Epigrams can be hard to find because they have a very broad definition. What one person considers an epigram, another may consider an elegy, poem, or perhaps even a song.
The most basic definition of an epigram is a brief, clever, and memorable statement. Some of them are formulated with satirical purposes in mind, and others are purposely meant to be confusing.
For example, John Donne uses an epigram in his poem "Hero and Leander" when he writes:
"Both robb'd of air, we both lie in one ground
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drown'd."
While there is certainly no apparent humor in this poem, there is a contradiction. How could two people die by both fire and water? Examining the other uses and purposes of epigrams helps to answer that question.
Epigrams in Poetry
Epigrams most commonly appear in poetry. Some very famous writers throughout history have used them in their writings.
Perhaps most well known for his plays, Shakespeare also published a vast number of sonnets. The last four lines of Sonnet 76, a part of the Fair Youth sequence, has quite a number of epigrams for such few lines. The Faith Youth sequence refers to a selection of Shakespeare's sonnets that some scholars believe were written to a young man for which Shakespeare had romantic feelings. The last two couplets of the sonnet read as follows:
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.
Those four lines are packed with epigrams. Twice he refers to items and ideas as being both old and new at the same time, and he states that he is spending something that has already been spent. The purpose is to show his confusion with the lover, and perhaps about his own feelings regarding his sexuality, as some scholars will suggest.
Well known by anyone studying religious poetry, Blake wrote about some almost existential concepts for his day, including his poems "The Tyger" and "The Lamb" where he questions whether the same God could have possibly made the gentle lamb and the ferocious tiger.
His "Augueries of Innocence" included quotations that became quite popular, and packed a great deal of punch and emphasis within them. The lines
"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"
are short enough to remember, yet their message could relate to any number of situations. A perfect example of their resonance is the fact that they were spoken by Lara Croft in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Rader.
Not all epigrams are parts of larger works. Some stand by themsleves, although they are still considered poetry because of their schematic form.
- "Little strokes/Fell great oaks." - Benjamin Franklin
- "Here's my wife: here let her lie! Now she's at rest-and so am I." - John Dryden
- "Candy/Is dandy,/But liquor/Is quicker." - Ogden Nash
- "I mean the opposite of what I say./You've got it now? No, it's the other way." - Bruce Bennett, "Ironist"
- "To be safe on the Fourth/Don't buy a fifth on the third." - James H. Muehlbauer
- "It comes once a year/But it fades with fear."- Harry Potter
Although these are epigrams, they will commonly be referred to as quotations.
Epigrams Not Found in Poetry
Brief epigrams could be considered quotations; however, there are other examples that are completely not in the field of poetry at all. For example, Lara Croft was using a poetical device; however, she was using it in the context of a movie.
Compiling a list of all the non poetic epigrams is difficult, if not impossible, because any witty saying can be considered to be one.
Familiar epigrams include:
- "I can resist everything but temptation." - Oscar Wilde
- "No one is completely unhappy at the failure of his best friend." - Groucho Marx
- "If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning." - Catherine the Great
- "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness." - Eleanor Roosevelt
- "The only 'ism' Hollywood believes in is plagiarism." - Dorothy Parker
- "Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put and end to mankind." - John F. Kennedy
- "Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine." - Fran Lebowitz
Purpose of the Epigram
Clearly, the reasons for using epigrams are plentiful.
- They cause the reader or listener to think a bit more about the statement being made.
- They are examples of pure humor.
- They all leave an impression.
Many of them, whether through humor or blatant statements, are making a commentary on some sort of issue, whether it be political, social, religious, or just about day-to-day life.
History of the Epigram
Greeks began the tradition of using epigrams, often in memory of deceased loved ones. Therefore, the elegy and the epigram are closely linked, and in ancient times, the distinction was not so great as it is today.
Epigrams were often much lengthier than a simple line or two. Additionally, the Greeks did not always use the tools of satire, comedy, and twists that have become a popular trademark of the epigram today.
The Latin poet, Martialis, who died in the beginning of the second century A.D., became the model for later European and American versions of the epigram. He is the one who added the different tone to the genre, as he was influenced by his contemporary Juvenal, a Roman poet most known for his work in the satirical arts.
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Examples of Epigrams
By YourDictionaryEpigrams can be hard to find because they have a very broad definition. What one person considers an epigram, another may consider an elegy, poem, or perhaps even a song.The most basic definition of an epigram is a brief, clever, and memorable statement. Some of them are formulated with satirical purposes in mind, and others are purposely meant to be confusing.For example, John Donne uses an epigram in his poem "Hero and Leander" when he writes:"Both robb'd of air, we both lie in one groundBoth whom one fire had burnt, one water drown'd."While there is certainly no apparent humor in this poem, there is a contradiction. How could two people die by both fire and water? Examining the other uses and purposes of epigrams helps to answer that question.
I. What is an Epigram?
An epigram is a short but insightful statement, often in verse form, which communicates a thought in a witty, paradoxical, or funny way.
II. Examples of Epigram
I can resist everything but temptation
This brief epigram by Oscar Wilde is remarkably witty: temptation, is by definition, something we attempt to resist. By saying he can resist everything but temptation, the speaker is also saying he can resist nothing.
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
This epigram speaks to the idea that being gossiped about may seem bad, but being completely ignored often feels even worse. Readers would expect the opposite of a bad thing to be good, but in this case, the opposite is even worse. This statement illustrates the paradoxical side of many epigrams.
Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.
In this example, wit and brevity communicate the larger idea that people soften their mistakes by claiming to learn from the experience.
III. The Importance of Epigram
Epigrams show that the truth can be conveyed concisely and wittily. Whereas many writers and speakers take time, effort, and space to make the truth known, epigrams take advantage of brevity. Short sayings are more memorable and more easily passed down over time than long essays and arguments. Because it is often difficult to concisely and wittily express complicated or universal truths, a well-written epigram is considered an admirable poetic and intellectual feat.
IV. Examples of Epigram in Literature
Because epigrams can be both witty statements and concise poems, they are prominent figures in literature.
Of all my verse, like not a single line;
But like my title, for it is not mine.
That title from a better man I stole:
Ah, how much better, had I stol’n the whole.
In “Underwoods: Epigram,” Robert Louis Stevenson expresses the witty idea that his poem’s title has been stolen, but he would be better off if he could steal an entire poem from a different poet.
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
In “A Man Said to the Universe,” Stephen Crane uses the epigrammatic form to express that although human beings feel important, the universe does not always treat them as such.
V. Examples of Epigram in Pop Culture
Although epigrams are often literary, they can also be found in pop culture. Numerous celebrities have coined epigrammatic phrases. Here are a few examples:
Winners never quit, and quitters never win.
Lombardi’s statement is concise, witty, and ultimately true: a great example of an epigram.
For a last example, consider the quote by the actress Audrey Hepburn:
The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.
Hepburn emphasizes that the most valuable thing in life is, in fact, not a thing but other people.
VI. Related Terms
An aphorism, like an epigram, is a brief and thoughtful statement that expresses a generally accepted truth. There are a few slight differences between aphorisms and epigrams. For one, epigrams are often in verse form, whereas aphorisms are not. A second difference is epigrams tend to be witty or paradoxical, whereas aphorisms can have a variety of tones from serious to witty to humorous.
Epigraphs and epigrams are a few letters away from being the same, and their definitions also have overlaps. An epigraph is a brief quotation placed at the beginning of a literary composition, whereas an epigram is simply a brief and witty statement. An epigram may be used as an epigraph, but epigraphs range in tone, form, and subject much more widely than epigrams do.
VII. In Closing
Brevity is difficult, and so is wit, but the epigram effortless combines the two for a memorable and universal expression of truth. Epigrams can be poetic, witty, paradoxical, and surprising. Sources of epigrams range from classical poets to modern celebrities, showing great truths can be found in many places.