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Epigram: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Timothy Inman

Tim has taught college English and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and poetics.

Learn the meaning of the literary form known as the epigram and explore its history with the help of examples. Then take a quiz to test your comprehension.

Introduction

Astronaut Neil Armstrong will be remembered forever as the first person to walk on the moon, and his message to the world as he set foot on the moon's surface is equally as memorable as the event itself. You know the words: 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' What you may not know is that Armstrong's famous reflection is a textbook example of a literary form known as the epigram.

Definition and Examples

An epigram is a short, pithy expression meant to relate a 'big' idea as succinctly as possible. In the example above, Armstrong manages to make a profound statement about the progress of humankind in the modern era in just over ten words.

The two most important characteristics of an effective epigram are brevity and memorability, making it a popular form among some of history's greatest poets. Samuel Taylor Coleridge even wrote an epigram about the epigram:

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,

Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

Despite the 'dwarfish' nature of epigrams, they are able to convey ideas that would otherwise require many lines of prose to fully explain. The article you are reading now is several paragraphs long, yet Coleridge encapsulates the 'whole' of it in two lines of text. What the epigram lacks in length, it makes up for in clever wording; after all, 'wit' is its soul.

The epigram is sometimes used as a means of satire to ridicule cultural or religious authorities, as in the following example from John Wilmot, 'Impromptu on Charles II':

God bless our good and gracious king,

Whose promise none relies on,

Who never said a foolish thing,

Nor ever did a wise one.

Wilmot's poem begins as an ode, or song of praise, dedicated to the seventeenth-century English king. With a quick turn of phrase, though, Wilmot is able to provide a biting commentary on the problem of two-faced politicians throughout the ages. Charles II always said the right things, but he never followed through on his promises.

Epigrams vs. Epigraphs

Epigrams are sometimes confused with epigraphs. Although the two words are often used interchangeably, the epigraph is, technically speaking, a quotation found at the beginning of literary works that 'speaks to' the point the author of a work is making in her or his essay, novel, poem, etc. The twentieth-century American poet T.S. Eliot is known for his frequent use of epigraphs. Keep in mind that while epigraphs are quotations from outside sources, epigrams are always original to the author of the piece.

History

Epigrams started out as inscriptions on monuments and burial plots in ancient Greek and Roman culture. We still use epigrams in this way today. Just think of the last time you visited a cemetery. You probably saw headstones that read something like, 'Here lies Suzanne, a Great Wife and Mother.'

Over time, ancient people expanded on this form of commemoration, which eventually made its way into the realm of poetry. Sappho is notable for her use of the form, as in the following piece:

Gold is the son of Zeus,

Immortal, bright;

Nor moth nor worm may eat it,

Nor rust tarnish.

So are the Muse's gifts

The offspring fair,

That merit from high heaven

Youth eternal.

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