As such the close approximation of the Augustan epigram to everyday speech, embellished with couplets and equivocations, antithesis, ‘the point’ or closure and surprise and humour, had popular appeal; besides these epigrams where the main content of ‘miscellanies’, which were ‘textbooks’ on cultivated speech and ‘universal truths’ and a part of the education of young men of class. This popularity made it easy to simply anchor formal metric features unto popular speech, insinuating a sophistication of wit – for all it is worth, with the results passing for elevated literary speech while managing to maintaining the distinction between prose proper and poetry.
There was also the allure that the epigram was easy to remember, especially where knowledge of aphoristic universals were concerned. Again it should be noted that such ‘truths’ were, nevertheless based on false logic. If we juxtapose the scientific deduction, ‘twelve inches make one foot’ to Pope’s “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, the first term would be much more accurate mathematically (and can be proven logically) than the second. Perhaps it is one reason why Plato wanted to kick the poet out of his republic, although poetry does, of course, has as its function - the cultivation of the mind and humanising of the man.
Augustan ‘false’ wit, with its “anagrams, acrostics, jests, riddles, rebuses, conundrums, epigrams, and cheap witticisms”, is not the kind of wit one intends to dwell upon in this essay. But before we depart this course of investigation we ought to have one more example from a modernist, namely T.S. Eliot; a paraphrase will do: ‘Your husband is coming to dinner tonight/may it be the last that he shall eat!’ This is from one of Eliot’s minor poems and he was wise in not pursuing such epigrammatic fancies in his major poems or in the larger body of his oeuvre. Finally the simplest way for the contemporary mind to grasp the worst of Augustan wit is to compare it to what we would call the limerick today. In short the epigram was too unserious a form to be totally integrated into the major forms, except perhaps, the burlesque, the ribald or the comic.
To grasp the kind of wit in contemplation we should begin with the ‘true wit’ of the Greeks as distinct from that Latinate impostor introduced by Martial Ausonius – dealing in antithesis, equivocation, closure or ‘point’ and surprise – which is the direct progenitor of Augustan false wit. Greek wit was, mostly, a set of fine thoughts; it neither dealt in mirth nor surprise but was capable of giving aesthetic pleasure to fragile sensibilities. What was required of the Greek epigram was a simple brevity and unity of thought. Such brevity and unity of thought, which can be achieved with a lean syntax, imagistic and precise diction and poignancy, is the kind of wit under consideration.
Those qualities will then be instrumental toward the function of organic unity within the poem. The contemporary poet should then always pose himself questions about the purpose of a word or an expression within the poem. A superfluity of wording or expression should be shunned since it could lead to prosaicness at best, mixed metaphors at worst or a complete breakdown of intended verbal and thematic effects. Here there is a need to comment on the over-elaborately brief. There is such a thing as false economy in traditional grammar just as in the syntax of poetry. While writing about the new-fangled ‘plunderverse’, a commentator made the example of a two-word poem and proceeded to confidently refract its import through his own cultural prism. The poem in question is Peter McCaffrey’s “Catching Frogs”: “jar din”. That is the whole poem; yes, “Jar din”! Gregory Betts then proceeds to justify it thus:
His brilliant "Catching Frogs," for instance, unravels an entire narrative with just two words: "jar din." From the bilingual play of the two words, the activity (catching frogs) gains a locus (the garden) and a conclusion (the frog is now in the jar). Best of all, the title plays on the pun of frogs as Frenchmen, and the game of finding French words in English.
Ellipsis or omission is a normal trope in poetry – and a useful one too, that helps in stream-lining syntax and scintillating the cerebrum of the reader, nevertheless there is usually some hint or a clue for the reader,