Part 1: From Epitaph to Satire
Like the flight of the arrow to which it has been compared, the epigram pierces almost as soon as it leaves the pen. A breath, a short flight, and the bolt strikes home.
- Originally, an epigram was something written upon or into another medium -- that's what the "epi-" means, with the "-gram" referring to the thing written.
- Objects dedicated, especially to a god or goddess, would bear an inscription giving credit to donor and deity. Such dedicatory inscriptions were one of two common types of epigrams.
- The other primary use of epigrams was for memorials to the dead. Since chiseling words out of tombstones is a difficult procedure, brevity was important. This became one of the defining aspects of epigram even when, over time, its uses grew.
The Hellenistic Age can sometimes be thought of as that period between the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) and Cleopatra VII -- the Cleopatra of Hollywood fame (30 B.C.). (The end date of the Hellenistic period in Ptolemaic Egypt is somewhat later than elsewhere in Alexander's empire based on the criterion of when the Greeks took over the power in the area.) During this period, the epigram became a popular, specific poetic form, using the elegiac couplet, and marked by brevity.
While the lyric impulse did not die out, it took refuge in the modest embraces of the epigram, a genre built on expressive economy, verbal ingenuity, and technical dexterity.Epitaph writing (sepulchral epigrams) and dedicatory epigrams continued in the new form, along with new amatory, epideictic (designed to please an audience), and satirical epigrams.
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This feature is copyright © 2003 N.S. Gill.