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THE EPIGRAM AND EPITAPH....THE SONNET....PASTORAL POETRY....THEOCRITUS.....VIRGIL.....SPENCER.....
MY DEAR JOHN,
IN treating of the different forms of poetical productions, I might have adopted a general division, similar to that in which I arranged compositions in prose. They might in general be classed under the didactic, and the narrative and descriptive; and I might shew that each of these requires a distinct style, as well as a different arrangement from the other. But as the different kinds of poetry have been, almost from the first cultivation of the art, distinguished by peculiar names, I shall be more generally understood if I adopt no new arrangement, and describe them under those characters by which they have been known for ages.
The ancient critics enumerated seven distinct classes or kinds of poetry: the epigram, the elegy, the bucolic or pastoral, the lyric, the satyric, the dramatic, and the epic. It is wonderful that though they had the works of Hesiod before them, and afterwards the incomparable Georgics, and Art of Poetry of Horace, they should have omitted so important a class as the didactic. Of poetry professedly descriptive the ancients had indeed almost none; nor till the time of Phædrus, scarcely any tales or fables in verse. The modern epitaph may also be considered as a new species of poetry, unless it may be regarded as a kind of short elegy; for it cannot properly class with the epigram, either according to the ancient or modern acceptation. The sonnet is also an entire modern invention, unless it is regarded as a short ode.
I must therefore adopt a new classification, and as it has been usual to begin with the lighter and more trifling kinds of poetry, I shall treat of them in the following order: 1st. The epigram; 2d. the epitaph; 3d. the sonnet; 4th. pastoral; 5th. didactic poetry; 6th. satire; 7th. descriptive; 8th. elegy; 9th. lyric poetry; 10th. the drama; and lastly, epic or heroic poetry.
I. The word EPIGRAM means an inscription, from the Greek preposition, upon; and ypaμμa, a writing; having been generally engraven or written on pillars, porches, or the pedestals or bases of statues. The modern sense is somewhat different. It now means a short and witty poem, the point or humour of which is expressed in the latter lines. Yet even in the Greek epigrams (properly so called) or inscriptions, there was a terseness and point approaching to the modern idea. Such was the famous inscription on the statue of Venus by Praxiteles....
Γυμνην οιδε Παρις με, και Αγκισης, και Αδωνις,
"Thrice by three mortals was I naked seen,
Mr. Prior has very happily extended this thought in the following pretty little poem, which has the true spirit of the epigram....
"When Chloe's picture was to Venus shewn;
By the way, while I am speaking of inscriptions, I must mention a very good couplet, written I believe by Mr. Pope, and engraven on the collar of a dog belonging to the late Princess Dowager of Wales....
"I am her Highness' dog at Kew....
Another extempore epigram by the same hand will give a good idea of this kind of poem. It was written on glass with the diamond pencil of the late Lord Chesterfield....
"Accept a miracle, instead of wit;
"See two dull lines with Stanhope's pencil writ."
Martial is the author among the ancients whose poems approach the nearest to the modern idea of epigram. Those of Catullus I do not account such, though they go by that name. Several of Martial's have wit, though many of them appear to be merely short complimentary poems, such as are many of Waller, Cow ley, Prior, and our other English poeta minores, modern and ancient.
The following will serve to give you an idea of the wit of Martial....
"Petit Gemellus nuptias Maronillæ,
"Curmudgeon the rich widow courts,
"Ad cœnam nuper Varus me fortè vocavit,
"Auro, non dapibus, oneratur mensa ministri
"Tunc ego non oculos, sed ventrem pascere veni:
"With lace bedizen'd comes the man,
"Your pride and not your victuals spare ;
"Callidus imposuit nuper mihi caupo Ravennæ,
"A landlord of Bath put upon me a queer hum,
"Non amo te, Sabidi, non possum dicere quare,
"Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te."
"I do not like thee Dr. Fell,
"Quem recitas meus est, Fidentine, libellus ;
"The verses, friend, which thou hast read, are mine, "But as thou readst them, they may pass for thine."
"Texatus pulchre rides mea, Zoile, trita;
"You're fine, and ridicule my thread-bare gown;
I have inserted so many specimens not only to introduce you to an author, who is seldom read in schools, but to prove what to me is very clear, that the modern notion of epigram is taken from these lively and pointed sallies of Martial, from whom I might have extracted many more. You will see from these, and what have preceded, that an epigram (in the modern sense) is no more than a witticism in verse; and almost any good jest or repartee put into verse will make an epigram.
This being the case, since wit is more particularly the characteristic of the British islands than of any other nation, it is no wonder that the English language should abound in excellent epigrams. A great number will be found in all good poetical selections, particularly in that by Dr. Knox, under the name of Elegant Extracts. The Earl of Rochester wrote some good epigrams. That in which he so happily characterized Charles II. is admirable; but Prior is perhaps the best writer of epigrams in our language. Some entire poems may be regarded as altogether epigrammatic. Such are many of Swift's, the satires of Dr. Young; and Dr. Goldsmith's Retaliation, is as a series of epigrams from the beginning to the end, as well as an ode to Pinchbeck, published some years ago. I shall add one or two from memory, which I believe are not to be found in the collections.
Soon after the affair of Lord Keppel, and the victory of Sir George Rodney, the corporation of London voted the freedom of the city to the former in a box of heart of oak, and to the latter in a gold box. The following epigram appeared in the newspapers.....
"Each admiral's defective part,
"Satyric cits you've told;
"The cautious Lee-shore wanted heart,
The receipt tax, which was at first very obnoxious, was introduced in the time of the famous coalition ministry (that of Lord North and Mr. Fox), and the following epigram was on that occasion handed about....
66 Premier, says Fox, let's have a tax
Right, says Lord North, we'll tax receipts,
I add one from a deservedly popular collection of poems, published by a friend of mine, under the quaint and homely title of Salmagundi.