The epigram is the chihuahua of verse forms, silly and charming until you feel its teeth sink in. The epigram leaves a trail of paper cuts, thin with a long-felt sting. The epigram preserves the petty quirks of everyday life: this is the genre of cigarettes and miniskirts, figs and wigs. Incompetent doctors, loose women, and bad poets fill its cramped space, jostling for a drink or a wink.
Irreverent and irrelevant, epigrams are fated to be misunderstood. Some of their punchlines lose their edge after centuries, but most were dull to begin with. The general quality of epigrams may be one of the few points of agreement between critics and poets. Most are dashed off, occasional, bad. Yet the good ones are memorable, and the best so lyrical that they lose the name of "epigram" altogether.1 Edward Phillips claimed the epigram "consists rather of conceit and acumen of wit than of poetical invention. Yet it is more commendable to be a Martial in Epigram, than Juvenal's Codrus in heroic poetry."2 That was in the epigram's heyday, when poets strove to render Martial's pointes in the vernacular. By now the epigram is burned out, its savage wit about as welcome in polite society as a heavy smoker.
Early epigrams had higher pretensions. The ἐπίγραμμα was an inscription. It commemorated the maker of a work of art or the body in a sepulcher. (It also branded slaves' foreheads and served as a bill for damages, strangely in keeping with its later uses.)3 The funereal aspects so present in the Greek Anthology have not disappeared. Epigrammatists like Ioan Pop still dwell on final moments, on the obscure beyond:
MoarteaÎntuneric în contextDe nimicnicie, prafṢi pretextDe epitaf.
DeathDarkness for the vexedWind to blow away the chaff [End Page 375] And a pretextFor an epitaph.4
If the Greek tradition is known for being commemorative and the Roman satirical, then it is not surprising that so many epigrams combine these two energies by poking fun at the profession most efficient at ushering us into the grave. Here is the physician John Coakley Lettsom:
On Dr. Lettsom, by HimselfWhen people's ill, they comes to I,I physics, bleeds, and sweats 'em;Sometimes they live, sometimes they die.What's that to I? I lets 'em.5
Poetry reminds us of death and offers itself as the antidote. Soft pipes play on, freezing the lover in his chase, the beloved in her endless, numb beauty. Lyric promises immortality, but the tiny epigram applies modest medicine: it is not a cure but a tonic, a refreshing draught for the exhausting business of living:
EpigramaO pilulă sceptică,Glumă antiseptică,Pentru vechi năravuri leac,Numai pentru critici … fleac!
The EpigramA skeptical doseAntiseptically jocoseFor old habits, a shotBut to critics—a naught!6
As Eugen Pop's quatrain here reveals, the epigram is obsessed with its own brevity. The challenge it poses to the poet is to squeeze the maximum amount of observation into the smallest possible space on the page. At its best, it is exquisitely economical, without an ounce of filler or added sugar. While critics struggle to define the genre, weighing each specimen to see if it has too many lines or too little wit, epigrammatists like Cornelius Enescu reflect on the condensed power of a miniscule genre:
EpigramaO strofă mică, mică foarte,O picătură într-o carte;Când spiritul e pe măsură,O carte într-o picătură. [End Page 376]
The EpigramA tiny verse was all it took,A drop alone in one large book,But spirit foamed over the top:I found a whole book in the drop.7
In its attempt to define itself, the epigram begins to resemble its Greek sister, the enigma. Like her, the epigram takes pleasure in observing ordinary creatures from a new perspective, setting objects into motion. Where the riddle draws out the enchantment of quotidian life, however, the epigram sharpens its claws:
EpigramaE un demon vesel carePrada-n loc şi-o ţintuieşteŞi—proptit în trei "picioare"—Cu al patrulea loveşte!
The EpigramThis sprightly demon, small and sweet,Pins down its victim in a tick,And, bracing itself on three feet,With its fourth leg gives a kick!8
Mircea Trifu's take on this motif is a meta-commentary on the form. The epigram is fundamentally paradoxical, a cheerful devil with a precariously balanced setup and a final, smarting zinger. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing insisted that this bipartite division was essential to the genre. It is in the play between Erwartung and Aufschluß, expectation and explanation, that the epigram gets its kick. A verse that only contains the first part is mere narration; the second part alone might be a maxim or a distich or a moral, but no epigram. Remembering the genre's source as an inscription, Lessing imagined the process of an epigram to be like approaching a monument: the viewer first feels the shock of the building's beauty, mingled with a sense of confusion at what it might be. He then comes near enough to the monument to read its inscription. The satisfaction of curiosity and the fairness of the object melt into a third, unnamed but pleasurable emotion.9 Lessing's theory has too much of the sublime about it, but it reveals something essential about the epigram: an alternation of contraction and release, systole and diastole, gets the blood coursing.
Tension is the life of the epigram, but its brevity spells its doom. The epigram flits too fast across the page to make it into tradition. Embedded in close-knit societies and literary in-groups, the poem may make [End Page 377] a local light but, with the exception of Martial, rarely a grand poetic reputation, fit for plaques and stones. The satirical epigram in particular loses its spontaneous verve after its victim is gone and forgotten. Once Stella and Acerra and Sabidius are dead, what's the fun in pricking them? The genre's attention to those amusing aggravations of contemporary life, to say nothing of its predilection for sexual humor, also give it short shelf-life. The context is gone, the tastes have changed, and plodding footnotes throw its careful equilibrium off.
The poet of ephemeral forms knows this, even as he carefully polishes an ice sculpture—or packs a snowball. Hence the practice of epigrammatic duels, which kill off both participants and die, in their relevance, with them. Then, as Trifu reminds us, there are the critics, deadly whether they evaluate or explain:
Sfârşitul literatuluiPe drumul fără de retur,Cu mîinile la piept aduse,Deschise-un ochi, privi în jur,Zări un critic … şi se duse.
The Poet's DemiseThe poet, nearly gone, hangs on,While wife and children stifle cries.He cracks an eye, and looks around,He sees a critic—and he dies.10
Still, scholar and critic have their uses. Where they cannot revive, they can at least entomb. William Fitzgerald has asked of epigrams written on a specific occasion, and subsequently anthologized: "Have they been uprooted from the soil from which they draw their life, or have they rather been universalized, raised to a higher power for a different kind of audience, the anonymous lector who is our forbear?"11 We might say that the epigram's brevity, so deadly to it otherwise, makes it easier to preserve in florilegia, edited collections, even web compilations of bon mots. Indeed, two millennia ago, Martial had already recognized the potential timelessness of a tiny form:
Dum Phaethontea formica vagatur in umbra,inplicuit tenuem sucina gutta feram.sic modo quae fuerat vita contempta manente,funeribus facta est nunc pretiosa suis.(6.15) [End Page 378]
A little ant strolled in a poplar's shade,A drop of amber engulfed the tiny beast,The creature, while alive, dismayed,But turned into a treasure once deceased.12
Irina Dumitrescu is an essayist and scholar of medieval literature and Professor and head of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn. She is the author of The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature (2018); the editor of Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi (2016); and, with Eric Weiskott, The Shapes of Early English Poetry: Style, Form, History (2019).
. I am grateful to my grandfather Mircea for imbuing me with a love of brief wit. I am also grateful for the rich archive he left me as a child, when he had the many poetic collections he authored or edited over the decades bound and engraved with my name. This drop of amber is for him.
1. Paul Nixon, Martial and the Modern Epigram (London: George G. Harrap, 1927), 26.
2. Edward Phillips, Theatrum poetarum (London: Charles Smith, 1675), 16.
3. H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones, eds., "ἐπίγραμμ-α" in A Greek-English Lexicon. With a Revised Supplement (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 628.
4. Mircea Trifu, ed. Dicționar de epigrame (Bucharest: Litera, 1981), 99. Trifu (1922–94) founded the Romanian Union of Epigramists (Uniunea Epigramiștilor din România) and the journal Epigrama. He is commemorated by a national writing contest dedicated to the genre, "Concursul Național de Epigramă 'Mircea Trifu.'" All translations are my own and free.
5. W. Davenport Adams, ed., English Epigrams (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1878), 117, no. cclxxii.
6. Trifu, ed., În lumea epigramei (Bucharest: Litera, 1988), 157.
7. Cornelius Enescu, "Constelații epigramatice," Constelații diamantine 4, no. 10 (October 2013): 56.
8. Trifu, Epigramma (Bucharest: Litera, 1976), 15.
9. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, "Zerstreute Anmerkungen über das Epigramm und einige der vornehmsten Epigrammatisten," in Werke, ed. Jörg Schönert (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1996), especially 5:426–27.
10. Trifu, Epigramma, 25.
11. William Fitzgerald, Martial: The World of the Epigram (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), 3.
12. Paul Barié and Winfried Schindler, eds., M. Valerius Martialis: Epigramme, 3rd ed. (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2013), 392.