Although the original no longer exists, Meleager’s Garland is nonetheless significant for several reasons. It is considered the first true poetry anthology and as such is the prototype for countless anthologies that followedincluding at least five different versions of what is now called the Greek Anthologythat incorporate parts of the Garland. Prefaced with another first, the thematic introduction, the collection presents the work of early and contemporary Greek poets, both major and minor, many of whom would otherwise be unknown. The Garland preserves a peculiarly Greek art of expression, the epigram: a brief, often witty or poignant poetic statement that can be committed to memory and perpetuated by recital. As reproduced in later anthologies, the Garland is the only extant source of Meleager’s own poetry.
Although in modern times any short, memorable, well-phrased statement (such Mark Twain’s wry observations, Ambrose Bierce’s sly definitions, Oscar Wilde’s bon mots, or Dorothy Parker’s clever witticisms) can be called an epigram, in Meleager’s day, the rules of composition were more formal. Epigrams were traditionally composed in hexameter, in rhyming couplets. Ideally, a single couplet was sufficient for expressing a complete, memorable idea, though slightly longer poems consisting of three or four elegiac couplets that expanded a poetic conceit also found favor. Epigrams were originally an outgrowth of spoudaiogeloion (from the Greek words for “serious” and “comical”), a satirical form employed from the time of Aristophanes (c. 450-c. 385 b.c.e.), combining high-flown subject matter with playful style. The serious-comedic blend was particularly appropriate for simple-living Cynics like Meleager, who could criticize specific aspects of society in terse verse, while including enough humor so as not to give undue offense.
Though it is unknown exactly how many individual epigrams were included in the original manuscript of the Garland, it presented the works of some forty-eight poets, including Meleager, who incorporated more than one hundred of his own epigrams. Meleager presented the epigrams in alphabetical order (from alpha to omega...
(The entire section is 933 words.)