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Written after hearing a dull sermon from a dignitary of the church, on the words “ watch and pray.”
“By our pastor perplext,
“'How shall we determine ?
"' Go to sleep' says the sermon."
Though the epigram is in general applicable to topics of mirth and gaiety, yet even the most serious subjects have sometimes been agreeably presented in this form. The old French epigram on the fasts of the Romish church is striking. It is thus Englished, I believe, by Swift....
« For who can think with common sense,
Almighty vengeance to disarm ?
But there is something approaching the sublime in the following of Dr. Doddridge on the motto to his own arms....
“ Dum vivimus, vivamus."
“ Live while you live, the epicure would say,
Even a good pun may constitute the basis of an epigram, though such will not bear Mr. Addison's test of translation. One example will suffice.
To a bad fiddler.
“ Old Orpheus play'd so well, he mov'd Old Nick;
But thou mov'st nothing but thy fiddle-stick.”
II. The EPITAPH is nearly allied to the epigram, and has a similar derivation from the Greek 67* & Tapos, meaning literally an inscription on a tomb. Like the epigram too it was originally very simple in its structure, consisting often of only a single line, or even of a few words, which served to attract the notice of the passenger, and to pay him the customary compliment of wishing him well ; as if the deceased had been alive and meeting him, saluted him in the usual manner. Like the epigram, however, the epitaph soon assumed a kind of pointed or witty construction. Perhaps it is natural in every one who writes a short poem of any kind to endeavour to conclude with something impressive.
I do not however think those the best epitaphs which conclude epigrammatically, and still less wittily. Prior's, as well as Gay's, are faulty in this respect. The latter affects something serious it is true....
“ Life's but a jest, and all things shew it....
But Prior's is too light and trivial for a Christian cathedral, where all should be solemn and suited to the place ; calculated to remind us of our mortality, and inspire us with pious sentiments....
" Monarchs and courtiers, by your leave,
“ Here lies the bones of Matthew Prior ; " The son of Adam and of Eve;
“ Let Bourbon or Nassau go higher."
I cannot even pass without blame, on this account, Mr. Pope's celebrated epigram on Sir Isaac Newton....
“ Nature, and Nature's laws lay hid in night :
This is a mere epigram. Dr. Johnson censures very justly the mixture of two languages on the tomb of Newton, and criticizes the Latin; but I really think the
Latin preferable to the English. The thoughts in both are borrowed.
It is not easy to establish any rules for an epitaph, because it must vary according to the person and circumstances; yet a few general precepts may be recommended....I st. The name of the person intended should be always introduced, which in verse is not easy, and is too commonly omitted; 2d. Something of the character of the deceased should be introduced, but with as little flattery as possible. Indeed, if the character of the deceased is not given, the epitaph is not his, but will serve for
any body; 3d. The place in which epitaphs are usually inscribed ought never to be forgotten, and for this reason every thing light and trifling should be avoided. Where is the excellence of that epitaph recorded by the Spectator?....
Here lies the body of John Saul,
It is a poor conceit founded on a kind of disappointment to the reader, without imparting any instruction whatever, and calculated to raise a laugh in that place, and on that occasion, where risibility must be most improper.
In truth I have seen few good epitaphs. Those of Mr. Pope are, on the whole, the best; and yet whoever will read the criticisms of Dr. Johnson on them, as annexed to some editions of the Idler, and to his Life of Pope, will see the difficulty which attends this species of composition. These criticisms are in general extremely judicious; but I cannot help remarking one error, into which I could scarcely believe Dr. Johnson could have fallen. It is on the epitaph on Gay, which the critic seems to have treated throughout with unusual severity. This is the line....
" In wit a man, simplicity a child.”
Dr. Johnson seems to have taken the word wit in the common acceptation at present, whereas it is evidently used in the old acceptation for genius (esprit...
“ True wit is nature to advantage drest,
But if it is the wit of a man” to which the critic objects, he ought to have known that “a man" used in this kind of connexion means the perfection of human nature....
“ Where ev'ry god did seem to set his seal,
Shakspeare. In such a country, says a French writer, I found statesmen, in another soldiers; but in England I found
In our language epitaphs are not necessarily in rhyme, though the language is generally poetical, or very near it. Some of the best, at least the most appropriate, are in this kind of poetical prose.
The fulsome panegyric with which epitaphs too commonly abound, is happily ridiculed in the following, by Mr. Pope....
“ To the Memory
Who came into England,
But to gain an honest Livelihood,
Yet acquir'd it;
But most sensible of their Love.
Tho’ he liv'd amongst the Great,
He was no bigot,
And, if to follow Nature,
A faithful Friend,
A loving Husband,
In his old Age he retired
Where he finished his earthly Race,
III. The SONNET is entirely a modern invention; it is borrowed both in its nature and form from the Italian : it means a little song. The original form was fourteen lines, and this is still preserved in what are esteemed true sonnets; but many short poems in different forms are now called sonnets. Indeed the artificial form of the original sonnet is by no means suited to the genius of our language. The frequent recurrence of the same rhyme fatigues the ear, while it comes also in an unexpected and unusual manner, so as to disappoint the reader who is accustomed to more perfect harmony.
IV. PASTORAL poetry is of very ancient date. Bishop Lowth, in his Lectures on Sacred Poetry, proves that the pastoral tate was diffused among all the poetry of the Hebrews; and I think Michaelis styles it botanical poetry, so prevalent in it are the ideas attached to rural life. Pastorals are in different forms: sometimes in that of a siinple ballad, or popular song, which is indeed the most natural, easy, and pleasant. Those of the Greeks and Romans were, however, mostly in heroic measure, and in dialogue. Theocritus called his pastorals Idyllia ; and I think from sodos, a form or representation, or as we would say in English, a “ l'icture of Rural Life.” Virgil adopts the general title Bucolics,