2 APRIL 1948, Page 22

Unmemorable Epigrams

THE late Professor Hudson opens his book by quoting an epigram on epigrams: " The epigram is a witty kind of writing—though not

all who write it are witty." And, he adds, not all commentators on the epigram in the last four hundred years can be termed epigram- matic. It is a good beginning, and Professor Hudson writes lucidly and gracefully always, and thus differs from too many of his American

colleagues' but their chronic diseases—the amassing of detail for the sake of detail, and the total lack of any criterion of significance—

creeps upon him and eventually smothers the lucid prose. There is a steady decline in interest from the first quite brilliant chapter on the nature of the epigram, through the epigrams of Thomas More, down to almost unplumbable depths of the scholarly epigram- matists and epigrams in schools and colleges.

The book as we have it—it is published posthumously—is only a quarter of the length originally planned by Professor Hudson, and we are given no indication of the projected scope. Certainly, as it stands, the book is a monument of missed opportunities: there is a valuable and fruitful essay to be written on the epigram in the Renaissance ; and it need only be essay length ; but this is not it. The value of such an essay would be that it looked backward but principally forward from the epigrammatists of the sixteenth century: to keep the reader's nose—as Professor Hudson does—pressed hard to the tough, spiky grindstone of these epigrammatists is not only

painful, it is a positive waste of time. For—why not say it? English literature would not be a jot the poorer if the whole of the corpus of epigrams assembled here were forgotten for ever.

These are exercises in a literary form—a form destined to die out very speedily, leaving no formal heirs ; further, they are almost all in Latin. The epigram as a literary flourish, a delightful adjunct to writing, has, on the other hand, played an important part in the development of English literature: it has added point and value to the work of Shakespeare himself, to Restoration comedies, the poems of Pope, to much late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century prose ; it is even integral to the mind and poetry of the " meta-

physicals," and through them to our own time. But the book does not convey a suspicion of all this—apart from a somewhat arid footnote (p. it), and a definition of the epigram which is so wide, and therefore valueless, as to embrace Rose Aylmer and most of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Moreover, the English writers of the Renaissance were, above all, learning to write, wrestling with the new-born English language to bend it to the expression of their wide-ranging, Renaissance minds ;

this can be seen very clearly with the novelists, striving to make a language, rheumaticky in the joints, dance the newest galliard. The

epigram form was especially important, because ideally it achieved meatiness with extreme conciseness—precisely the aims of the writers of English of the time ; but it was English they were trying to write, not Latin. And so how much they learnt from the Latin epigram- matists is open to question; after all, a preliminary to the writing of English at this' period was a victory over the Latinists who sneered at the use of English at all. But the most radical criticism of Professor Hudson is that he does not even recognise that such a question exists.

It cannot even be said that the book is useful to students as a handy collection or anthology, for it is incomplete. In any case, the number of students concerned with such matters must happily be minute ; and no human, or humane, examiner could ever set such a question. So, for comfort, we return across the arid wastes to Professor Hudson's first chapter, where there is light and warmth and a certain sense of humanistic breadth. And where even the reviewer can unreservedly cease his " priuy nips, bitter taunts and witty scoffes "—which is how the anonymous author of the Arte of English Poesie. defined the epigram in x589.