An epigram (EHP-ih-gram) is a pithy saying expressed in an amusing way. Epigrams are often, but not exclusively, short satirical poems with an ingenious and witty ending. A person who writes (or recites) epigrams is called an epigrammatist.
The word was first used in English in the mid-15th century and meant “a short poem or verse which has only one subject and finishes by a witty or ingenious turn of thought.” Epigram is derived from the Old French epigramme, which originated from the Latin epigramma, indicating “an inscription.” This evolved from the Greek epigramma, indicating an “inscription (especially in verse) on a tomb, public monument, etc.”
The History of Epigrams
The epigram’s roots are in ancient Greek poetry where they began as poems written on monuments or as offerings at religious sanctuaries. These were sometimes longer than contemporary epigrams and frequently focused on suggesting that readers eat, drink, and enjoy themselves while they can because life is brief.
By the Hellenistic era, these epigrams ended in a satirical twist or humorous punchline, and that element of wit was amplified by the Romans. Roman epigrammatists didn’t inscribed epigrams on tombs or votive offerings. Instead, they wrote them to be published or given as gifts. Epigrammatists like Catullus and Martial emphasized the satirical elements of epigrams, often including a punchline in the last line.
In English literature, the epigram often appears as a couplet within a longer poem, and it can be seen in the sonnets of William Shakespeare, as well as the poems of William Blake, Alexander Pope, and Lord Byron. American poet Emily Dickinson often used epigrams within her poems as well.
While the epigram has a long history as a poetic form, it is commonly found within prose and theatrical works. Novelists, essayists, and playwrights frequently rely upon the concise wit of the epigram to convey their ideas.
Epigrams and Other Literary Devices
Epigrams vs. Epigraphs
People often confuse the terms epigram and epigraph, which makes sense because the words sound alike and have some overlap in their definitions/usage. In fact, an epigraph can be an epigram in some instances.
An epigraph is a short quotation that opens a work of literature. In a book, it’s generally found after the title page and before the body of the text begins; in a poem, it’s found under the title but above the first line of the poem. An epigraph can be prose or poetry, and it’s used to shed additional light on themes explored within the work that follows it.
Epigrams vs. Adages
Epigrams are often confused with adages as well, but they are not the same thing.
An adage is a saying that, over time, is accepted as a general truth. For example, Aesop’s Fables, the classic collection of children’s stories, is full of adages like “Things are not always what they seem,” “Slow and steady wins the race,” and “Appearances are often deceiving.”
Epigrams vs. Aphorisms
An aphorism, like an adage, is a brief and wise statement that expresses a generally accepted truth. However, aphorisms are everyday sayings, while adages are seen as wisdom that’s been passed down over many years of use. An aphorism, if repeatedly used, can become an adage, but they are not mutually inclusive.
While both adages and aphorisms are short insightful sayings, they lack the wit and cleverness found in epigrams.
Epigrams vs. Paraprosdokians
Paraprosdokians are also confused with epigrams, as they are short figures of speech that take an unexpected twist and often lead to a surprising and humorous ending. Paraprosdokians, however, do not contain the wisdom associated with epigrams. Instead, they focus more on comedic effect.
Epigrams in Pop Culture
The epigram is frequently seen in political speeches, as it’s an effective way to express complicated thoughts to an audience in a way that will catch their attention. For example:
- “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill
- “Little strokes / fell great oaks.” – Benjamin Franklin
- “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” – John F. Kennedy
- “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
There are many writers and public figures known for their epigrams.
Examples of Epigrams in Literature
1. William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
These are the opening four lines of Blake’s long poem:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
This epigram is one of many within the poem. It urges readers to appreciate every moment and see the beauty and magnitude in all things.
2. Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
In Act I, part 2 of Wilde’s play, Algernon comments:
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
No man does. That’s his.
This epigram is perhaps the most famous from Wilde’s comedy. It posits that women are doomed to become like their mothers, while men are doomed to be nothing like their mothers. It’s a funny way of saying that neither outcome is ideal, but neither is avoidable either.
3. Alfred Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam”
Tennyson’s famous elegy for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam contains the lines:
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
This epigram brings comfort to both the poem’s speaker and many readers who’ve encountered it during their own periods of bereavement.
4. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
In Baldwin’s essay, he writes:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without
and know we cannot live within.
This epigram explores the pain and compassion Baldwin brought to his exploration of racial tensions in the United States.
5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance
In Emerson’s famous examination of self-reliance, he declares that:
a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little
statesmen and philosophers and divines.
This epigram states sharply and neatly the importance of being open to change.
Further Resources on Epigrams
The Guardian published a fun infographic of Oscar Wilde’s most enduring epigrams.
David Barber wrote a lengthy exploration of the epigram in an article for Parnassus Review.