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No. 059 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

No. 59
Tuesday, May 8, 1711.

‘Operose Nihil agunt.’


There is nothing more certain than that every Man would be a Wit if he could, and notwithstanding Pedants of a pretended Depth and Solidity are apt to decry the Writings of a polite Author, as Flash and Froth, they all of them shew upon Occasion that they would spare no pains to arrive at the Character of those whom they seem to despise. For this Reason we often find them endeavouring at Works of Fancy, which cost them infinite Pangs in the Production. The Truth of it is, a Man had better be a Gally-Slave than a Wit, were one to gain that Title by those Elaborate Trifles which have been the Inventions of such Authors as were often Masters of great Learning but no Genius.

In my last Paper I mentioned some of these false Wits among the Ancients, and in this shall give the Reader two or three other Species of them, that flourished in the same early Ages of the World. The first I shall produce are the Lipogrammiatists [1] or Letter-droppers of Antiquity, that would take an Exception, without any Reason, against some particular Letter in the Alphabet, so as not to admit it once into a whole Poem. One Tryphiodorus was a great Master in this kind of Writing. He composed an Odyssey or Epick Poem on the Adventures of Ulysses, consisting of four and twenty Books, having entirely banished the Letter A from his first Book, which was called Alpha (as Lucus a non Lucendo) because there was not an Alpha in it. His second Book was inscribed Beta for the same Reason. In short, the Poet excluded the whole four and twenty Letters in their Turns, and shewed them, one after another, that he could do his Business without them.

It must have been very pleasant to have seen this Poet avoiding the reprobate Letter, as much as another would a false Quantity, and making his Escape from it through the several Greek Dialects, when he was pressed with it in any particular Syllable. For the most apt and elegant Word in the whole Language was rejected, like a Diamond with a Flaw in it, if it appeared blemished with a wrong Letter. I shall only observe upon this Head, that if the Work I have here mentioned had been now extant, the Odyssey of Tryphiodorus, in all probability, would have been oftner quoted by our learned Pedants, than the Odyssey of Homer. What a perpetual Fund would it have been of obsolete Words and Phrases, unusual Barbarisms and Rusticities, absurd Spellings and complicated Dialects? I make no question but it would have been looked upon as one of the most valuable Treasuries of the Greek Tongue.

I find likewise among the Ancients that ingenious kind of Conceit, which the Moderns distinguish by the Name of a Rebus, [2] that does not sink a Letter but a whole Word, by substituting a Picture in its Place. When Caesar was one of the Masters of the Roman Mint, he placed the Figure of an Elephant upon the Reverse of the Publick Mony; the Word Caesar signifying an Elephant in the Punick Language. This was artificially contrived by Caesar, because it was not lawful for a private Man to stamp his own Figure upon the Coin of the Commonwealth. Cicero, who was so called from the Founder of his Family, that was marked on the Nose with a little Wen like a Vetch (which is Cicer in Latin) instead of Marcus Tullius Cicero, order’d the Words Marcus Tullius with the Figure of a Vetch at the End of them to be inscribed on a publick Monument. [3] This was done probably to shew that he was neither ashamed of his Name or Family, notwithstanding the Envy of his Competitors had often reproached him with both. In the same manner we read of a famous Building that was marked in several Parts of it with the Figures of a Frog and a Lizard: Those Words in Greek having been the Names of the Architects, who by the Laws of their Country were never permitted to inscribe their own Names upon their Works. For the same Reason it is thought, that the Forelock of the Horse in the Antique Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, represents at a Distance the Shape of an Owl, to intimate the Country of the Statuary, who, in all probability, was an Athenian. This kind of Wit was very much in Vogue among our own Countrymen about an Age or two ago, who did not practise it for any oblique Reason, as the Ancients abovementioned, but purely for the sake of being Witty. Among innumerable Instances that may be given of this Nature, I shall produce the Device of one Mr Newberry, as I find it mentioned by our learned Cambden in his Remains. Mr Newberry, to represent his Name by a Picture, hung up at his Door the Sign of a Yew-Tree, that had several Berries upon it, and in the midst of them a great golden N hung upon a Bough of the Tree, which by the Help of a little false Spelling made up the Word N-ew-berry.