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Poetry Guide: Epigram

An epigram is a short poem with a clever twist at the end or a concise and witty statement. They are among the best examples of the power of poetry to compress insight and wit.

Ancient Greek

The epigram originated in Greece as a form for inscription on a monument or grave, hence the word 'epigram' from the Greek words meaning 'to write on'. Epigrams were thus much shorter than lyric poetry which developed from forms designed for performance accompanied by musical instruments.

One such monument inscription is Simonides's epitaph for the Spartan dead after the Battle of Thermopylae,which can be found in Herodotus' work The Histories (7.228), to the Spartans:

ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
(O xein', angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti täde/
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
keimetha tois keinon rhämasi peithomenoi.)
Which to keep the poetic context can be translated as:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
that here, obedient to their laws we lie
or more literally as:
Oh foreigner, tell the Lacedaemonians
that here we lie, obeying those words.

Epigrams were not defined by their subject matter, however. The largest surviving collection, the Greek Anthology, contains poems on love, inscriptions dedicating gifts to the gods, moral or philosophical advice, and invective. Nor were epigrams required to be witty (though many, especially invectives and satirical ones, were). The defining characteristics of an epigram were its length, often restricted to a single couplet, and its meter, almost always the elegiac couplet.

Many noted Greek writers composed epigrams, including some, who, like Plato, Solon and Aeschylus, were more famous for their work in other genres. The 'Anthology' contains examples from very early Greek history all the way into the Byzantine period, and even some examples by Christians. Epigrams were also written by women and other members of the less privileged classes. Nicarchus and Martial are two epigrammatists from the first century AD.

Ancient Roman

Roman epigrams owe much to their Greek predecessors and contemporaries. Roman epigrams, however, were more often satirical than Greek ones, and at times used obscene language for effect. Latin epigrams could be composed as inscriptions or graffiti, such as this one from Pompeii, which exists in several versions and seems from its inexact meter to have been composed by a less educated person. Its content, of course, makes it clear how popular such poems were:

Admiror, O paries, te non cecidisse ruinis
qui tot scriptorum taedia sustineas.
I'm astonished, wall, that you haven't collapsed into ruins,
since you're holding up the weary verse of so many poets.

However, in the literary world, epigrams were most often gifts to patrons or entertaining verse to be published, not inscriptions. Many Roman writers seem to have composed epigrams, including Domitius Marsus, whose collection 'Cicuta' (now lost) was named after the poisonous hemlock tree for its biting wit, and Lucan, more famous for his epic Pharsalia. Authors whose epigrams survive include Catullus, who wrote both invectives and love epigrams-- his poem 85 is one of the latter.

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio, et excrucior.
I hate and I love. Perhaps you're asking how I do this?
I don't know, but I feel it happening, and it's torture.

The master of the Latin epigram, however, is Martial. His technique relies heavily on the satirical poem with a joke in the last line, thus drawing him closer to the modern idea of epigram as a genre. Here he defines his genre against a (probably fictional) critic (in the latter half of 2.77):

Disce quod ignoras: Marsi doctique Pedonis
saepe duplex unum pagina tractat opus.
Non sunt longa quibus nihil est quod demere possis,
sed tu, Cosconi, disticha longa facis.
Learn what you don't know: one work of (Domitius) Marsus or learned Pedo
often stretches out over a doublesided page.
A work isn't long if you can't take anything out of it,
but you, Cosconius, write even a couplet too long.

Poetic epigrams

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said,

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
Little strokes
Fell great oaks.
— Benjamin Franklin

Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she's at rest — and so am I.
— John Dryden

I am His Highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
— Alexander Pope

I'm tired of Love: I'm still more tired of Rhyme.
But Money gives me pleasure all the time.
— Hilaire Belloc

Non-poetic epigrams

Occasionally, simple and witty statements, though not poetical per se, may also be considered epigrams, such as one attributed to Oscar Wilde: "I can resist everything except temptation." Dorothy Parker's witty one-liners can be considered epigrams. Also, Macdonald Carey's legendary line "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives" can be considered an epigram, as the meaning of life is concisely explained in a simile.

Another good example of a possible epigram,"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it."

The term is sometimes used for particularly pointed or much-quoted quotations taken from longer works.

See also

An epigraph is an inscription on a building or a quotation used to introduce a written work.

An epitaph is written about the dead.