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

XIII. Robert Burton, John Barclay and John Owen

§ 9. John Owen’s Epigrams

The making of Latin verses was an essential part of the curriculum of a good English grammar school in the sixteenth century. John Owen, both as boy and as master, must have had plenty of experience in “longs and shorts.” Leach has pointed out, in his History of Warwick School, that the education at Winchester when Owen was a scholar was largely devoted to the production of Latin epigrams, and the lines on Drake, composed while their author was yet a schoolboy, had the honour of a place in Camden’s Annales.

The date conventionally assigned to Owen’s birth is c. 1560, but Leach has shown from the evidence of his age when admitted a scholar at Winchester that the right year is 1563 or 1564. This inference is supported by the pedigree supplied by H. R. Hughes of Kinmel, according to which Owen had three elder brothers, the first born in 1560. Another account makes him the third son. His father, Thomas Owen of Plas dû, was sheriff of Carnarvonshire in 1569, and it seems certain that Hugh Owen, the conspirator, who died at Rome in 1618, was his uncle. Whatever the truth of the story that the poet was disinherited by an uncle because of an epigram reflecting on the church of Rome, we learn from Hugh Owen’s monument, that his heir was his sister’s son, a Gwynne.

Although several of his epigrams are earlier, Owen’s first volume did not appear till 1606, three other volumes following within the next six years. His success was immediate and extraordinary; his admirers hailed him as the equal, if not the superior, of Martial; and the comparison, though too often repeated in an uncritical fashion, undoubtedly contains some slight element of truth. It must be confessed at once that, in Owen, one looks in vain for the poetic side of Martial, for his pathos and tenderness. One misses, too, the variety of metre, above all the hendecasyllables in which Martial’s hand is exceedingly light, the great majority of Owen’s epigrams consisting of a single elegiac distich. Wherein, then, lies his merit? He is the very embodiment of that “quick venew of wit: snip, snap, quick and home,” which finds its fittest expression in the brief compass of two Latin lines, as Latin, too, has no rival as the language for terse inscription. If, without profanity, Owen’s name may be set by Martial’s, it is because he has caught something of the spirit of one class of Martial’s epigrams—the couplets which are all point with no room for poetry. If we apply the familiar precept, Owen’s performances possess the aculeus and are corporis exigui, but the honey is to seek.

It was the point and brevity which captivated his auditors; the tastes of that audience are seen in Manningham’s Diary. The Epigrammata would especially be welcomed by members of the universities and inns of court, daily conversant with Latin, enamoured of verbal quips, impresses and anagrams. They would find Owen singularly free from the two faults which rendered much modern Latin verse intolerable, namely, insipidity and tediousness. In a quatrain prefixed to Owen’s second volume (1607), Sir John Harington pays his friend the curious compliment of saying that his verses do not make the reader sick. This is no faint praise. Owen is eminently readable; his very faults are rarely associated with ineffectiveness. They are, for the most part, due to devices for arresting the reader’s attention. Among the least satisfactory is the selection of words of similar sound, where, without point enough for a pun, the result is a jingle—Mars and mors; audirect and auderet; Venetiae and divitiae; A summo sumo Principe principium. But there are times when his mere dexterity in playing with the letter compels admiration, as in the line describing the care of physicians and lawyers for their clients:

  • Dant patienter opem, dum potiuntur opum.
  • We have in him a concise Latin counterpart of the punning and alliterative titles of contemporary controversial tracts. Owen abounds in the tricks by which a word is written backwards or stripped of a syllable or letter. His alertness in detecting his opportunity is only paralleled by De Morgan’s prompt discovery, when Burgon had repudiated an invitation to a public dinner, that curt refusal was spelt by the reversal of the dean’s name. In keeping with the fashion of his age, Owen is great in anagrams, ringing the changes to the fifth degree. There is juggling with figures, as when he shows that the digits of prince Henry’s birth year, when added together, make up the golden number, nineteen. In the higher paronomasia, Owen is supreme; his happiest efforts have all the shock and the inevitableness of the famous neque benefecit neque malefecit, sed interfecit. Hood’s inexhaustible fertility would have found in him a rival. Akin to this is the readiness with ingenious comparisons, and the skill by which a new and unexpected turn is given to familiar proverbs and quotations, or new light shed on a familiar truth, as in the epigram Ad Juvenem:
  • Quisque senectutem, mortem tibi nemo precatur;
  • Optatur morbus, non medicina tibi.
  • It was hardly to be expected that, in his criticisms of social life, Owen would refrain from claiming the licence traditionally enjoyed by the epigrammatist, and he has Sterne’s unedifying trick of making a sentence in itself innocent the vehicle of an unseemly meaning. Whatever the method employed, Owen’s perpetual aim is to startle the reader by the flash of his wit, whether the result be reached by the soaring of a rocket or the splutter of a squib. As befits a schoolmaster, he affords us scraps from the feast of languages; besides Latin and English, Greek, Welsh, Hebrew, French and Italian all have a part in his jests. Nor is learning absent; to a hasty reader, satisfied with seeing that a point is complete in itself, the echoes from the classics may remain unheard. It is not always recognised that his praise of Thomas Neville, his patroness’s son,
  • Qui puerum laudat, spem, non rem, laudat in illo,
  • Non spes, ingenium res probat ispa tuum
  • is based on a saying of Cicero, quoted in Servius’s commentary to Vergil. The words Semper in incerta re tu mihi certus amicus are suggested by a line of Ennius, quoted in De Amicitia. The epigram on Sir Philip Sidney has been cited as an example of Owen’s power; it is really the versification of the younger Pliny’s panegyric on his uncle. Owen takes his profit where he finds it. An etymology of Varro, a line of Persius, a hexameter proverb, and an aphorism of Matthaeus Borbonius, are alike pressed into his service. It is not always easy to distinguish between imitation and coincidence nor to decide whether indebtedness is unconscious or intentional. The remark on Nicholas Borbonius’s Nugae has a parallel in Joachim du Bellay: elsewhere, we meet with an apparent reminiscence of Johannes Secundus. The distich obnoxious to quotation on Peter and Simon at Rome embodies a jest presumably ancient. It may be seen in Euricius Cordus. Another epigram of Cordus on our attitude to a physician closely resembles one of Owen’s. There are many such parallels in the vast literature of modern Latin. The remarkable instance of the lines of Hieronimo Amalteo and Passerat is given in Hallam. Similarity of theme must often have involved similarity of treatment.

    Owen’s epigrams are no mere imitative exercises in Latin style. He must pack his meaning in a small space and he feels the difficulty of his task. Crede mihi, labor est non levis esse brevem. He is bent on making his point and makes it often at the cost of correctness. He is not infallible in the order of his words and the modern schoolmaster would be aghast at some of his irregularities in syntax. His prosody is scarcely that of the Augustan age and he is even guilty of false quantities. In some points, however, modern scholarship is apt to misjudge the practice of earlier verse writers. A critic of archbishop William’s epitaph on the poet in old St. Paul’s has objected to parva statura on the ground that Owen would not have tolerated this from a fourth form boy. If so, to be consistent, Owen ought himself to have submitted to the rod. The rule that a short vowel should not be retained before sc-, sp-, or st- was no matter of common notoriety in his day. It was left for Richard Dawes, in 1745, to point out the general neglect of the principle, and to ask school-masters to urge it on their pupils.

    Owen exercises his wit on many subjects. We meet the familiar figures of the poor author, the degenerate noble, the courtier, the lawyer, the physician, the atheist, the hypocrite, the miser, January and May, the uxorious husband, the cuckold. We have a host of imaginary personages—Aulus, Cotta, Harpalus, Marcus, Quintus, Camilla and Flora, Gellia, Pontia and Phyllis and many another. It was the succession of general and unconnected ideas which caused Lessing to declare that it made him dizzy to read a book of Owen through. There are epigrams on Winchester college, the university of Oxford, Christ Church, the Bodleian library, Saville’s edition of Chrysostom, Holland’s translation of Pliny, Sidney’s Arcadia, Overbury’s Perfect Wife, Joseph Hall’s Meditations and other literary topics. Many are addressed to Welsh kinsfolk, to personal friends, to patrons actual or prospective, to prominent people of the day. Among others, are bishop Bilson, his former headmaster at Winchester, archbishop Abbot, archbishop Williams, Vaughan, bishop of London, Burleigh and Salisbury, lord chancellor Ellesmere, Coke, lord Dorset, Lucy, countess of Bedford, the earl of Pembroke, Sir Edward Herbert, Sir Henry Wotton, Sir Henry Goodyer, Sir Henry Fanshawe, Daniel the poet, Sir John Harington, Sir Thomas Overbury. His first three books were dedicated to lady Mary Neville, daughter of the earl of Dorset; his second volume, a single book, to Arabella Stuart; the third volume to Henry prince of Wales and his brother Charles; and the last volume to his three “Maecenates” Sir Edward Noel, Sir William Sidley and Sir Roger Owen. There are touches of sincere emotion, as in his lines to his friend, John Hoskins; but Owen’s habitual style is hardly adapted for the finer shades of personal feeling, nor, in an age of fulsome dedications, did he possess the art of flattering with delicacy. James I and his family are naturally the recipients of the grossest adulation, witness the epigram in which the prayer is offered that the king may live nineteen hundred years. Owen, as he reminds us, was of the order of Fratres Minores; he makes no secret of his eagerness to be patronised and is outspoken in his desire to receive pecuniary help, a weakness which he shared with Martial. After ceasing to be master at Warwick, he seems to have been in difficulties, and it has been stated that, in the latter part of his life, he owed his support to the kindness of his kinsman archbishop Williams. About ten years elapsed between his last volume and the death of “little Owen, the epigrammaker”; but so little is known of his career that it is impossible to say whether his silence was due to the consciousness that he had exhausted a particular vein or whether other causes were at work. There are signs of falling off in his later productions, and he seems to have been aware of this.