Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

ON EPIGRAMS.

The attention of general readers has been so long and so exclusively confined to the higher and more celebrated creations of genius, that to expect them to divert it willingly to humbler and more unpretending productions, appears in some degree an idle hope. Men are disposed to estimate things by their outward and visible forms, rather than their real and essential excellence. The eye which has been attracted and dazzled by the magnificence of some splendid palace, turns reluctantly to the lowly and unobtrusive beauty of a retired cottage. To some such mistaken and exclusive feeling may we chiefly ascribe the neglect into which what was once a distinct and pleasing branch of literature has fallen. The ordinary student considers an epigram as the vehicle of some low and ignoble witticism—some malicious personality, or the poor conveyance of a pún. If this sort of composition had never aimed at higher objects, it would have deserved the contempt it has received; but whoever is familiar with the literature of antiquity, will acknowledge, that amongst the Greek epigrams are to be found some of the sweetest flowers which genius has scattered in its flight to immortality.

In this book-making age, when few things are deemed too sacred or . too worthless for publicity, and still fewer which deserve to be made public, are left in obscurity, it seems somewhat strange that the ambitious enterprise of our poetical aspirants should have suffered that capacious storehouse of poetry, the Greek Anthologies, to remain so long unexplored. Occasionally, at distant intervals, some tasteful scholar has felt and imitated their beauty, and too often without acknowledgment; but it is only lately that they have been pointed out to the English reader as worthy of his study and admiration. Cumberland, in his admirable essays on the Greek drama, (in the Observer) first recommended them to general attention, with some happy translations ; and within a few years Mr. Bland has published a volume of selections from the Anthology, many of which are rendered with very great success. As the subject is still new to many of our readers, it may not be uninteresting briefly to trace the progress, and at the same time cite some of the more characteristic specimens of epigrammatic writing, from its origin to our times.

The word epigram, as is manifest, means nothing more than a simple inscription, originally affixed to religious offerings ; afterwards it was written on the gate of the Temple, and by a gradual and easy transition, passed to other edifices of a public character-to statues of gods and heroes, and all who had distinguished themselves by their patriotism, courage, or virtue. The name was at first applied without distinction to inscriptions in verse or prose; and the old historians furnish many examples of the latter. Legislators and philosophers soon employed it to convey any political or moral precept which they wished to impress strongly ; as from its brevity it might be more easily remembered. Finally, an epigram came to signify, amongst the Greeks, any short piece of poetry which conveyed a single idea, or expressed a single feeling; and what at first was nothing more than the naked communication of a fact, acquired in the end a recognized and respectable station in literature. Those who are unacquainted with this class of ancient

poetry, will form erroneous notions of its character, if they take the
French and English epigrams, or even most of those of Martial and
Ausonius, for their guide. A modern epigram is a short production,
containing some conceit of thought, or play upon words, and generally
of a satirical cast. Its inventors, however, never used it as a medium
of satire or pun; and very rarely, and only in the decline of Grecian
taste, of conceit. In their lighter convivial epigrams, the thought is
generally of a melancholy cast—a reflection on the shortness of life,
the transitoriness of our enjoyments, or some admonition against
the frailties of our nature. The better order was commonly of a serious
cast, like this of Pherecrates:-

Age is the heaviest burthen man can bear,
Compound of disappointment, pain, and care ;
For when the mind's experience comes at length,
It comes to mourn the body's loss of strength;
Resign’d to ignorance all our better days,
Knowledge just ripens when the man decays ;
One

ray of light the closing eye receives,

And wisdom only takes what folly leaves.” CUMBERLAND. As a class of composition the Greek epigram has no counterpart in the literature of any modern language; and that which corresponds to it the nearest, is the French madrigal, the Italian canzonet, and the more sober species of English song. In expressing a single thought, the Greeks were desirous of making it as simple as possible, and they sought after the simplest and most natural diction. They looked for a style which might become the sentiment, and forbore to imitate the splendid imagery, the varied and artful combinations, the minute descriptions, the developement of character, the fietions and ornaments, the "pomp and circumstance" of the loftier order of poetry. Their restricted space afforded no room for display, and they therefore never aimed at it. Nor do they present any instances of wit—as the word is commonly understood. If they have any wit, it is only in the sense of Pope, who reduces it to mere happiness of language_" what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.” Hence the characteristic epithet of a Greek epigram is a peleta, or neatness and grace. Whilst they resorted to obvious sentiments, and clothed them in simple and delicate language, they were sure to please ; and from the earliest times scholars have found them a source of pleasure and solace in the original, and in imitations and translations they have been perused with delight by those who were unacquainted with the Greek. Johnson has paid an elegant and feeling compliment to an epigram of Ariphron; and we know that he often devoted his sleepless nights, and the intervals of pain in his last illness, to rendering them into Latin*. We can, thus supported, bear very patiently the sneers of Chesterfield, who was neither scholar nor poet. It is unknown, however, to mere English students, that the Anthology is a great magazine of poetical common-places. It would not be difficult to point out the source of many beautiful passages of modern poetry among the old Greek epigrams. Cumberland detected the original of Ben Jonson's popular

[ocr errors]

Scaliger used to beguile the hours of sleeplessness in turning Martial into Greek.

verses, “ Drink to me only with thine eyes,” &c. in the erotic pieces of Philostratus ; and though they are not the most favourable specimen of the simplicity we have talked of, yet they do not appear to merit the very severe censures of Cumberland. Many other productions which have been long admired, might be followed up to the same source. Poets rarely like to confess their obligations, and where they can poach with so much impunity, there is an additional temptation to be dishonest. Some of the Greek epigrams have a value quite distinct from elegance of expression, and delicacy and truth of sentiment. They illustrate events, manners and feelings, where history from its generality is deficient; and in more than one instance furnish the evidences of history. Herodotus has preserved two of Simonides—the first, on a personage of celebrity in his time; the other, commemorative of one of the most glorious deeds which history has recorded the sacrifice at Thermopylæ.

“ Greally to die—if this be glory's height,

For the fair meed we own our fortune kind.
For Greece and liberty we plunged to night,

And left a never-dying name behind.” Thucydides, among others, cites the following epitaph on the daughter of the tyrant Hippias, slain by Harmodius and Aristogiton. We give it, not merely as a specimen of concise and appropriate sepulchral inscription, but also as a testimony to the simplicity of the age.

“ Daughter of him who ruled the Athenian plains,

This honour'd dust Archidice contains,
Of tyrants mother, daughter, sister, wife-

Her soul was humble, and unstain'd her life.” Aristotle very frequently quotes them to illustrate his assertions; and we are still in possession of several of Plato, which furnish the earliest and almost the only examples of play upon words in the whole Anthology. They are on a favourite boy, whose name was Aster (a star)

« In life thou wert my morning star,

But now that death has stolen thy light,
Alas! thou shinest dim and far,
Like the pale beam that weeps at night.”

Moore.
Another to the same-

“Why dost thou gaze upon the sky?

Oh! that I were that spangled sphere,
And every star should be an eye
To wonder on thy beauties here."

Id.
One more specimen of this philosopher's poetical effusions--

“ Whene'er thy nectar'd kiss I sip,

And drink thy breath in melting twine,
My soul then Autters to my lip,
Ready to fly and mix with 'thine.”

Id. Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch have likewise preserved a considerable number of these light and fugitive productions. Notwithstanding the diligence of collectors, the Anthology is very far from being complete. The earliest collection of any note is that of Meleager, one of the gentlest and most affecting of poets. He has flung a melancholy grace

And see

over his verses, which renders them inexpressibly touching. His own epigrams are the chief ornaments of his beautiful collection. The following (translated by Mr. Bland) is supposed to be spoken by a lover on the shore of the Hellespont.

“ Sea-wandering barks that o'er the Ægean sail

With pennants streaming to the northern gale,
If in your course the Coan strand ye reach,

my

Phanion musing on the beach,
With eye intent upon the placid sea,
And constant heart that only beats for me,-
Tell
my

sweet mistress, that for her I haste
To greet her landing from the watery waste:
So Jove shall calm with smiles the waves below,

And bid for you his softest breezes blow.”
This, to a young girl who died on the day of her marriage, is very
simple and affecting: -

Callista, when she loosed her virgin zone,
Found in the nuptial bed an early grave;
Death claim'd the bridegroom's right: to death alone
The treasure promised to her spouse

she

gave.
To sweetest sounds the happy evening fled,
The flute's soft strain and hymeneal choir;
At morn sad wailings echo round the bed,
And the glad hymns on quivering lips expire.
The very torches that at fall of night
Shed their bright radiance o’er the bridal room-
Those very torches, with the morning's light,

Conduct the lovely sufferer to the tomb."'*
One more of Meleager, on a virtuous man,

Hail, universal Mother! lightly rest
On that dead form,
Which, when with life invested, ne'er oppress'd

Its fellow worm."
This is another of those obvious thoughts which often occur in
similar compositions. Martial has employed it; but, as usual, wrought
it into a pun,

Mollia nec rigidus cespes tegat ossa, nec illi,

Terra, gravis fueris ; non fuit illa tibi.” Some of the ways of the last century have imitated it by reversing the prayer, in the epigram on Sir John Vanbrugh, in allusion to the ponderous character of his edifices

Lie heavy on him, Earth! for he

Laid many a heavy load on thee.”
The thought of being married to death is not uncommon in the Greek and
Latin writers. There is another epigram of Paulus Silentiarius, on his daughter,
in which it is very gracefully expressed ; and Ovid-

« Nostraque plorantes video super ora parentes,

Et face pro thalami fax mihi mortis adest.' And old Capulet, over the supposed dead body of Juliet. The beginning is affected and quibbling; but it concludes in a better strain

“ All things that we ordained festival

Turn from their office to black funeral;
Our instruments to melancholy bells ;
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial teast;
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,
And bridal flowers serve for a buried corse

[ocr errors]

In the decline and degradation of Grecian power, genius and taste sank under the common doom. The outbreakings of poetry were few and distant, and flung a momentary radiance only over the general darkness. The next collector was Agathias, who gathered together such pieces as he found scattered about the productions of his age. His own poetry was admired by his contemporaries, and is often tender and just, but sometimes betrays the corruption of taste which began to prevail. The following is very spirited: it has, as an anonymous critic has observed of it, “all the gallantry of Waller, with none of his conceits; and all the warmth and poetry of Moore, with none of his indelicacy." No slight share of the plaintiveness and delicacy belongs to the translator, Mr. Merival.

“ Go, idle amorous boys !

What are your cares and joys,
To love, that swells the longing virgin's breast ?

A fame half hid in doubt,

Soon kindled, soon burnt out,
A blaze of momentary heat at best.
Haply you

well
may

find
(Proud privilege of your kind)
Some friend to share the secret of your heart ;

Or, if your inbred grief

Admit of such relief,
The dance, the chase, the play, assuage your heart.

Whilst we, poor hapless maids,

Condemned to pine in shades,
And to our dearest friends our thoughts deny;

Can only sit and weep;

While all around us sleep,

Unpitied languish and unheeded die.” We cannot quit Agathias without quoting another example of a different kind. It shews that the epigram had already lost its uniform simplicity; and independent of its pleasantry, proves that the dubiety and cautiousness of lawyers has afforded in other times, as well as in ours, a reason for remonstrance, and the subject of sarcastic wit.

“ A plaintiff thus explain’d his cause
To counsel learned in the laws:-

My bond-maid lately ran away,
And in her flight was met by A,
Who, knowing she belong'd to me,
Espoused her to his servant B.
The issue of this marriage, pray,
Do they belong to me or A?'
The lawyer, true to his vocation,
Gave sign of deepest cogitation,
Look'd at a score of books, or near,
Then hemmed, and said — Your case is clear.
Those children so begot by B,
Upon your bond-maid must, you see,
Be your's or A's;-now, this I say-
They can't be your's if they to A
Belong,--it follows then, of course,
That if they are not his, they're your’s.
Therefore, by my advice, in short,
You'll take ihe opinion of the court.'»

« AnteriorContinuar »