My Epigram

Some more humorous writing from the papers of E. V. Knox ('Evoe.") He was, for a while, editor of Punch (1931 - 1949) and this may have appeared there although there is no trace of it online...


  For long it was a fugitive dream. I would catch sight of it, as one sees, or seems to see, a wild animal far down a forest clearing, or might it be a woodland nymph or faun? Or perhaps I would trace it written in the colours of the sunset, or in the morning among the folds of mist as they cleared from the chimneys on the mountain tops.

  I am speaking now of my epigram. I had always intended to make (and utter) at least one epigram before I died. Other men had done it. Could I not also join their mighty company?

  Then it would be written, perhaps, in the Dictionary of National Biography, "His early years and middle age were undistinguished, but during his fifty-ninth year, he suddenly made the now famous remark, ' ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ '"

  But what would be those words? And should I ever say them? As the years rolled on I despaired of supposing they would ever rise unbidden to my lips, and I set myself to an earnest study of the art, I might almost say the machinery, of the epigram.

  The verse form I discarded, nay, I despised. Ancient it was, but, on the whole, too easy. It was either a statement of undoubted fact, or something so rude as to be more fitted for an epitaph - where no action for libel is likely to ensue.

  It was one of the glittering generalizations about life that I intended to formulate (followed by loud laughter), a sentence paradoxical, pungent, pregnant, add, at the same time, profound. Only one. After that, I thought, I could relapse into a quiet old age. But how to lay the foundations, rear the pillars, the arches, surmount the fabric with its memorable magnificent roof? There was, first of all, the subject-matter. Epigrams, it seemed, were for the most part, made about:

-Wealth and poverty
-Vice and virtue
-Men and women
-Idleness and industry
-Nations and their politics
-Wine and food

  It was a fairly imposing list. It seemed to me that something good and new about one of these topics (or some other) might, with sufficient labour and diligence, be said by almost any man. And I set to work.

  Almost at once I began to perceive a common pattern, a texture in the design. To take an ancient proverb, or current saying, and turn it upside down, or inside out, seemed to be one of the commonest devices, and many a long hour have I spent on old examples, twisting them (as Horace would have recommended) with nocturnal and diurnal hand. Once, I thought I had nearly achieved my goal. "You can take a horse to the water," I murmured in a mood of frenzy, "but you can't make it sink." That seemed to bear the hallmark of the true epigram one must prepare an occasion for using it. Merely to write a long book or (worse) a play, in which you lead up to your epigram, suddenly, spontaneously, provoked by a real event, by a genuine conversation. The only occasion for this epigram of mine seemed to be the moment of leaving a seaside hotel with one of those inflated rubber horses that add so much to the pleasure of sporting in the brine. But toil as I would, I could not contrive the incident. Just as I began to utter the first words, the whole party would bound forward, with glad cries, to the beach, leaving the important words (what we epigrammatists call the sting of the epigram) to be wasted on the wind, or spoken to a solitary sea-gull.

  Even more signally did I fail with another project, which cost me many hours of midnight toil. "Let me beat a nation's gongs," (I thought while I was shaving), "and I care not who may write its poetry." But that meant having the whole house-party lined up in the hall, before breakfast, and singing, or attempting to sing, verses of their own composition, while I wrested the gong-stick from the hand of a respectful but indignant butler or a frightened parlour-maid.

  The opportunity never arose.

  It never, in my experience, does arise. How useless, for instance, to remark during the soup, "Honesty is the best policy, but the premiums are exorbitant," and then find that everybody else is chatting about birds. Lead the conversation up carefully to "honesty"? It is far more difficult than you might suppose. Honesty is a subject from which the Englishmen (American, Frenchman, Patagonian) shrinks, as he shrinks from a toad. Well, then, easy (if you are at the dinner-table) to make an epigram about wine or food? I disagree. I remember that once in a chop-house, half-famished and waiting to be served, I began to repeat that on every table was a vast array of brown-coloured bottles, labelled with most of the letters of the alphabet, and a diner not far off was saying with great indignation, "I can't use these. Haven't you an XY?" The English have a multitude of sauces, I reflected sadly, but only one steak. But that was scarcely an epigram. It was a cry from the heart.

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