Epigram Essay Criticism

Epigram Essay Criticism-37
Space on a pedestal being at a premium, and stone being by nature unforgiving, this was no medium for those who lacked the courage of their concision.Expressive skill was thus in the purest sense an exercise in technical discipline, and those of us without a scrap of Greek must take the classicists’ word for it that the metrical sophistication of the elegiac couplet as it emerged in the chiseled scansion of this pre-Hellenistic period represents a triumph of poetic economy and measured pathos such as has never been improved upon.(“For the Spartan Dead at Thermopylai”—translated by Peter Jay) Simonides, many sources assure us, had no peer when it came to this sort of thing; and so much in demand were his cenotaph-worthy sentiments that he could get away with writing memorial inscriptions for both the Athenians and the Spartans, who died at one another’s throats in the siege of Plataia in 479 BCE.

Space on a pedestal being at a premium, and stone being by nature unforgiving, this was no medium for those who lacked the courage of their concision.

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And so it was that by the Alexandrian era the Greek epigram had passed from its stone age to its golden, no longer confined to graven tombs and votive rites but fully vested in the enterprise of literature.

The restrained formal style of the sepulchral couplet gave way to hard, gemlike flames of lyric feeling, poems intimate in tone, subjective in attitude, and eclectic in theme.

Here we have it, fittingly encapsulated by the arch-Romantic himself: the epigram’s concision equated with dwarfishness and, by invidious implication, arrested development, demoted once and for all to the sideshow status of a jest.

Here we have, you might even say, an epitaph for the verse epigram, or at least for its former stature: Whatever it was or might have been to poets of ages past, it was henceforth to be regarded as a trivial pursuit, well and good as a diversion for aspish wags or an exercise for grubby schoolboys, but a genre beneath the station of the serious, questing imagination. In the beginning an epigram an epitaph—literally, an inscription, an elegiac couplet engraved on the base of a Hellenic tomb.

The earliest Greek metrical inscriptions are said to date to the 8th century BCE, and there is evidence that as early as the Homeric era this form of commemorative verse had come to be governed by highly stylized conventions.

If you were a traveller on the roads of ancient Greece, such votive captions might well have been as familiar a sight as franchise neon on today’s interstates, for many were commissioned specifically for wayside tombstones, and clearly intended for public consumption.

It was customary for these archaic epigrams to employ the artifice of the dead man directly addressing passersby with a laconic utterance of the utmost gravity and restraint, a terse reflection on life’s brevity and man’s fate.

Austerity was naturally a practical imperative as well.

This is the branch of the epigrammatic family that has flourished over the last few centuries—the aphorism and the maxim, the proverbial saw and the Bartlett’s chestnut, the crack and the jibe, the comeback and the put-down.

“Either this wallpaper goes or I do,” Wilde is said to have said on his deathbed, and whether he did or not is almost immaterial.


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