Recent discussions of the ‘early modern blogosphere’ have set me thinking about the circulation of the ‘written word’ on media such as Twitter.  Although I believe that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries valued material forms of textual circulation, digital media has seen a revival of the epigram with early modern parallels.  I keep returning to a cheerful article in The Sunday Times (paywall) from the 28th September in which Mark Forsyth argues that ‘far from destroying literacy, the social media have given writing a new importance, especially in the art of wooing’.

Forsyth’s article, distantly related to his new book Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language, celebrates the way social media, in particular Twitter, encourage the appreciation of a well-turned phrase.  On Oscar Wilde’s birthday, ‘a stream of Wildean epigrams was flowing across the screen at a rate of one every couple of seconds’.  Forsyth took to see how popular these epigrams were on an average day: ‘…I set up a little experiment to see who got the most mentions on the microblogging site: Shakespeare, Wilde or Simon Cowell.  After an hour on a normal weekday afternoon, Shakespeare had 147 – usually just people quoting a line – Wilde had 52 and Simon Cowell was lagging behind with 14’.

Despite the insubstantial nature of digital media, Twitter lends itself to the epigram – most obviously through its 140 character limit.  The short, condensed form of the genre appeals to our modern sensibilities.  The brilliant Ben Okri wrote in The Guardian a couple of years ago – after releasing a poem line by line on Twitter – that these literary forms are fitting for the modern age:

Forms follows adversity – we live in uncertain times. I think we need a new kind of writing that responds to the anxiety of our age and yet has brevity,” he said. “My feeling is that these times are perfect for short, lucid forms. We need to get more across in fewer words. The Twitter poem tries to respond to this and the feeling of freedom.

Yet, the public sharing and appreciation of these pithy phrases is also very similar to the early modern popularity of the epigram as a form.  James Doelman notes that ‘what is striking about the Renaissance epigram is the way in which it spilled over social and intellectual boundaries, managing to be both a highly self-conscious form in imitation of the classics, and a vernacular, popular form that circulated among the widest public’ (‘Circulation of the Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart Epigram’, Renaissance and Reformation xxix I 2005, 60). Appreciating cultural icons such as Shakespeare and Wilde, the Twitter epigram nods towards literary heritage at the same time as it shares it with the public of cyberspace.  As any follower of @Joey7Barton will appreciate, there is something wonderful about imparting Nietzschean aphorisms to over a million fans while exchanging banter with Robbie Fowler about the Thai Premier League.

Self-conscious dialogues with literary history on Twitter certainly echo the appropriation of and play with the epigram in early modern England.  Where dramatists such as Thomas Middleton and John Webster employ sententious epigrams – visually marked by italicised couplets – in the most inappropriate of situations, famous epigrammatists like John Heywood turn the epigram into poetic form.  In 1546 Heywood wrote the first English language collection of proverbs, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbues in the englishe tongue, in which versified proverbs and epigrams are placed in appropriate contextual dialogue: ‘He that will not whan he maie / Whan he woulde, he shall have naie’ (1546 ed., A3v).

The numerous accounts imitating and parodying famous authors illustrate the way Twitter-ers ‘self-consciously’ use the epigram as a means of dialogue – with past and present.  The play with Shakespearean characters, for instance, amusingly experiments with the idea of his ‘quotability’.  Though both are now dead accounts (fittingly), the witty exchanges between Mercutio (@mercuteio) and Tybalt (@Tybalt_Cap) act out the world of Romeo and Juliet through hilariously updated lines: ‘May both your families rot in hell! Fuck #teammontague from now on its only #teammercutio’.  Limited to 140 characters per speech, the tweets of these famous stage-names become a sort of epigrammatic digital drama that is in equal parts irreverent towards and appreciative of Shakespeare.

Like the playful early modern epigram, the twittergram maintains a lively and often parodic engagement with the written word.  Forsyth rightly points out in his article that it is ‘hardly surprising’ that ‘in an age when people must fret for hours over the text message to the one they love, the all-important email or the lapidary constraints of Twitter that they should learn to appreciate the beauties of a well-turned epigram’.  Indeed, considering the long history of their circulation, reinvention, and popularity, the epigrams of social media aren’t so distant from John Heywood’s first English language collection: ‘This write I not to teache, but to touche’ (1556 ed., A1v).



  1. I’m neither a tweeter (the name is enough to put me off) nor an epigramist, but I do think that one of my favourite early modern genres would be ideally suited to twitter and is underused: the proverb.

    As Adam Fox (in Oral and Literate Culture, ch. 2) and Dave Rollison (in The Local Origins of Modern Society, ch. 3) have shown, the proverb was an essential element in early modern communications, especially amongst the less literate and less educated. And there is an amazingly thorough collection that one could use to find an early modern proverb fit for almost any occasion: Morris Tilley (ed.), A Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950).

    I’m always struck by how topically they can seem. To take just one instance, whereas you’d need a lot more than 140 character to try to explain the financial crisis in most cases, if you borrowed a seventeenth-century proverb you could just say: ‘riches and sin are oft married together’. There a bunch of amusingly vulgar ones too, but you’ll need to check Tilley’s Dictionary for those.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that the proverb would suit Twitter well, but it’s especially interesting to think of it as an important part of non-elite communication in early modern society – aligned with more fluid and less fixed forms than the printed text (maybe also like Twitter?). And A Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries sounds like quite the mine of material! Thanks for the suggestions!

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