Page images
PDF
EPUB

Secondly, the declension of epigram-writing is to be lamented as a loss in an historical and national point of view. Epigrammatic literature displays national history. The various turns of events, as they quickly pass, are caught and, as it were, photographed in the epigrams of the day; and minor circumstances, which may eventually enable the historian to discover the small causes of great changes, are chronicled in a serious distich or a witty quatrain. It reflects, too, the national mind. The characteristics of the time; the temperament, manners, and habits of the people are portrayed. "The great writer of each particular period, " says the author of an article on the “ Life of Bentley," in the 46th volume of the “Quarterly Review," " is the image and representative of the state of the public mind during his own age. The popular poet embodies the passions and feelings of his time; he is the perpetual record of the tone of thought, of taste, of imaginative excitement prevalent in his own country and during his own day.

There is always a strong reciprocal action and reaction of the popular mind on the literature, as well as of the literature on the public mind; it is at once an exciting cause and the living expression of the events, the manners, the character of each separate period of history." True as this is of poets in general, especially is it true of Epigrammatists. Authors of this class have, from the earliest times, not only been affected by the passions and feelings of the people, but have worked upon those feelings, and directed their course. This is seen most distinctly in the Greek epigram-writers. The warlike character of his countrymen is reflected in the soul-stirring inscriptions of Simonides, and none can doubt the effect which those burning words must have had in rousing the martial spirit of the people to yet greater deeds of glory. In later times we view the decay of Greek prowess in the silence of the Epigrammatists on warlike themes. Love and wine are the subjects of their verse, as marrying and giving in marriage and convivial entertainments were the chief care of the people in the days of their national humiliation. So, in Roman times, when, amidst excessive luxury and effeminate pleasures, the ruin of the empire was slowly but surely advancing, we see in the conviviality and the lewdness of the epigrams of the Latin writers, a reflection of the manners of their countrymen, sunk in debauchery and sloth; and we cannot doubt that the vices were aided by the vicious teaching of the poet.

In modern times the same effects may be observed. The reaction from Puritanism is displayed in the epigrams of the reign of Charles II., and the passions excited by the Revolution are strongly reflected in those of the reign of William III. The decline of epigrammatic literature at the time when Napoleon was devastating Europe, makes any reference to that period of more doubtful import; but even the inferior epigrams written during the

may

be found in abundance in such works as the “Spirit of the Public Journals," display decided evidence of the influence of popular feeling on these productions, though it can hardly be supposed that epigrams of so low a class, and of such halting numbers, can have had much effect on the passions of the people. But if epigrammatic literature should rise again from its low estate, and take once more its place in the high ranks of poetry, we may expect that it will again exercise a legitimate power, and stir the public sentiment. The purer its character, the holier will be its influence; the nobler its sentiments, the more beneficial will be its results. Should domestic troubles come, it will inspire loyal and patriotic aspirations. Should war be sent to scourge us, it will incite to valour.

war, which

THE EPIGRAMMATISTS.

GREEK EPIGRAMMATISTS.

B.C. 690-A.D. 530.

ARCHILOCHUS. Flourished B.C. 690. He was born in the Isle of Paros, and in his youth emigrated to Thasos. It is said that the Lacedæmonians laid a prohibition on his verses on account of their immorality. His humour was malevolent, and his habit of raillery and abuse inade him many enemies.

ON THE LOSS OF HIS SHIELD (Jacobs I. 41, iii.).

Translated by Merivale.
The foeman glories in

my

shield
I left it on the battle-field;
I threw it down beside the wood,
Unscath'd by scars, unstain’d with blood.
And let him glory! Since, from death
Escap'd, 1 keep my forfeit breath,
I soon may find, at little cost,

As good a shield as that I've lost. Archilochus, who threw away his shield, and thus endeavours to put a fair face upon his cowardice, seems to have held the view of the man of peace, whom Massinger makes to say (" The Picture," Act I. sc. 2):

This military art
I grant to be the noblest of professions ;
And yet (I thank my stars for it) I was never
Inclin'd to learn it, since this bubble honour
(Which is, indeed, the nothing soldiers fight for,
With the loss of limbs or life) is in my judgment
Too dear a purchase.

B

[ocr errors]

The epigram recalls the satire of Butler in “Hudibras" (Part III. Canto iii, line 243):

For those that fly may fight again,

Which he can never do thut's slain, This is taken from a Greek saying found in Aulus Gellius (“ Noctes Attica," Lib. XVII. c. 21), who says that when Philip conquered the Athenians in a battle at Chæronea, Demosthenes sought safety in flight, and when accused of cowardice, answered thus :

'Ανήρ ο φεύγων και πάλιν μαχήσεται. Bishop Jeremy Taylor quotes the saying in “ The Great Exemplar," Part I. Ad. Section vi. 4. (The Flight into Egypt), and, curiously enough, amongst other examples, gives that of the flight of Demosthenes from a lost field, to illustrate the statement that Christians “may fly from their persecutors, when the case is so that their work is not done, that is, they may glorify God with their lives more than with their death."

Jortin ("Tracts, Philological, &c.” 1790, I. 441) quotes the Greek line, and amusingly says : But it should rather have been,

May live to run another day.

'Ανήρ ο φεύγων και πάλιν γε φεύξεται.” From the saying of Demosthenes, the Italians perhaps borrowed their proverb: “It is better it should be said, here he ran away, than here he was slain" (Gray's note to passage in “ Hudibras ").

Archilochus was so much addicted to raillery and abuse, that he did not even spare himself, as in the epigram on his own cowardice. Much less did he spare others, as in his lampoon on the family of Lycambes, caused, it is said, by Lycambes not keeping his word with regard to one of his daughters, whom he had promised in marriage to Archilochus. Meleager has a fine epigram on the daughters of Lycambes, referring to the treatment they received at the hands of their traducer (Jacobs I. 35, cxix.), thus translated by C. :

By Pluto's hand, by sacred Hecate's bed,
We swear, fair spotless lives on earth we led.
Altho' Archilochus's verse with shame
And bitter taunts, would blight our virgin fame.
What, tho' his tuneful numbers sweetly tlow,
Dishonour marks a woman's coward foe!
And how could ye, say how, Pierian Choir,

Favour his Muse, and string a slanderer's Lyre ? That the Pierian Choir greatly favoured Archilochus' muse is evident from the high estimation in which he was held, as Theocritus bears witness in an epigram (Jacobs I. 199, xviii.), thus translated by Calverley: Pause, and scan well Archilochus the bard of elder days.

By east and west

Alike's confest
The mighty lyrist's praise.

Delian Apollo loved him well, and well the sister-choir:

His songs were fraught

With subtle thought,
And matchless was his lyre.

CONTENTMENT (Jacobs I. 42, s.).
Translated by the late Colonel Mure, of Caldwell.

What's Gyges or his gold to me!
His royal state or rich array ?
From envy's taint my breast is free,
I covet no proud tyrant's sway,
I envy not the gods in heaven!
The gods to me my lot have given.
That lot, for good or ill, l'll bear,

And for no other man's I care. Archilochus was contemporary with Gyges, whose wealth, like that of Creesus, early passed into a proverb.

Spenser in a single line expresses much (“ Faërie Queene," Book I. Canto ii. 35):

The noblest mind the best contentment has.
Cowley, in a portion of his epitaph for himself (translated from the
Latin by Addison), describes his own happiness in his retirement:

With decent poverty content,
His hours of ease not idly spent;
To furtune's goods a foe profest,

And hating wealth by all carest. This agrees well with Martial's epigram to Julius Martialis on a happy life (Book X. 47, translated by Sir Richard Fanshawe):

The things that make a life to please
(Sweetest Martial), they are these:
Estate inherited not got:
A thankful field, hearth always hot :
City seldom, law-suits never :
Equal friends agreeing ever :
Health of body, peace of mind :
Sleeps that till the morning bind:
Wise simplicity, plain fare:
Not drunken nights, yet loos’d from care :
A sober, not a sullen spouse :
Clean strength, not such as his that plows;
Wish only what thou art, to be;
Death neither wish, nor fear to see.

« PreviousContinue »