An epigram is a short
poem, often with a clever twist at the end or a concise and witty statement. Derived from the Greek "epi-gramma", or "written upon", the literary device has been employed for over two millennia.
The Greek tradition of epigrams began as poems inscribed on votive offerings at sanctuaries — including statues of athletes — and on funerary monuments, for example "Go tell it to the Spartans, passer-by…". These original epigrams did the same job as a short prose text might have done, but in verse. Epigram became a literary genre in the
Hellenistic period, probably developing out of scholarly collections of inscriptional epigrams.
Though modern epigrams are usually thought of as very short, Greek literary epigram was not always as short as later examples, and the divide between 'epigram' and '
elegy' is sometimes indistinct (they share a characteristic metre, elegiac couplets); all the same, the origin of the genre in inscription exerted a residual pressure to keep things concise. Many of the characteristic types of literary epigram look back to inscriptional contexts, particularly funerary epigram, which in the Hellenistic era becomes a literary exercise. Other types look instead to the new performative context which epigram acquired at this time, even as it made the move from stone to papyrus: the Greek symposium. Many 'sympotic' epigrams combine sympotic and funerary elements — they tell their readers (or listeners) to drink and live for today because life is short.
We also think of epigram as having a 'point' — that is, the poem ends in a punchline or satirical twist. By no means do all Greek epigrams behave this way; many are simply descriptive. We associate epigram with 'point' because the European epigram tradition takes the Latin poet
Martialas its principal model; he copied and adapted Greek models (particularly the contemporary poets Lucilliusand Nicarchus) selectively and in the process redefined the genre, aligning it with the indigenous Roman tradition of 'satura', hexameter satire, as practised by (among others) his contemporary Juvenal. Greek epigram was actually much more diverse, as the Milan Papyrusnow indicates.
Our main source for Greek literary epigram is the
Greek Anthology, a compilation from the 10th century AD based on older collections. It contains epigrams ranging from the Hellenistic periodthrough the Imperial period and Late Antiquityinto the compiler's own Byzantine era - a thousand years of short elegiac texts on every topic under the sun. The Anthology includes one book of Christian epigrams.
Roman epigrams owe much to their Greek predecessors and contemporaries. Roman epigrams, however, were often more 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 plant " Cicuta" 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 her and I love her. Don't ask me why.: It's the way I feel, that's all, and it hurts.
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.
Poets known for their epigrams whose work has been lost include
In early English literature the short couplet poem was dominated by the poetic epigram and proverb, especially in the translations of the Bible and the Greek and Roman poets.Since 1600, two successive lines of verse that rhyme with each other, known as a
coupletfeatured as a part of the longer sonnet form, most notably in William Shakespeare'ssonnets. Sonnet 76is an excellent example. The two line poetic form as a closed coupletwas also used by William Blakein his poem Auguries of Innocenceand later by Byron( Don Juan (Byron)XIII); John Gay(Fables); Alexander Pope(An Essay on Man). In Victorian times the epigram couplet was often used by the prolific American poet Emily Dickinson, her poem no. 1534 is a typical example of her eleven poetic epigrams .The novelist George Eliotalso included couplets throughout her writings, her best example is shown within her sequenced sonnet poem entitled [http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/2696.html BROTHER AND SISTER ] each of the eleven sequenced sonnet ends with a couplet.In her sonnets, the preceding lead-in-line, to the couplet ending of each,could be thought of as a title for the couplet, and as is exampled in Sonnet VIII of the sequence.
In the early 20th century the rhymed epigram Couplet form developed into a fixed verse image form, with an integral title as the third line, when
Adelaide Crapseycodified the Couplet form into a two line rhymed verse of ten syllables per line with her [http://www.worldhaikureview.org/5-1/whcpb/whcpbdoubletcontentsstrand.htm image couplet] poem first published, 1915 in Rochester NY by The Manas Press. [http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?type=simple&c=amverse&cc=amverse&sid=ba916e3235ca30151c821ab8aab270be&q1=Adelaide%20Crapsey&rgn=div1&view=toc&idno=BAE8954.0001.001 ON SEEING WEATHER-BEATEN TREES] .By the 1930s this five line cinquainverse form became widely known in the poetry of the Scottish poet William Soutar. Originally labelled epigrams but later identified as image cinquains in the style of Adelaide Crapsey. In the last decade of the 20th century the American poet Denis Garrison developed a two line 17 syllable variation of the image couplet with his [http://ichthys-couplets.blogspot.com/crystalline] , where euphony is the key component and a title thereto optional.
:What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole;:Its body brevity, and wit its soul.: —
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
:Little strokes:Fell great oaks.: —
:Here lies my wife: here let her lie!:Now she's at rest — and so am I. :—
:I am His Highness' dog at Kew;:Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?: —
:I'm tired of Love: I'm still more tired of Rhyme.:But Money gives me pleasure all the time.: —
:I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.: —
:To be safe on the Fourth, :Don't buy a fifth on the third.: —
James H Muehlbauer
:This Humanist whom no believe constrained:Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.: —
Occasionally, simple and witty statements, though not poetic per se, may also be considered epigrams, such as one attributed to
Oscar Wilde: "I can resist everything except temptation." This shows the epigram's tendency towards paradox. 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.
The term is sometimes used for particularly pointed or much-quoted
quotations taken from longer works.
* Contemporary Non-Poetic Epigrams: Inspired by the end of the 20th Century, "Epigrams" by renegade poet Christian Ortega, who wrote "Love is a mistake between fools.", was published in a signed limited edition in the year 2000. The book is now on the web and viewable for free by going directly to http://www.iknowwhatyoudidinthe80s.com/IKWYDIT8epigrams.html
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