By Paul M. Lewis
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, an epigram is a short, pithy saying, often humorous or satirical, frequently written in a rhymed couplet, although not always. The ancient Roman poet, Martial, is sometimes said to be the Father of Epigrams, and many of his were insulting and bawdy. Here (in translation) are just a few examples, from a book entitled Martial’s Epigrams by Garry Willis. And remember, these were written two thousand years ago:
“How can the slippery son of a bitch
With all his vices, not be rich?”
“Of course we know he’ll never wed.
What? Put his sister out of bed?”
Yet, not every epigram is rhymed. There are of plenty of one-liners out there, zingers we might call them today. And who is more famous for such witticisms than Oscar Wilde?
Here, for your reading pleasure, is a sampling of some of Oscar’s wilder sayings:
“I can resist anything except temptation.”
“Work is the curse of the drinking class.”
“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”
And of course, the unforgettable:
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
About which, the only comment I can make is:
Such sayings are emblematic of Wilde,
Frothy and piquant, and seldom mild.
But Wilde was not the only British purveyor of epigrammatic elegance. Coleridge practically gives us the very definition of epigrams when he wrote:
“What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.”
And John Dryden, the 17th century English playwright, literary critic, translator and, of course, poet is famous for having said:
“Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she’s at rest – and so am I.”
In America, Ben Franklin is on record as having said, pithily, if not so humorously:
Fell great oaks.”
But is there, I wondered, a use for epigrams in the more modern context? It occurred to me that not only are they the soul of brevity and wit, but they lend themselves to the diminished attention span of many in this age of Twitter. After all, pretty much any one of them might fit in the requisite 140 tweeted characters. Maybe there’s even a Twitter-gram in use, I don’t know, although so far I have been unsuccessful in finding any such animal. Why not start one then, I thought? Except for the fact that I don’t have a cell phone, have never tweeted, and wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to begin.
So here, in brief, is a linked series of epigrams about what I think of all of that:
I have as much an idea of how to tweet,
As a dead man would to sit and eat.
What is it with all this twitter?
I seems like so much dross and litter.;
Still, there’s something that really can be said
For making an attempt to unclutter your head
Shorter and cleaner is often better.
Not like some nineteenth century letter.
Too many words in your diet
Can twist your mind and run riot.
Why not put it all in twitter,
And in so doing, get rid of the litter?
Writers who love to go on and on
Are like Indians cooks and their naan.
They bake it in an oven or skillet,
But then proceed to butter and fill it.
It’s good, but makes you sluggish and fat.
And who needs that for his thermostat?
So I won’t keep spinning any more verse,
Lest it all just get worse and worse.
You’d think that I’d know better, in fact,
That the measured and thoughtful is what I lacked.
In the end, I’ve written way too much,
And better get up and go to lunch.
Though I’ll leave you with this one little thought,
Even if it’s really more than I ought:
A novel—good Lord!—is way too many words,
Read only by writers, and other such nerds
If one forty a couplet I have exceeded,
My own advice I have not heeded