An epigram is a short, often witty poem often written in memorial of a particular person. The epigram is one of the oldest and one of the most universal of all poetic forms. In the West, epigrams date back almost to the advent of literacy itself. In other cultures as well, epigrams are among the earliest forms of identifiably literary writing to appear on record. In Western literature, the most important epigrammist is easily the ancient Roman Martial, who standardized the epigram in Western literature as a generally witty and often satirical form, usually written in a verse couplet.
It is due to the influence of Martial that the epigram has become essentially a medium for humorous poetry. In the ancient world, it is clear the epigram was not always or even often a comical: epigrams were written in memoriam of fallen heroes, celebrated kings, and even for the gods themselves. Although these more solemn kinds of epigrams often seem antiquated to modern readers, they are nonetheless in many cases some of the earliest forms of written poetry (or, in some cases, written language) in existence. As such, the importance of the epigram to the history of literature is inestimable.
The word epigram is of Greek origin, epigramma, meaning literally "written upon." As the name indicates the epigram came into existence in the form of poems inscribed on votive offerings at sanctuaries—including statues of athletes—and on funerary monuments. These original epigrams did the same job as a short prose text might have done, but in verse. The epigram became a recognizably literary genre around the time of the Hellenistic period, roughly contemporaneous Homer.
We think of the epigram as necessarily short, but Greek epigrams were not always as short as later examples of the form; and in Greek, the divide between the short epigram and the lengthier elegy is sometimes indistinct. Both forms share a characteristic meter, and in the age of the ancient Greeks the two were closely related poetic forms. All the same, because epigrams were often literally written in stone, they tended to remain concise while other literary forms became lengthier. Many of the characteristic types of Greek literary epigrams look back to inscriptional contexts—that is, most written epigrams of the period retained the functions of inscribed epigrams: memorializing, praising, and so forth. However, other types of epigrams began to evolve as papyrus began to replace stone as the main means of preserving writing—these new, "paper epigrams" were meant more for performance before an audience rather than for inscription. Many of these types of epigrams combine performative and funerary elements—for instance, reminding their readers (or listeners) to drink and live for today because life is short.
Contemporary readers often think of epigrams 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 epigrams with this sort of witty or satirical twist largely because the European epigrammatic tradition takes the Latin poet Martial as its principal model; he copied and adapted Greek models (particularly the contemporary poets Lucillius and Nicarchus) selectively and in the process redefined the genre, aligning it with the indigenous Roman tradition of satire, as practiced by (among others) his contemporary Juvenal. Greek epigram was actually much more diverse and often unhumorous, as the Milan Papyrus now indicates.
Our main source for Greek literary epigram is the Greek Anthology, a compilation from the tenth century C.E. based on older collections. It contains epigrams ranging from the Hellenistic period through the Imperial period and Late Antiquity into the compiler's own Byzantine era—a thousand years of short elegiac texts on almost every topic conceivable.
Roman epigrams owe much to their Greek predecessors and contemporaries. Roman epigrams, however, were more often 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 tedious verses 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 and I love. Perhaps you're asking why I do this?
- I don't know. But it happens. And it's torture.
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.
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 couplet featured as a part of the longer sonnet form, most notably in William Shakespeare's sonnets. The closing couplets characteristic of the English-style "Shakespearean" sonnet are often epigrammatic in nature, in the sense that they tend to sum up the previous 12-lines of the sonnet as a whole, rather than carry on the volta of the closing six-lines as is characteristic of the European or "Petrarchan" sonnet. The two-line closed couplet also emerged as an epigrammatic form in English literature, and was used by such luminaries as William Blake in his "Auguries of Innocence," and later by Lord Byron, John Gay, and most especially the eighteenth-century master of epigram, Alexander Pope.
Some examples of epigrams
- What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole;
- Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
- — Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Little strokes
- Fell great oaks.
- — Benjamin Franklin
- Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
- Now she's at rest — and so am I.
- — John Dryden
- I am His Highness' dog at Kew;
- Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
- — Alexander Pope
- I'm tired of Love: I'm still more tired of Rhyme.
- But Money gives me pleasure all the time.
- — Hilaire Belloc
Occasionally, simple and witty statements, though not poetical per se, may also be considered epigrams, such as this one attributed to Oscar Wilde: "I can resist everything except temptation."
The term is sometimes used for particularly pointed or frequently used quotations taken from longer works.
- Whipple, Thomas. Martial and the English Epigram from Sir Thomas Wyatt to Ben Jonson. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1925.
- Redman, A. The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde. London: Macmillan, 1952.
- Hartigan, Karelisa. The Poets and The Cities: Selections from The Greek Anthology. Meisenheim: Anton Hain, 1979. ISBN 3445015368
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