the Greek writers exercised very little influence on the Roman Epigrammatists. Refined simplicity was unsuited to the court of the Cæsars. Flattery and satire were necessary to the satiated palates of the emperors, who set the fashion to their subjects, and thus caused a change to be wrought in the character of the ancient epigram. Many pieces of great beauty are found in the Latin Anthology, but few of these are original ; they are translations from the Greek. Of the small number of Latin Epigrammatists of any note Martial is the chief. So great an effect have his writings had on modern authors, that it is of importance to examine the character of his epigrams, and the cause and result of his influence.
Martial wrote for bread, and he consequently formed his style in accordance with the tastes of those, whose patronage was in a pecuniary sense the most valuable. Flattery of the Emperor Domitian and of the wealthy men of Rome, satirical abuse of those who were out of favour at court, and indecent pandering to the vile lusts of an unchaste people, form the staple of his writings. He could, and occasionally did, compose epigrams in a very different strain, which show how nobly he might have followed in the steps of the Greeks, had he preferred high poetic fame to mere popular applause. The following, “ On Demetrius," is an example of his better style (Book I. 102, translated by Elphinston, with slight alteration):
That hand, to all my labours once so true,
And went a freeman to eternal rest. But in the fifteen hundred epigrams which Martial has left, the gems are few and far between. They lie hid amid a mass of servility, scurrility, indecency, and puerility. Examples of the worst kind cannot be given, but the following will serve to show the character of a large portion of bis writings. The first is a specimen of his gross flattery of Domitian (Book VIII, 54, translated by Elphinston):
Much tho' thou still bestow, and promise more ;
Tho' lord of leaders, of thyself, thou be:
But the rewards adore for love of thee.
In the following, on Gellia, we see his scurrilous personality (Book I. 34, translated by Hay):
Her father dead !-Alone, no grief she knows;
But he who mourns in secret, mourns indeed ! Puerility reaches its climax in the two next (Book 1. 29, translated by Relph):
Of yesterday's debauch he smells, you say:
"Tis false— Acerra plied it till to-day. (Book I. 101, translated by Graves):
Tho' papa and mamma, my dear,
So prettily you call,
The grand-m:mma of all. As the father of the modern pointed epigram, Martial holds a place which gives him renown. The Romans required stronger food than the simple Greeks, and to point bis verse with a sting, provided it did not touch a worthless emperor or a pampered favourite, Martial found to be the most effectual way to gain by his muse. He declared, indeed, that he was careful
To lash the vices, but the persons spare ;
but his practice was the very reverse of this : to vice he was lenient, but he failed not to lash those whom he dared to insult. His writings display no principle. For truth and purity he had no care. To ingratiate himself with a patron by flattery, and to punish by pointed satire those who offended him, satisfied his aspirations; and thus his talents, which were undoubtedly great, were employed for the most unworthy objects, and lost to all noble uses.
The pointed and satirical form of Martial's epigrams may be considered the chief cause of the influence which he has exercised over modern wiiters. The wit of a point is attractive, and if the body of an epigram be never so wanting in wisdom, it passes current for the humour of its close. In satire there is a fascination which few can resist, and which gives pleasure in proportion to its keenness. The polished man of the world enjoys the delicate sarcasm of the finished poet. The unthinking multitude applaud the coarse humour of the inferior satirist. The subjects, too, of Martial's epigrams insured him imitators amongst a large class of writers. Servility towards the wealthy and the powerful will exist so long as flattery is pleasant to their ears; and that will be until the rich man is never a fool, and the fool is never conceited. Scurrility will give pleasure to the sordid and the base so long as envy, hatred, and malice hold their place in the human heart; and that will be until epigrams shall be no more. Puerility will delight the brainless and the idle, so long as witless men