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And who but a few confirmed contrarians and inveterate antiquarians ever go so far as actually to try to pull one off?Part of the story here of course is that, so far as the natural selection of poetry is concerned, the epigram has for some time been carried by a recessive gene.
Despite attempts to codify its distinguishing features and attributes (Aristotle, Quintillian, Scaliger, and Jonson, among others, weighed in on the subject), no universal consensus and certainly no hard-and-fast formula for what makes a poem an epigram ever got hammered out—no set length, designated measure, decisively limiting content or tenor.
Yes, epigrams are often pointed and jocular, but not always.
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.
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.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.But the real vexation sets in when you try to classify the thing with any sort of modest accuracy. That was once a question of no small import for the best and brightest literary minds, and if Coleridge’s riposte is suitably brisk, there is something curiously poignant about it as well.For who gets exercised anymore over the enigma of the epigram?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.We catch a tacit acknowledgment of a transfer of power already afoot in Coleridge’s puckish couplet, which, you will notice, does not explicitly stipulate a versified construction.Just as telling, it also hints at the condescension with which the verse epigram has been generally viewed ever since.556-468), like Anakreon principally a lyric bard, but who earned what we would now call a national reputation on the strength of his lines honoring the casualties of the Persian Wars: We did not flinch but gave our lives to save Greece when her fate hung on a razor’s edge.(“Cenotaph at the Isthmos”—translated by Peter Jay) Take this news to the Lakedaimonians, friend, That here we lie, who followed their command.