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A Little on Epigrams

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

- Samuel T. Coleridge (1772–1834)

Definition: An epigram is a pithy saying or remark expressing an idea in a clever and amusing way. There can be more than one tune to play, also when it comes to brief and pithy statements in verse or otherwise, purporting to point a moral.

However, that is not all an epigram is. It can also be a "brief, interesting, memorable, and sometimes surprising or satirical statement." This literary device has been used for over two thousand years. (Wikipedia, "Epigram").

Greek literary epigram was not always as short; modern epigrams are usually thought of as very short. Epigrams are also thought of as having a "point" that is, ending in a punchline or little twist. However, all Greek epigrams do not behave this way; many are simply descriptive.

The European epigram tradition takes the Latin poet Martial as its main model. He copied and adapted Greek epigram style (Lucillius and Nicarchus) selectively. Greek epigram was much more diverse than Martial's, however.

Among the best sources is the Greek Anthology from the 10th century CE. It is based on older collections, and contains epigrams ranging from the Hellenistic period through the Imperial period and Late Antiquity into the Byzantine era. That is a thousand years of these sayings "on every topic under the sun." (Ibid).

Roman epigrams owe much to Greek predecessors and contemporaries, although the much popular Roman epigrams are often more satirical and at times uses obscene language.

In early English literature the short couplet poem was dominated by the poetic epigram and proverb.

Occasionally, simple and witty statements may also be considered epigrams, even though they are not poetic. Some of them may tend towards paradox. Wit or sarcasm help distinguish epigrams from aphorisms and adages - (Ibid.)

Thus throughout two thousand years or so, the content, length and style of the epigram have changed, while wits and sages of many ages have tried to identify what are epigrams. Edmund Fuller writes: "It is the irreverent leaven of earthy humor, however polished, that keeps the arteries of intellect from hardening." (Fuller 1943:v)

Also, in a very long tradition from the Greeks onwards, epigrams, like bees, should have "a sting, and honey, and a small body." (Cf. Fuller 1943:v). Not necessarily! Greek epigrams might lack both sting and a small body, and that point is not to be ruled out.

On these pages an epigram may be taken to mean "a short poem leading up to and ending in a witty or ingenious turn of thought." (Fuller 1943:v) However, the epigram does not have to be a poem either!

Epigrams can be "what you want them to be" (Edmund Fuller). They overlap with such as aphoristic wisdom and other witty expressions, and may be in prose, unrhymed, and not caustic either. Still, as Edmund Fuller further states, they might be brief, they might be witty, or paradoxical, or true, but . . .

Though old the thought and oft expressed,
It's his at last who says it best.

Moreover, epigrams have been used for insults and abuse, and the form has traditionally been inclined towards such as irreverence and deflation. You may use some of them to supercharge your conversation, if needed.

Look at this:

"God is the noblest work of man (Robert Ingersoll)".

The instruction may be valid for such as word-propounded ideas of goodness, greatness, beauty and vigilance, as in some senses what men call 'God' could be 'a bundle of projections', even deep mental projections. A simple switch from perhaps too fevered arguments that "man is the noblest work of God" may thus be of service too. But as with other epigrams, "discretion should be applied", because "they are edge tools" (Fuller 1943:viii), and

The fate of all extreme is such:
Men may be read, as well as books, too much.

Alexander Pope


Character is much easier kept than recovered. (Thomas Paine)

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A prating barber asked Archelaus how he would be trimmed. He answered, "In silence." - Plutarch (Fuller 1943:35)

Valour and courage to the young and strong,
A crown of wisdom to grey hairs belong.
Be of good cheer then; to thyself be true,
Get thee a wife and get thee children too.

- Johnson (Fuller 1943:204)

Stanzas to Pale Ale

Oh! I have loved thee fondly, ever preferr'd thee to the choicest wine;
From thee my lips they could not sever by saying thou contain'dst strychnine.
Did I believe the slander? Never! I held thee still to be divine.

- Punch (in Parton 1886:56)

An optimist is a person who eats candy off an uncovered street stand. - New York Evening Mail. (Lawson 1924:48).


Epigrams, epigrammatic poetry, Literature  

Auden, W.H.: The Oxford Book of Light Verse. 2nd impression. Oxford University Press. London, 1939.

Bing, Peter, and Jon Steffen Bruss. Brill's Companion to Hellenistic Epigram: Down to Philip. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Cameron, Alan: The Greek Anthology: From Meleager to Planudes. Clarendon Press. Oxford, 1993.

Easterling, P. E., ed. The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I: Greek Literature. Eds. B. M. W. Knox and W. V. Clausen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Farmer, John S. ed. Early English Dramatists: The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellaneous of John Heywood. Facsimile of 1906 ed. by Traylen. Guilford, 1966.

Fuller, Edmund, ed: Thesaurus of Epigrams. Crown Publishers. New York, 1943.

Grigson, Geoffrey, ed. The Faber Book of Epigrams and Epitaphs. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.

Gutzwiller, Kathryn, ed. The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kenney, E. J., ed. The Cambridge History of Classical Literature II: Latin Literature. Advisory editor W. V. Clausen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Lawson, J. G. The World's Best Epigrams: Pungent Paragraphs. New York: George H. Doran, 1924.

Mackail, John William, ed. Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. Rev. ed. London: Longman, Greens, and Co, 1906.

Martialis, Marcus Valerius: The Epigrams of Martial. English tr. by Walter Ker. Vol. 1. Heinemann. London, 1961a.

Martialis, Marcus Valerius: The Epigrams of Martial. English tr. by Walter Ker. Vol. 2. Heinemann. London, 1961b.

Parton, James. The Humorous Poetry of the English Language: From Chaucer to Saxe. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1886.

Paton, William, tr. The Greek Anthology. Vols 1-5. London: Heinemann, 1916-1918.

Williams, Oscar, ed. The Silver Treasury of Light Verse: From Geoffrey Chaucer to Ogden Nash. Mentor/New American Library. New York, 1957.

Learning with markers

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