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venerable for its antiquity, and has produced several pieces which have lived very near as long as the Iliad itself: I mean those short poems printed among the minor Greek poets, which resemble the figure of an egg, a pair of wings, an ax, a shepherd's pipe, and an altar.
As for the first, it is a little oval poem, and may not improperly be called a scholar's egg. I would endeavour to hatch it, or, in more intelligible language, to translate it into English, did not I find the interpretation of it very difficult; for the author seems to have been more intent upon the figure of his poem, than upon the sense of it.
The pair of wings consists of twelve verses, or rather feathers, every verse decreasing gradually in its measure according to its situation in the wing. The subject of it (as in the rest of the poems which follow) bears some remote affinity with the figure, for it describes a god of Love, who is always painted with wings.
The ax, methinks, would have been a good figure for a lampoon, had the edge of it consisted of the most satirical parts of the work; but as it is in the original, I take it to have been nothing else but the poesy of an ax which was consecrated to Minerva, and was thought to have been the same that Epeus made use of in the building of the Trojan horse; which is a hint I shall leave to the consideration of the critics. I am apt to think that the poesy was written originally upon the ax, like those which our modern cutlers inscribe upon their knives; and that, therefore, the poesy still remains in its ancient shape, though the ax itself is lost.
The shepherd's pipe may be said to be full of music, for it is composed of nine different kinds of verses, which by their several lengths resemble the nine stops of the old musical instrument, that is likewise the subject of the poem.
The altar is inscribed with the epitaph of Troilus, the son of Hecuba; which, by the way, makes me believe, that these false pieces of wit are much more ancient than the authors to whom they are generally ascribed; at least I will never be persuaded that so fine a writer as Theocritus could have been the author of any such simple works.
It was impossible for a man to succeed in these performances who was not a kind of painter, or at least a designer : he was first of all to draw the outline of the subject which he intended to write upon, and afterwards conform the de
scription to the figure of his subject. The poetry was to contract or dilate itself according to the mould in which it was cast. In a word, the verses were to be cramped or extended to the dimensions of the frame that was prepared for them; and to undergo the fate of those persons whom the tyrant Procrustes used to lodge in his iron bed: if they were too short, he stretched them on a rack; and if they were too long, chopped off a part of their legs, till they fitted the couch which he had prepared for them.
Mr. Dryden hints at this obsolete kind of wit in one of the following verses in his Mac Flecno; which an English reader cannot understand, who does not know that there are those little poems above-mentioned in the shape of wings and altars.
Choose for thy command
Some peaceful province in Acrostic land;
There may'st thou wings display, and altars raise,
This fashion of false wit was revived by several poets of the last age, and in particular may be met with among Mr. Herbert's Poems; and, if I am not mistaken, in the translation of Du Bartas. I do not remember any other kind of work among the moderns which more resembles the performances I have mentioned, than that famous picture of King Charles the First, which has the whole book of Psalms written in the lines of the face and the hair of the head. When I was last at Oxford I perused one of the whiskers; and was reading the other, but could not go so far in it as I would have done, by reason of the impatience of my friends and fellow-travellers, who all of them pressed to see such a piece of curiosity. I have since heard, that there is now an eminent writing-master in town, who has transcribed all the Old Testament in a full-bottomed periwig; and if the fashion should introduce the thick kind of wigs which were in vogue some few years ago, he promises to add two or three supernumerary locks that shall contain all the Apocrypha. designed this wig originally for King William, having disposed of the two books of Kings in the two forks of the foretop; but that glorious monarch dying before the wig was finished, there is a space left in it for the face of any one that has a mind to purchase it.
But to return to our ancient poems in picture, I would
humbly propose, for the benefit of our modern smatterers in poetry, that they would imitate their brethren among the ancients in those ingenious devices. I have communicated this thought to a young poetical lover of my acquaintance, who intends to present his mistress with a copy of verses made in the shape of her fan; and, if he tells me true, has already finished the three first sticks of it. He has likewise promised me to get the measure of his mistress's marriage finger, with a design to make a poesy in the fashion of a ring which shall exactly fit it. It is so very easy to enlarge upon a good hint, that I do not question but my ingenious readers will apply what I have said to many other particulars; and that we shall see the town filled in a very little time with poetical tippets, handkerchiefs, snuff-boxes, and the like female ornaments. I shall therefore conclude with a word of advice to those admirable English authors who call themselves Pindaric writers, that they would apply themselves to this kind of wit without loss of time, as being provided better than any other poets with verses of all sizes and dimensions:
No. 59. TUESDAY, MAY 8.
Operosè nihil agunt. SEN.
THERE is nothing more certain than that every man would be a wit if he could, and, notwithstanding pedants of pretended depth and solidity are apt to decry the writings of a polite author as flash and froth, they all of them show upon occasion that they would spare no pains to arrive at the character of those whom they seem to despise. For this reason we often find them endeavouring at works of fancy, which cost them infinite pangs in the production. The truth of it is, a man had better be a galley-slave than a wit, were one to gain that title by those elaborate trifles which have been the inventions of such authors as were often masters of great learning, but no genius.
In my last paper I mentioned some of these false wits among the ancients, and in this shall give the reader two or three other species of them that flourished in the same early ages of the world. The first I shall produce are the Lipogrammatists, or letter-droppers of antiquity, that would take an exception, without any reason, against some particular
letter in the alphabet, so as not to admit it once into a whole poem. One Tryphiodorus was a great master in this kind of writing. He composed an Odyssey, or epic poem, on the adventures of Ulysses, consisting of four-and-twenty books, having entirely banished the letter A from his first book, which was called Alpha (as lucus a non lucendo) because there was not an Alpha in it. His second book was inscribed Beta, for the same reason. In short, the poet excluded the whole four-and-twenty letters in their turns, and showed them, one after another, that he could do his business without them.
It must have been very pleasant to have seen this poet avoiding the reprobate letter, as much as another would a false quantity, and making his escape from it through the several Greek dialects, when he was pressed with it in any particular syllable. For the most apt and elegant word in the whole language was rejected, like a diamond with a flaw in it, if it appeared blemished with a wrong letter. I shall only observe upon this head, that if the work I have here mentioned had been now extant, the Odyssey of Tryphiodorus, in all probability, would have been oftener quoted by our learned pedants, than the Odyssey of Homer. What a perpetual fund would it have been of obsolete words and phrases, unusual barbarisms and rusticities, absurd spellings and complicated dialects! I make no question but it would have been looked upon as one of the most valuable treasuries of the Greek tongue.
I find, likewise, among the ancients that ingenious kind of conceit, which the moderns distinguish by the name of a Rebus, that does not sink a letter, but a whole word, by substituting a picture in its place. When Cæsar was one of the masters of the Roman mint, he placed the figure of an elephant upon the reverse of the public money; the word Cæsar signifying an elephant in the Punic language. This was artificially contrived by Cæsar, because it was not lawful for a private man to stamp his own figure upon the coin of the commonwealth. Cicero, who was so called from the founder of his family, that was marked on the nose with a little wen like a vetch, (which is cicer in Latin,) instead of Marcus Tullius Cicero, ordered the words Marcus Tullius, with the figure of a vetch at the end of them, to be inscribed on a public monument. This was done probably to show
that he was neither ashamed of his name or family, notwithstanding the envy of his competitors had often reproached him with both. In the same manner we read of a famous building that was marked in several parts of it with the figures of a frog and a lizard: those words in Greek having been the names of the architects, who by the laws of their country were never permitted to inscribe their own names upon their works. For the same reason it is thought that the forelock of the horse, in the antique equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, represents at a distance the shape of an owl, to intimate the country of the statuary, who, in all probability, was an Athenian. This kind of wit was very much in vogue among our own countrymen about an age or two ago, who did not practise it for any oblique reason, as the ancients above-mentioned, but purely for the sake of being witty. Among innumerable instances that may be given of this nature, I shall produce the device of one Mr. Newberry, as I find it mentioned by our learned Camden in his remains. Mr. Newberry, to represent his name by a picture, hung up at his door the sign of a yew-tree, that had several berries upon it, and in the midst of them a great golden N hung upon a bough of the tree, which by the help of a little false spelling made up the word N-ew-berry.
I shall conclude this topic with a Rebus, which has been lately hewn out in free-stone, and erected over two of the portals of Blenheim House, being the figure of a monstrous lion tearing to pieces a little cock. For the better understanding of which device, I must acquaint my English reader, that a cock has the misfortune to be called in Latin by the same word that signifies a French-man, as a lion is. the emblem of the English nation. Such a device in so noble a pile of building, looks like a pun in an heroic poem; and I am very sorry the truly ingenious architect would suffer the statuary to blemish his excellent plan with so poor a conceit but I hope what I have said will gain quarter for the cock, and deliver him out of the lion's paw.
I find likewise in ancient times the conceit of making an echo talk sensibly, and give rational answers. If this could be excusable in any writer, it would be in Ovid, where he introduces the echo as a nymph, before she was worn away into nothing but a voice. The learned Erasmus, though a man of wit and genius, has composed a dialogue upon this silly