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Poetic Form: Epigram


February 20, 2014


Poetic Terms/Forms
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An epigram is a short, pithy saying, usually in verse, often with a quick, satirical twist at the end. The subject is usually a single thought or event. The word "epigram" comes from the Greek epigraphein, meaning "to write on, inscribe," and originally referred to the inscriptions written on stone monuments in ancient Greece. The first-century epigrams of the Roman poet Martial became the model for the modern epigram.

The epigram flourished in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England thanks to John Donne, Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, Lord George Byron, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In France, the poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux and the philosopher Voltaire often employed the epigrammatic form. Defining the epigram by example, Coleridge offered the following:

     What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
     Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

Another Coleridge epigram demonstrates the wittiness and bravado usually associated with the form:

     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.

More recent practitioners include William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Ogden Nash, whose poem, "Ice Breaking," is a very well-known epigram:

     Is dandy,
     But liquor
     Is quicker

One of the sharpest, wittiest, and oft-quoted epigrammatists is Oscar Wilde. His works are studded with examples of the epigram, such as, "I can resist everything except temptation."

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