2 – The Epigram and The Poem

The first of two branches in the history of the epigram which simultaneously influenced Nietzsche, may be traced from the Latin authors, particularly Sallust and Martial, to La Rochefoucauld. This is primarily a literary branch with its own stylistic history and unique approach to the psychology of character — aphoristic, ironic barbs against vanity and egoism. Some of the funniest literary “one-liners” can be found in these epigrams which rip, with quick “rapier-thrusts”, the fatuous personaes of vanity, the myriad falsenesses towards ourselves, the self-lies, which sustain overblown self-images at the expense of, or to hide our lack of character. The poetic epigrams of Sallust and Martial, then, have a substantive and varied side to them beyond their wit and mischievous delight in laughing at a victim’s discomfort, and achieved a steely, stylistic music of their own.
Both the structure and the history of the epigram favor laconic language which exposes the problem of self-consciousness through psychologically informed invective. A talent for the epigram, then, demands more than mere journalistic terseness. Through the condensation of a phrase it seeks an arrowlike precision in which an individual psyché is accurately summed up.
Nietzsche plunges into these literary models, sometimes rewriting them, if not outrightly stealing some of their lines. Sometimes the parallels are faint, sometimes the original text is successfully reworked. For instance, La Rochefoucauld writes:

There is not accident so disastrous that a clever man cannot derive some profit from it, nor any so fortunate that a fool cannot turn it to his advantage. 24

And Nietzsche responds as follows:

One does not credit clever people with their follies, what a loss of human rights! 25

These two passages echo the same subject but the latter is more rhetorically condensed. Nietzsche’s words testify to a parallel inspiration but with greater intensity and bite. This is exactly what one would expect: a faint answering and echoing in subject matter and style accompanied by a constant tightening of expression.
Nietzsche is also influenced by the philosophic epigram whose greatest practitioner is Heraclitus. Only Nietzsche’s own epigrams approach the metaphoric brilliance of this philosopher of change, war and deflating irony whom only Nietzsche equals in laconic philosophic integrity. Following Heraclitus, Nietzsche successfully explored a combination of literary style, sarcasm and psychological insight guided by a fundamental “revaluation of all values” by which he founded his own philosophy of the will to power.
But we must relinquish what would be an interesting study on Nietzsche’s concept of the epigram in order to make these short remarks on the epigram with an eye to understanding how Niezsche conceived of poetry. His concept of style in poetry is clearly inspired by that of the epigram. And yet, though there are rhymed epigrams and epigrammatic poems there remains a differerence between what constitutes an epigram and what inspires a poem.
When Nietzsche begins The Gay Science with a “Prelude in Rhymes” we can see the incisive irony inherits from La Rouchefoucauld and naughty-urbane brilliance which echoes Martial or Sallust also overburdens the poetry of these verses with their message, or (to keep stretching the stylus metaphor), their point. Neither the flair for invective, nor the conscious use of imagery and music, can make an epigram a poem. There is a hard, sensitive tone which is definitely poetic and yet the “message” still predominates. Martial also rhymed and yet we acknowledge that he primarily wrote epigrams: short, witty “sayings” with a psychological edge. Nietzsche also closes this book with a sheathe of straightforward poems, but they also are weighted with philosophic irony. They go beyond rhymed prose statements, and yet they constantly echo what Nietzsche thought as a philosopher.
We will briefly look later at a few of Nietzsche’s poems and focus upon these primarily for what they say directly about poetry, but here it is necessary to acknowledge just how poetry is different from the epigram, and so, in a new context, venture a definition of poetry: The syntax in an epigram is as important as that of a poem, but the rhyme is less a matter of real music than of prose condensation which reflects rhetorically the reference between what is said and what is consciously implied. The talented author of epigrams exploits the bursting or explosive tension between what could be said in a whole essay or book (of prose) and what is suggested, or summed up, in a few lines. This is what gives the epigram its stylisic tension. But its intentional and conscious work of condensation is opposed to the awestruck perceptual openness of poetry.
Poetry is not merely rhymed prose or condensed language or both in combination. Poetry derives not from a conscious linguistic source but from the lyrical imagery or folk song taken in the archaic sense, and from the dream-visionary process which seeks to suggest the ineffable through narrative imagery. The arrowlike precision, the economy which evokes superabundance, the terseness which suggests whole worlds in a few lines stems from a different source and tends toward a different goal. Instead of emphasizing a “look” into psychology or a critique of the ego, or a deflation of vanity, it works without self-consciousness, without stepping back to assume the role of witness, and without the “scientific” tool of analysis of the psyché, but through the intoxication of nature and the human will in response to fundamental plenum of energy sexual instincts and (finally) dreams. To emphasize this, drawing the continuation of the Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies through the concept of style in poetry, we must look more closely into tempo, or finalize our inquiry by defining poetry in reference to prose.