An epigraph, in literature, is a phrase, quote, or any short piece of text that comes before a longer document (a poem, story, book, etc). Sometimes the epigraph is set out as a structured preface to the text that follows it. In other instances, it appears as more of a summary or as a reference to other works, reminding the reader of the wider literary implications.
When analyzing a piece of poetry it might seem like an easy short cut to skip over the epigraph and consider it as unnecessary. You make this decision at your own risk as the writer put it there for a reason. Sometimes, especially if the poem is personal to the poet, the epigraph might set you on the correct interpretive path as you make your way through the text. Or, send you to another poem, story, or moment in history that provides crucial context for the stanzas that come after.
Examples of Poetic Epigraphs
In regards to poetry, epigraphs are generally short, one or two lines that set the tone for the rest of the poem. There are numerous examples to choose from but here are a few of the noteworthy utilization of the technique over the last Take a look at these poems and the epigraphs that accompany them:
Duffy chose to use a quote from William Shakespeare’s will. It reads, ‘Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed…’ Or more simply, in these lines, he’s saying that he wanted to leave his wife his “second best bed.” This epigraph is incredibly important if a reader wants to make sense of the rest of the poem. As the title suggests, and the epigraph confirms that this poem is one of Duffy’s famous rewritings of history. In this particular instance, she takes this line from Shakespeare’s will and crafts a genuine, loving relationship history between Shakespeare and his wife Anne.
Before getting to the first lines of ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’, a reader comes across the epigraph. It is in Latin and it reads:
Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur;
This loosely translates to “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend; if I plead against thee, yet remon-strate with thee I must; why is it that the affairs of the wicked prosper.” The lines come from Psalm 119 of the Latin translation of the Bible by St Jerome. These lines tell the reader important information about the themes Hopkins wants to discuss in the text. They also make the reader very aware that the poem is going to be religious in nature.
Hardy gave ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ an epigraph in order to make sure the reader knows what the poem is based around. The lines read, “(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”).” With this important piece of information provided, a reader is certain to realize what Eliot is speaking about in the rest of the poem.