Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 10. Epigrams and Character Sketch

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 10. Epigrams and Character Sketch

At the end of the sixteenth century, it was discovered that the abnormalities and eccentricities of conduct about which men laughed and talked, rather than waxed indignant, could be best portrayed by some detached, fragmentary form of composition, and imitation of the Latin epigram became the rage. This interest in human peculiarities and oddities dates from the production of Mery Tales and Qucike Answers, and the new departure in classicism impoverished the development of the jest-books as well as of the drama. Even at that period, John Heywood had embodied this type of anecdote in fragments of rough verse which his publishers chose to call epigrams, and Robert Crowley had issued sallies of moral and social satire under the same name. But the progress of civilisation and the growth of London had made character far more complex, and the taste for literary form, coupled with increasing social intercourse, had prepared men of culture for the pointed Latin epigram which had already been refined into a subtle but formidable weapon by the Italians from the days of Pius II to Leo X (1458–1522). Sir John Harington and Sir John Davies were among the first who adapted this type to English uses, and they were followed by Thomas Bastard (1597), John Weever (1598) and Samuel Rowlands (1600). After the accession of James, Catullus and Martial were imitated as frequently as Juvenal, and were preferred by those who realised that “humours” were a theme for the witticisms of conversation rather than for the tirades of a moralist. John Davies of Hereford was, perhaps, the most typical. In 1610 he brought out The Scourge of Folly, depicting such social offences as Fuscus’s boorishness, Gorgonius’s slovenly appearance, Brunnus’s unctuous manners and Classus’s loquacity. But the epigram, then as always an offspring of social intercourse, must culminate in a conceit, and Davies frequently relinquishes the scourging of folly merely to present a play of paradox or fancy. In parting company with satire, the epigram came to rely more on the artifices of literary form, and its votaries, however frivolous their theme, helped to prepare the age of Addison and Pope by recognising the importance of workmanship and cultivating the niceties of expression.