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Epigrams

A part of a conversation I heard some time ago went like this: Ruby addressed Arlene at the beginning of a picnic. ‘What on earth kept you darling?’ (People in fashionable social circles constantly referred to each other as ‘darling.’) Ruby continued, ‘no don’t tell me. I can guess. You had a puncture. Such a romantic road, isn’t it? Dear me, how useful punctures are! I wonder how people managed without them before there were cars?’ The tinkling laugh ter that followed this pleasantry had a hint of malice and Arlene’s brown eyes widened into innocence. ‘Well , of course, you’d know it, ‘ Arlene countered sweetly. Touche’ I told myself. Arlene got at Ruby very well.

Later, thinking about the conversation, I went over the sentences and recounted the different expressions on Ruby’s and Arlene’s faces too. The last expression on Ruby’s face kept me chuckling to myself. I enjoyed recapturing this snippet of conversation. At the end, did Arlene utter an epigram?

What exactly is an epigram . An epigram is a brief, clever and usually memorable statement It is derived from the Greek epigramma, ‘inscription’ and from epigraphein, ‘to write on or inscribe’. It is said that Greek epigrams began as poems inscribed on votive offerings in sanctuaries, including statues of athletes and on funerary monuments. This literary mode was much used and epigrams became a literary genre in the Hellenistic period. They probably developed out of scholarly collections of inscriptions. During this period, the use of epigrams portraying the various socio-political structure led to their popularity. The emphasis then was mostly on the reason for epigrams than on the poem itself.

European epigram

An epigram needs ‘a point,’ that is the poem ends in a punchline or satirical twist. All Greek epigrams don’t portray this mode, many are simply descriptive. The epigrams are associated with ‘a point’ because the European epigram tradition follows the Roman epigrams. An epigram is also a short hard hitting saying. The great epigrammatists are keen students of humanity who know how to get their points across in the form of verbal punches. Thus, in turn, the best epigrams are often wise or snide remarks on human nature or both. For example: ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses’ (Dorothy Parker) and ‘The only ‘ism’ that Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.’ (Dorothy Parker)

As is seen an epigram could be a verse, often with a great satirical twist at the end but epigrams can also be wonderfully touching and moving . Roman epigrams followed the Greek ones but were more satirical than the latter. The master of the Latin epigrams was the Latin poet Martial who lived in the 1st century AD. He became a model for later European and American versions of the epigrams. Martial in his day manifested his curiosity and power of observation in his epigrams. As he lived in Rome, the enduring literary interest and literary quality in his epigrams were brought out from the colourful reference to human life they contain. His epigrams bring to life the spectacle and brutality of daily life in Imperial Rome. The then living conditions in the city of Rome is thus described: ‘I live in a cell, with a window that won’t even close.’

Constant threat

Fire was a constant threat in ancient Rome because wood was a common building material. People often used open fires and oil lamps. Some people deliberately set fire to their property in order to collect insurance money. This is an age old practice seen at present too, in the world. The following epigram of Martial’s shows this clearly. ‘Tongilianus, you paid two hundred for your house, an accident much common in this city destroyed it. You collected ten times more. Doesn’t it seem, I pray, that you set fire to your own house, Tongilianus?’

Martial scorned the doctors of his day in this way: I fell ill and called Dr Symmachus., Well you came, Symmachus, but you brought 100 medical students with you. One hundred ice-cold hands poked and jabbed me. I didn’t have a fever, Symmachus, when I called you – but now I do.’

I am sure Tonglilanus and Symmachus would have wanted to court martial, Martial. To continue about satirists, thinkers and philosophers who utter such, many come to mind. Some of them are Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Jumping from the ancient times to much later times, there are, Voltaire, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and Hemingway. To keep it short, one saying of each of the Big 3 of ancient Greece are the following:

‘By all means, marry. If you get a good wife you’ll become happy, if you get a bad one you’ll be a philosopher.’

‘Cunning is but a low mimic of wisdom.’ ‘A friend to all is a friend to none.’

The above were uttered by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in order.

Politics and justice

Voltaire in 18th century, France, was the delight of epigrammatists, as he was so outspoken about society, politics and justice that he was in prison many a time. He simply couldn’t keep out of trouble. Almost every important person was his enemy at some time of his life. He could not be kept in check. When he was attacked, he retaliated with pamphlets and epigrams which were more vituperative. However, the catastrophe was, that whatever written by him or not, if it was rebellious, bitter or mocking, Voltaire got the blame. When he wanted a certain position in the court of King Louis XV of France, he needed to be in favour with the king. To do this he had to be friendly with the king’s mistress, the well known and fashionable, Madame Pompadour. It was the same then and now, to get to the top rung of people you have to get friendly with their close allies first. Voltaire succeeded with the following:

‘Every grace, charm and wit, Pompadour, in you is found.’

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)was one of the most original American Poets. Her poem, Lives Like loaded Guns, blew away the persistent myth of the meek, fragile spinster of odd rhymes and showed her as a rebel who defied convention. The following sentence shows a fragment of her concise, forceful ideas, when she considered marriage, in this way: ‘Born – Bridalled – Shrouded – In a day.’ ‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.’ This was said by the Feminist and Modernist writer, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941).

Among our friends, there is one who believes in not wasting anything. She even cuts paper that needs to be thrown away into pieces and keeps them for note lets and jottings. She is called the ‘Cardboard Queen. There is also a ‘Cardboard Picasso,’ who scribbles and sketches on any paper she finds hoping it’ll keep for posterity and value.

Unused being

Mark Twain (1835-1910), the all time great American author, so well known for his books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, was an unusual being who held many diverse jobs, being a printer’s apprentice, a journalist, a riverboat pilot and a soldier. He named his three dogs, I Know, You Know and Don’t Know. He is the author of:

‘All you need is ignorance and confidence, then success is sure.’ ‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.’ Woody Allen, a film maker, comic actor and writer also said, ‘I can’t listen to any more Wagner – I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.’


Virginia Woolf

Oscar Wilde’s (1854-1900) quick repartee was so enjoyed by society at his time. He became famous with his play ‘The Importance of being Ernest.” When travelling, at the customs, when you are asked whether you have anything to declare, wouldn’t you like to say, ‘I’ve nothing to declare except my genius.’ That’s exactly what Wilde said. Of course, nowadays, nobody will be amused with such smart answers. Wilde also came up with:

‘Arguments are to be avoided, they are always vulgar and often convincing.’

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), the famous American author won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for his book ’The Old Man and the Sea.’ Film titles which were epigrams in themselves were also his with The Sun also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Margaret Mitchell’s very well known book and film title was also an epigram Gone with the Wind. Hemingway had interesting sayings such as: ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’ ‘All good books have one thing in common they are truer than if they have really happened.’

Bright sparks

‘We have such bright sparks among our friends too, who utter plenty of epigrams or maybe wisecracks as we call them. One came up with what he likes in life with this: ‘Earlier, it was the richness of port But now, it’s the tartness on the tongue’ and as well as: ‘Long ago Beethoven’s symphonies were like chilled wine.

Today, fresh water is fine.’

Another friend at a horse farm, trying to brush a horse was surprised by a kick from the hind legs of the horse to which his girlfriend quipped: ‘I’d rather get a kick from champagne.’

Once in a little grocery shop, the owner, whom I knew, didn’t bother with the man in front of me and served me instead. When asked why? He merely said ‘eyata athe sathe naa,’( not even a cent has he). Another incidence was when an aunt of mine was seated on her verandah, a well dressed man came up the drive way sat and spoke with her. He needed some money and when she gave it to him, he left. We asked, ‘how is it that such a well to do man would ask you for money?’ She smiled and said ‘clean suit, empty pocket.’ How’s this to ponder? ‘Don’t do today what you can do tomorrow.’

How would it be if we have conversations in epigrams and repartees in the same vein? I wonder what will happen then? Will we make more enemies? On the other hand, life could be more colourful, bright and alert with humour. With an epigram here and there, we may arise from the mundane stupor of everyday life and be scintillating in conversation.

 

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