A Dwarfish Whole

What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole, its body brevity and wit its soul (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

In her book on “Poetic closure”, Barbara Herrnstein Smith envisioned a poem of maximal closure as “pre-eminently teleological” and “in a sense […] suicidal […], for all of its energy would be directed toward its own termination.”[1] “The poem described here,” she adds, “does not, I think, exist, but the epigram tends to approach it in many respects.” While it is certainly true that epigrams are texts of maximal closure, many of them also formed part of a larger unit, as ancient authors artfully arranged their epigrams in books. It is important to note that the semantic potential of individual texts can be both enhanced and modified by surrounding poems. Unfortunately, the majority of Greek epigrams have not come down to us in their original context, but in anthologies, or even anthologies of anthologies. Nonetheless it is, I believe, possible to find traces of these arrangements in the Palatine Anthology and to reflect upon the dynamics of reading engendered by the concatenation of such dwarfish wholes.

[1] Cf. Herrnstein Smith 1968: 197-198.