Epigram is a brief, sharp, witty and polished saying giving expression to evoke striking thought. It may be complimentary, satiric or aphoristic.
Coleridge defines an epigram thus:
“What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole:
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.”
Martial, the famous Latin epigrammatist, lists what an epigram should have:
Three things must epigrams, like bees, have all, their sting, their honey, and their body small.
‘The epigram,’ defines Prof Bain, ‘is an apparent contradiction in language which, by causing a temporary shock, rouses our attention to some important meaning underneath.’
Origin of the term Epigram
The term ‘epigram’ was originally used by the Greeks in the sense inscription. Afterwards, it was given as a title to any short poem, expressing, precisely and pointedly, a single thought. In modern times, though the name is still used for short pointed poems, the common practice is to mean by ‘epigram’ any ingenious or sharp saying in prose or verse.
What is Epigram?
The language of epigram is known for its brevity. It couples words which seemingly contradict each other. Its apparently contradictory statement seems to be absurd at first sight, but being closely examined points to some deeper meaning underneath.
Characteristics of Epigram
The chief characteristics of an epigram are given below:
(i) There is a contradiction.
(ii) The contradiction may be raised by words formally opposing each other or by such giving out an opposing sense.
(iii) The contradiction is not real but apparent.
(iv) It often gives us a shock and appears at first to be absurd.
(v) It draws our attention to an inner meaning or some striking truth.
(vi) Its expression is invariably brief, witty and pointed.
Epigram Examples with Illustrations
(i) The child is the father of man.
This is an epigram.
In an epigram, there is a shocking contradiction in the apparent meaning of the language used, but there is an inner significance.
Here the language contradicts itself, for how a child can be the father of a man. Yet, there is an inner meaning, which is roused by the shock caused by the contradiction. The inner meaning suggests that the child of today will be the creator of the future man.
(ii) No man teaches well, who wants to teach.
This is an epigram.
In an epigram, there is a contradiction in the apparent meaning of the language used, but there is an inner meaning.
Here, a contradiction exists in the apparent meaning of the expression, for how that man who wants to teach’ cannot each well. This shocking expression, however, contains an underlying sense and aptly suggests the failure of those who pride on their ability of teaching.
(iii) Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. (Shelley )
This is an epigram
It is a brief and witty expression which reveals a striking thought through contradiction in language.
Here there is a contradiction, for songs of ‘saddest’ thought are said to be ‘sweetest’. For this it gives us a shock and seems absurd at first. But after a close analysis we find that there is a significant truth in it, for from our personal experience we know that songs made of light thought do not appear so pleasing to us as those made of gloomy thought, since only the latter type is able to stir the deepest emotions in us.
(iv) I am content, and I don’t like my situation. (Goethe)
This is an epigram.
This is a figure which gives pointed expression to a significant thought through an apparent verbal contradiction.
Here we get in touch with a statement which at first seems shocking and absurd, for it holds a contradiction by mentioning one’ contentment, yet not liking the situation. This contradiction is, however, apparent, not real, as a careful examination of the sentence discloses the important truth that while contentment keeps one inactive, a sense of dissatisfaction inspires hope and inflames op into activity.
(v) He makes no friend who never made a foe. This is an epigram.
In epigram a significant thought is revealed through a witty and apparently contradictory saying.
At first sight the statement seems to be shocking and absurd. But after a careful examination we note that this apparently inconsistent statement holds a subtle and significant thought it makes us realize that it is through petty quarrels that friendship is cemented.
(vi) Cowards die many times before their death. (Shakespeare)
This is an epigram.
In this figure a striking thought is given expression to by means of a pointed and apparently inconsistent saying.
Here we get a statement which some shocking (because of the verbal contradiction of cowards dying many times before their actual death and absurd ( for, how can one die more than once ?). But after a careful examination of the statement a significant thought is disclosed : cowards suffer continually from the fear of death even before death comes to them.
(vii) The child is father of the man. (Wordsworth) This is an epigram.
In this figure a short, witty saying is given expression to by means of an apparent contradiction in language.
Here there is a shocking verbal contradiction, for a child is deemed to be a ‘father, and because of this it seems to be absurd ac first sight. After some reflection, however, we realize that it contains a significant truth–the child’s character shows what the future man’s father will be.
Functions of Epigram
Any ingenious or sharp saying has the power to rouse one’s interest in its inner meaning. Generally, the attention of a hearer or reader is drawn to something deeper or inner by means of an apparent contradiction in the language used.
Types of Epigram according to their Usage
In epigram we sometimes find the employment of a word and its exactly opposite form in the same sentence for the purpose of raising an apparent contradiction. The following examples will show this:
- In the midst of life we are in death.
- There is a pleasure in poetic pains.
- Failures are the pillars of success.
There are, however, instances where you cannot find in the same sentence a word with its exactly opposite form. Here the sense of contradiction is to be gathered from the use of a word or phrase echoing an opposite sense. Some such examples are given below:
- The paths of glory load but to the grave. (Gray)
- The blessedness of being little. (Shakespeare )
- They also serve who only stand and wait. (Milton)
Again, there are instances of epigram which, for their effect, depend more on wit or satiric undertones than on an undercurrent of contradiction, e.g.
- I can resist everything except temptation. (Wilde)
- (Of Macaulay ] He has occasional flashes of silence that make this conversation perfectly delightful. (Smith)
- A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it. (Wilde)
Epigram Vs Antithesis
Though both are frequently antithetical in form, there is a distinction between an epigram and an antithesis:
(a) The contradiction in antithesis is real, whereas in epigram it is apparent,
(b) An epigram has always an element of apparent absurdity which is wholly lacking in antithesis.
(c) For its effect an epigram depends on wit, brevity and polish, and an antithesis on contrast between ideas.
(d) An epigram generally consists of one part and one complex idea only, whereas in antithesis the sentence is usually divided into two parts and to separate ideas.
(e) An epigram lays stress on a terse and pointed saying but an antithesis on a balanced structure.
(f) In antithesis both ideas are made clearer by being contrasted, whereas in epigram opposite ideas suggest a new truth (often shrouded in obscurity) under the guise of a self-contradiction.
Examples of Epigram in Literature
- The more a man loves, the more he suffers. (Amiel)
- The busiest man has the amplest leisure. (Goldsmith)
- Beware the fury of a patient man,
- To possess the world we must renounce it. (Ronan )
- Art lies in concealing art.
- Language is the art of concealing thought. (Rochefoucauld)
- Speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts. (Voltaire)
- Man never is but always to be blessed.
- Speech is meant to hide thought.
- She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she lives.
- Natural beauty when unadorned is adorned the most
- A man can’t be too careful in the choice of his enemies.
- As far as driving is concerned, it is the overtaker who keeps the undertaker busy.
- Preparedness for war is the best security for peace.
- They always talk who never think.
- No man teaches well who wants to teach. (Ruskin)
- Heaven most chastises those whom most who likes. (Pomfret)
- And his best riches, ignorance of wealth. (Goldsmith)
- He who has never hoped can never despair. ( Shaw )
- Most pleased when most uneasy.
- Love is a secondary passion in those who love most, a primary in those who love least. (Landor)
- More haste, less speed.
- A light wife doth make a heavy husband.
- The king is dead, long live the king.
- And where strife was, shall union be. (Drinkwater)
- He is all fault who hath no fault at all. (Tennyson )
- Ah, thought which saddens while it soothes! (Browning)
- Murder, though it have no tongue, will yet speak. (Shakespeare)
- The more I see of men, the less I like them. (Byron)
- To enjoy freedom we have of course to control ourselves. ( Woolf)
- A favourite has no friend.
- Silence is sometimes more eloquent than words.
4 Best Epigram Poems
#1 Auguries of Innocence by William Blake
“God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.”
#2 Epigram by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“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.”
#3 The Spur by William Butler Yeats
“You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?”
#4 Sonnet 76 by William Shakespeare
“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.”
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