Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, January 12, 2008

January 12, 2008

Dear Editor, Harper’s,

When, in his essay on aphorisms in the February 2008 issue of Harper’s, Arthur Krystal mentioned in a footnote that Martial “created the epigram around A.D. 86 in the form of elegiac couplets,” I thought, no, I don’t think so -- hadn’t the Greeks been writing epigrams for centuries by then? No big deal, everybody slips, I thought; until a few paragraphs later when Krystal passed a casual, cliched insult against bloggers -- “one has to wonder whether it is knowledge that is being served or merely thousands of egos” in blogs -- and that sent me to the bookshelf.

As presented for hundreds of pages in the Penguin edition of The Greek Anthology, edited by Peter Green, the Greeks had indeed been writing epigrams for centuries before Martial. But I decided to give Krystal the benefit of the doubt and dig a little deeper to see if Martial had been the one responsible for transforming the epigram into a specifically comical, satirical verse form.

He had not.

In Green’s account, the turn happened a few decades before Martial, and Greek writers did it -- Lucilius and Nikarchos. Green identifies Martial as their more-talented successor who ensured the survival of the epigram. The Penguin edition of Martial In English, edited by J.P. Sullivan and A.J. Boyle, shows Martial’s influence on such beloved English poets as Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, and Alexander Pope; and indeed our usual understanding of the epigram as a brief, witty saying is due to Martial. But he didn’t create the form.

My five-year-old son very much liked this epigram by Martial’s Greek precursor Nikarchos, in Robin Skelton’s translation, from The Greek Anthology:

If blocked, a fart can kill a man;
if let escape, a fart can sing
health-giving songs; farts kill and save:
a fart is powerful as a king.

I understand that snobbishness is part of the Harper’s shtick, but if you’re planning to insult people for not serving knowledge, you had better have your own facts straight.

Sincerely yours,


-- image: Il Dottore from Commedia dell'Arte

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