“You ask how I, who could converse
With Pericles, can stoop to worse:
How I, who once had higher aims,
Can trifle so with epigrams.
I would not lose the wise from view,
But would amuse the children too;
Besides, my breath is short and weak,
And few must be the words I speak.”
The epigrammatic impulse (“my breath is short”) is precisely the opposite of the gigantism that stunted so much poetry in the twentieth century (Pound, Crane, Olson, Williams, Berryman). Epigrammatists tend to be proud of their concision and prickliness. There is an epigrammatic temperament, testy and precise. Here is Landor’s “Trash”:
“I have thrown more behind the grate
Than would have bought a fair estate.
And I might readily have sold
My drops of ink for grains of gold.
A bladder sounds with peas within,
Boys shake it and enjoy the din:
There is some poetry that bears
Its likeness, made for boyish ears.”
And one more from Landor, “Preferences of the Herd”:
“Jonson to Shakespeare was preferr’d
By the bell-jingling low-brow’d herd,
Cowley to Milton. Who would mind
The stumbles of the lame and mind?
We may regret their sad estate,
But can not make them amble strait.”
One of the most polished and savage of our recent writers of epigrams was the late Turner Cassity. In 1990, he published “The Undeceived,” an essay devoted to the master Roman epigrammist, Marcus Valerius Martialis – Martial for short -- in Chicago Review. If you have access to JSTOR or a good library, read the whole thing. If not, here’s a taste:
“If Martial is minor we had better re-define major, and I for one am perfectly willing to. Martial offers no vision, advances no program, embodies no archetype. He hoots at philosophy, is too uninterested in religion even to mock it, mocks at love, enjoys violence, ignores landscape, refuses to sentimentalize sex. He flatters the Emperor Domitian in the exact spirit and in the exact degree of honesty with which present day academics fill out grant applications. He understands the social and behavioral dimensions of money better than any writer before Edith Wharton, his fellow in pornography; he penetrates further into the mystery of death than anyone before or since, stripping away veil after veil to reveal it as, finally, the handmaiden of inheritance. What he gives us, stunningly undiminished across nineteen hundred years and the barriers of a language embalmed, is self-recognition. The Romans were not like us: they were us. Now that our own era, so far out of the closet and so close to Elagabalus, can no longer plead his obscenity, we shall have to come to terms with him.”
And this: “Martial's concision has been a brake on his reputation as on his translators. Criticism tends to equate brevity with triviality, and in nine out of ten literary eras it is flatulence that carries the day. Epigrams will never have the attention epics have, inflating the racial consciousness being outside their scope.”