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...