A Case for the Epigram: Ben Jonson's "Inviting a Friend to Supper"

Meredith Goulding


The epigram does not readily come to mind when one thinks of major work in the English poetic tradition, and the fact that Jonson's justly famous "Inviting a Friend to Supper" occurs in a collection entitled Epigrams is rarely accorded much attention. Even distinguished editors of Jonson dismiss as a "quite unmanageable wilderness of verse kinds" the volume that the poet himself referred to as "the ripest of my studies, my Epigrams". Not that popular notions, either now or in the seventeenth century, of what the term might mean offer much assistance. "Inviting a Friend to Supper" is hardly illuminated by the 0 E D definition of epigram (2. a short poem ending in a witty or ingenious turn of thought); nor has it much in common with the work of Jonson's contemporaries, from whose fashionable epigrams Jonson took care to distinguish his own:
To thee my way in epigrams seems new,
When both it is the old way and the true.
Thou sayst that cannot be: for thou hast seen
Davies and Weever, and the best have been,
And mine come nothing like. I hope so.
If lines like these, in conjunction with a current narrow definition, present the difficulty of reaching common ground with Jonson on the epigram, they also indicate the importance of facing that difficulty. Their terse, clear insistence on Jonson's interest in the genre as he believed it should be interpreted, may serve as a reminder of what ought hardly be doubted: the poems chosen to head the 1616 Folio-before, it will be remembered, the plays as well as other poems-were named advisedly.

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