Epigrams break down complex situations and feelings into ingenious and interesting sayings. They should be memorable and quotable. Often, historical figures are closely tied to epigrams attributed to them. Oscar Wilde is one of the best examples. Two of his epigrams include:
- Work is the curse of the drinking class.
- There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
Mark Twain is also a famous example. Two of his epigrams are:
- You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
- The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
These are sometimes funny, paradoxical, or thoughtful, depending on the subject and context. They usually end with a punchline of some kind of a twist that is meant to surprise the reader or listener.
Definition of Epigram
The word “epigram” comes from the Greek “epigramma,” meaning “inscription” or “to inscribe.” In Greece, epigrams were short sayings and poems placed on tombs of family members and friends. Later they became witter and funnier.
Epigrams are short statements that make a funny, memorable, and interesting judgment about a situation, person, emotion, or idea. They sometimes rhyme, and often the best-known and easiest to remember follow some kind of rhyme scheme. This might just be simple, internal rhyme or half-rhyme. Although, perfect end rhymes are also possible.
There are several different ways to use epigrams, for instance, as a stand-alone poem. These are usually around six lines long and no longer. They make some kind of witty observation about the world that’s furthered by how brief they are. Whether or not a poem is classified as an epigram depends on the poet’s intention and the reader’s interpretation. For example, some poems might use “epigram” in the title, or a reader might simply feel that a short poem fits the characteristics of an epigram.
Sometimes epigrams can be found within longer poetic or prose works. They can take the form of quotable excerpts that help to define the work’s overall impact or just the ideas of a particular passage. This might be a few lines from a novel, an entire paragraph, or a stanza of a poem.
Examples of Epigrams in Literature
Epigram by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This poem is a great example of how a writer might include the word “epigram” in the title of their work. This ensures that the reader won’t miss out on the fact that this is how the writer wants them to consider their work. This particular poem is four lines long, conforming to the standard length of an epigram, and follows a simple rhyme scheme of AABB. Here are the four lines:
Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
This piece is meant to be humorous and surprising. It is made more so due to the fact that it’s a poem written about poetry, speaking about how foolish poets are. While this poem likely won’t make readers laugh out loud, it would likely bring a smile to most of Coleridge’s contemporaries’ faces.
Read more Samuel Taylor Coleridge poems.
The Spur by William Butler Yeats
This very short poem, which is also only four lines long, is another good example of how poets can write stand-alone epigrams. In this case, Yeats considers “lust and rage,” or strong emotions, and how they’re judged when one is older. He knows that as an older man, these character traits are much less desirable or tolerable than they were when he was young. He uses the following lines to describe the phenomenon:
You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?
The last line is meant to be a sort of punchline. It suggests that there’s nothing else in the speaker’s life that gives him a reason to write or feel deeply. Lust and rage are the only strong emotions he has left.
Explore William Butler Yeats’ poetry.
This example comes from the poem ‘Auguries of Innocence.’ It is an example of an epigram that’s taken from a longer work. These four lines are found in the poem:
God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.
Often, this stanza is cited as epigrammatic due to its memorable phrasing and how well it incorporates ideas. Although it is less humorous than some of the above examples, it serves its purpose.
Discover William Blake’s poetry.
Epigram or Aphorism
Often, epigrams and aphorisms are confused and mislabeled. Any short, humorous statement is considered an epigram, whether it’s found in poetry or prose. Aphorisms, on the other hand, are not defined by humor. They are meant to be wise, thoughtful, and deep. When the humor element is introduced, that’s when they cross into the world of epigrams. Aphorisms are also only found in prose writing. Some examples are:
- Actions speak louder than words.
- Not all that glitters is gold.
- All for one and one for all.
- Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Epigram or Epigraphs
These two literary terms are often confused due to their similar-sounding names. Plus, there are also some similarities in how they’re used. An epigraph is a short quote that starts a literary work. It can be an epigram in some instances. This quotation could come from another source, such as another novel or poem. It might be a famous saying or statement. If a writer wants, they could start their novel, short story, or poetry collection with an epigram.
Related Literary Terms
- Epigraph: a phrase, quote, or any short piece of text that comes before a longer document (a poem, story, book, etc.).
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Digression: occurs when the writer interrupts the main plotline to contribute additional details.
- Epilogue: an extra chapter at the end of a literary work.
- Epithet: a literary device used to describe something or someone with characteristics that are more interesting and prominent than they are in reality.
- Read: Oscar Wilde’s Most Enduring Epigrams
- Read: The Greatest Epigrams in Literature and Poetry
- Watch: What is an Epigram?