Definition of Epigram
Epigram is a rhetorical device that is a memorable, brief, interesting and surprising satirical statement. It has originated from a Greek word, epigramma, meaning inscription or to inscribe. Often ingenious or witty statements are considered as epigrams such as this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Oscar Wilde used an epigram, “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” Both of these epigrams are not only interesting and brief but also satirical, as the first one is about the sense of inferiority while the second one is about war.
This literary device is commonly used in poetry, where it appears as a short satirical poem with a single subject ending in an ingenious or witty thought. The poets like Alexander Pope, John Donne, William Shakespeare and Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized epigram as a literary device during sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Jane Wilde, an Irish poet, believed that epigrams were much better than an argumentative speech.
Common Used of Epigram
Below are some popular examples of epigram used in common speech:
- “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put and end to mankind.” – John F. Kennedy
- “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
- “A word to the wise ain’t necessary; it’s the stupid ones who need all the advice.” – Bill Cosby
- “If we don’t end war, war will end us.” – H.G. Wells
- “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” – Mother Teresa
- “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” – Michael Jackson
- “This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands.” – Barack Obama
- “Blessed are the peacemakers.” – Jesus Christ
Examples of Epigram from Literature
Here are some good examples of epigrams from literature.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
(Auguries of Innocence by William Blake)
Blake wrote poetry about his existential and religious concepts during his times. The above quotation became very popular from Auguries of Innocence. The poem is packed with punch lines, and the poet has laid great emphasis on the concept.
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.
(Sonnet 76 by William Shakespeare)
These four lines of a sonnet by Shakespeare are a good example of an epigram. The poet refers to ideas and items simultaneously as both new and old. He tries to say that he has spent something, which he already has done. He is doing this to express perplexity with a lover, and also shows his feelings of the desire of sexuality.
– There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
– Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.
– There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
(The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde)
Oscar Wilde was one of the most popular and skilled writers for using epigrams. This novel is filled with a number of epigrams and here we have three prominent examples of epigrams.
Both robb’d of air, we both lie in one ground
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drown’d.
(Hero and Leander by John Donne)
This is a good example of epigram. However, we cannot see any apparent humor, but the contradiction is clearly visible as how two people could die with water and fire both. Therefore, the poem has some satirical purposes wrapped up in just two witty lines.
Function of Epigram
Epigram is a clever and witty statement expressed in just a few lines, pointing out foibles and truths of mankind. This is very common in poetry, but we also find it in prose, film, fiction writing, politics and everyday speeches. Epigrams serve the same purpose as do maxims and proverbs. However, the main purpose of using such statements is to leave a positive impression on the audience, as they demonstrate pure humor coupled with wisdom. Besides, writers use this literary device to cause the listeners and readers to think deeply about their statements.