If you’re unsure what an epigram is, you don’t have to feel bad about it. It can be difficult and confusing to define the epigram, because historically, writers have used it to describe a broad range of things. The first epigrams were verses used by the Greeks for the inscriptions on statues or other monuments to the dead. The Romans were the first to use epigrams as satirical devices, and William Shakespeare made them popular as poetic closed couplets. But modern epigrams are not confined to verse.
What is an epigram?
- An epigram is a brief and quotable statement. It can be satirical, paradoxical, humorous, or simply clever. The epigram is the one-liner of literature.
Most famous sayings that engage readers and make them ponder the meaning of what is said can be considered epigrams. Probably the most famous author of non-poetic epigrams is Oscar Wilde, who is also one of the most quoted writers of all time.
You’ve probably heard:
“I can resist everything except temptation.”
“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”
Oscar Wilde used these epigrams in his work to make it more dynamic, funny, and meaningful. The fact that so many of his epigrams are still quoted over a century after his death means he did it quite successfully.
Though many people still associate epigrams with poetry, using epigrams in a short story can make your fiction come alive with wit. How, then, do you actually come up with one? The answer depends largely on what you want to say.
- Look up famous examples of epigrams and see if you notice the patterns in how they are formed. Irony and paradox can make the audience think deeply about the true meaning of even the briefest epigram.
- If you can convey a message in a tongue-in-cheek way using only a sentence or two, the epigram can be a wonderful tool.
- Don’t make the mistake of using too many, though. Wilde’s most quotable work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, only contains around twelve true epigrams.
- Whether you use one in narration or simply have one of your characters be a bastion of punch lines, you want to do it sparingly.
What’s the secret to writing epigrams?
The real secret to writing epigrams is to say something that your reader won’t soon forget. In attempting to use a few epigrams in a short story, you could end up revisiting how you play with language altogether. It can be hard to craft a truly memorable epigram, but once you do, it’s guaranteed to stand out. So give it a try. After all, experience is the name we give to our mistakes. I bet you know who said that.
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.