An epigram is a brief, clever, and usually memorable statement. Derived from the Greek: ἐπίγραμμα (epi-gramma) "to write on - inscribe", the literary device has been employed for over two millennia.
The Greek tradition of epigrams began as poems inscribed on votive offerings at sanctuaries — including statues of athletes — and on funerary monuments, for example "Go tell it to the Spartans, passer-by…". These original epigrams did the same job as a short prose text might have done, but in verse. Epigram became a literary genre in the Hellenistic period, probably developing out of scholarly collections of inscriptional epigrams.
Though modern epigrams are usually thought of as very short, Greek literary epigram was not always as short as later examples, and the divide between 'epigram' and 'elegy' is sometimes indistinct (they share a characteristic metre, elegiac couplets); all the same, the origin of the genre in inscription exerted a residual pressure to keep things concise. Many of the characteristic types of literary epigram look back to inscriptional contexts, particularly funerary epigram, which in the Hellenistic era becomes a literary exercise. Other types look instead to the new performative context which epigram acquired at this time, even as it made the move from stone to papyrus: the Greek symposium. Many 'sympotic' epigrams combine sympotic and funerary elements — they tell their readers (or listeners) to drink and live for today because life is short.
We also think of epigram 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 epigram with 'point' because the European epigram 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 'satura', hexameter satire, as practised by (among others) his contemporary Juvenal. Greek epigram was actually much more diverse, as the Milan Papyrus now indicates.
Our main source for Greek literary epigram is the Greek Anthology, a compilation from the 10th century AD 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 every topic under the sun. The Anthology includes one book of Christian epigrams.
Roman epigrams owe much to their Greek predecessors and contemporaries. Roman epigrams, however, were often more 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:
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.
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):
Poets known for their epigrams whose work has been lost include Cornificia.
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. Sonnet 76 is an excellent example. The two line poetic form as a closed couplet was also used by William Blake in his poem Auguries of Innocence and also by Byron (Don Juan (Byron) XIII); John Gay (Fables); Alexander Pope (An Essay on Man).
In Victorian times the epigram couplet was often used by the prolific American poet Emily Dickinson. Her poem No. 1534 is a typical example of her eleven poetic epigrams. The novelist George Eliot also included couplets throughout her writings. Her best example is in her sequenced sonnet poem entitled Brother and Sister, in which each of the eleven sequenced sonnet ends with a couplet. In her sonnets, the preceding lead-in-line, to the couplet ending of each, could be thought of as a title for the couplet, as is shown in Sonnet VIII of the sequence.
In the early 20th century the rhymed epigram couplet form developed into a fixed verse image form, with an integral title as the third line. Adelaide Crapsey codified the couplet form into a two line rhymed verse of ten syllables per line with her image couplet poem On Seeing Weather-Beaten Trees, first published in 1915.
By the 1930s the five-line cinquain verse form became widely known in the poetry of the Scottish poet William Soutar. These were originally labelled epigrams but later identified as image cinquains in the style of Adelaide Crapsey.
In the last decade of the 20th century the American poet Denis Garrison developed a two-line 17 syllable variation of the image couplet with his Crystalline, where euphony is the key component and a title thereto optional..An early example of this euphony ,in a couplet form can be found in Edmund Spenser's Anacreontic No 1 
Occasionally, simple and witty statements, though not poetic per se, may also be considered epigrams. Oscar Wilde's witticisms such as "I can resist everything except temptation" are considered epigrams. eg : art lies in concealing art. This shows the epigram's tendency towards paradox. Dorothy Parker's witty one-liners can be considered epigrams. Also, Macdonald Carey's legendary line "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives" can be considered an epigram, as the meaning of life is concisely explained in a simile.
The term is sometimes used for particularly pointed or much-quoted quotations taken from longer works.
EPIGRAM, properly speaking, anything that is inscribed. Nothing could be more hopeless, however, than an attempt to discover or devise a definition wide enough to include the vast multitude of little poems which at one time or other have been honoured with the title of epigram, and precise enough to exclude all others. Without taking account of its evident misapplications, we find that the name has been given - first, in strict accordance with its Greek etymology, to any actual inscription on monument, statue or building; secondly, to verses never intended for such a purpose, but assuming for artistic reasons the epigraphical form; thirdly, to verses expressing with something of the terseness of an inscription a striking or beautiful thought; and fourthly, by unwarrantable restriction, to a litle poem ending in a "point," especially of the satirical kind. The last of these has obtained considerable popularity from the well-known lines "The qualities rare in a bee that we meet In an epigram never should fail; The body should always be little and sweet, And a sting should be left in its tail" which represent the older Latin of some unknown writer- "Omne epigramma sit instar apis: sit aculeus illi; Sint sua mella; sit et corporis exigui." Attempts not a few of a more elaborate kind have been made to state the essential element of the epigram, and to classify existing specimens; but, as every lover of epigrams must feel, most of them have been attended with very partial success. Scaliger, in the third book of his Poetics, gives a fivefold division, which displays a certain ingenuity in the nomenclature but is very superficial: the first class takes its name from mel, or honey, and consists of adulatory specimens; the second from fel, or gall; the third from acetum, or vinegar; and the fourth from sal, or salt; while the fifth is styled the condensed, or multiplex. This classification is adopted by Nicolaus Mercerius in his De conscribendo epigrammate (Paris, 163); but he supplemented it by another of much more scientific value, based on the figures of the ancient rhetoricians. Lessing, in the preface to his own epigrams, gives an interesting treatment of the theory, his principal doctrine being practically the same as that of several of his less eminent predecessors, that there ought to be two parts more or less clearly distinguished, - the first awakening the reader's attention in the same way as an actual monument might do, and the other satisfying his curiosity in some unexpected manner. An attempt was made by Herder to increase the comprehensiveness and precision of the theory; but as he himself confesses, his classification is rather vague - the expository, the paradigmatic, the pictorial, the impassioned, the artfully turned, the illusory, and the swift. After all, if the arrangement according to authorship be rejected, the simplest and most satisfactory is according to subjects. The epigram is one of the most catholic of literary forms, and lends itself to the expression of almost any feeling or thought. It may be an elegy, a satire, or a love-poem in miniature, an embodiment 1 For an illustration, see Kathleen Schlesinger, Orchestral Instruments, part ii. "Precursors of the Violin Family," fig. 165, p. 219.
2 Athenaeus, iv. p. 183 d. and xiv. p. 638 a.
3 Dialogo della musica antica e moderna, ed. 1602, p. 40.
of the wisdom of the ages, a bon-mot set off with a couple of rhymes.
"I cannot tell thee who lies buried here; No man that knew him followed by his bier; The winds and waves conveyed him to this shore, Then ask the winds and waves to tell thee more." Anonymous.
"Wherefore should I vainly try To teach thee what my love will be In after years, when thou and I Have both grown old in company, If words are vain to tell thee how, Mary, I do love thee now?" Anonymous.
"Treason doth never prosper. What's the reason? For if it prospers none dare call it treason." HA Rrington.
From its very brevity there is no small danger of the epigram passing into childish triviality: the paltriest pun, a senseless anagram, is considered stuff enough and to spare. For proof of this there is unfortunately no need to look far; but perhaps the reader could not find a better collection ready to his hand than the second twenty-five of the Epigrammatum centuriae of Samuel Erichius; by the time he reaches No. i 1 of the 47th century, he will be quite ready to grant the appropriateness of the identity maintained between the German Seele, or soul, and the German Esel, or ass.
Of the epigram as cultivated by the Greeks an account is given in the article Anthology, discussing those wonderful collections which bid fair to remain the richest of their kind. The delicacy and simplicity of so much of what has been preserved is perhaps their most striking feature; and one cannot but be surprised at the number of poets proved capable of such work. In Latin literature, on the other hand, the epigrammatists whose work has been preserved are comparatively few, and though several of them, as Catullus and Martial, are men of high literary genius, too much of what they have left behind is vitiated by brutality and obscenity. On the subsequent history of the epigram, indeed, Martial has exercised an influence as baneful as it is extensive, and he may fairly be counted the far-off progenitor of a host of scurrilous verses. Nearly all the learned Latinists of the 16th and i 7th centuries may claim admittance into the list of epigrammatists, - Bembo and Scaliger, Buchanan and More, Stroza and Sannazaro. Melanchthon, who succeeded in combining so much of Pagan culture with his Reformation Christianity, has left us some graceful specimens, but his editor, Joannes Major Joachimus, has so little idea of what an epigram is, that he includes in his collection some translations from the Psalms. The Latin epigrams of Etienne Pasquier were among the most admirable which the Renaissance produced in France. John Owen, or, as he Latinized his name, Johannes Audoenus, a Cambro-Briton, attained quite an unusual celebrity in this department, and is regularly distinguished as Owen the Epigrammatist. The tradition of the Latin epigram has been kept alive in England by such men as Porson, Vincent Bourne and Walter Savage Landor. Happily there is now little danger of any too personal epigrammatist suffering the fate of Niccolo Franco, who paid the forfeit of his life for having launched his venomous Latin against Pius V., though he may still incur the milder penalty of having his name inserted in the and find, like John Owen, that he consequently has lost an inheritance.
In English literature proper there is no writer like Martial in Latin or Logau in German, whose fame is entirely due to his epigrams; but several even of those whose names can perish never have not disdained this diminutive form. The designation epigram, however, is used by earlier English writers with. excessive laxity, and given or withheld without apparent reason.
The epigrams of Robert Crowley (1550) and of Henry Parrot (1613) are worthless so far as form goes. John Weever's collection (1599) is of interest mainly because of its allusion to Shakespeare. Ben Jonson furnishes a number of noble examples in his Underwoods; and one or two of Spenser's little poems and a great many of Herrick's are properly classed as epigrams. Cowley, Waller, Dryden, Prior, Parnell, Swift, Addison, Johnson, Goldsmith and Young have all been at times successful in their epigrammatical attempts; but perhaps none of them has proved himself so much "to the manner born" as Pope, whose name indeed is almost identified with the epigrammatical spirit in English literature. Few English modern poets have followed in his footsteps, and though nearly all might plead guilty to an epigram or two, there is no one who has a distinct reputation as an epigrammatist. Such a reputation might certainly have been Landor's, had he not chosen to write the best of his minor poems in Latin, and thus made his readers nearly as select as his language.
The French are undoubtedly the most successful cultivators of the "salt" and the "vinegar" epigram; and from the 16th century downwards many of their principal authors have earned no small celebrity in this department. The epigram was introduced into French literature by Me]lin de St Gelais and Clement Marot. It is enough to mention the names of Boileau, J. B. Rousseau, Lebrun, Voltaire, Marmontel, Piron, Rulhiere, and M. Chenier. In spite of Rapin's dictum that a man ought to be content if he succeeded in writing one really good epigram, those of Lebrun alone number upwards of 600, and a very fair proportion of them would doubtless pass muster even with Rapin himself. If Piron was never anything better, "pas meme academicien," he appears at any rate in Grimm's phrase to have been "une machine a saillies, a epigrammes, et a bons mots." Perhaps more than anywhere else the epigram has been recognized in France as a regular weapon in literary and political contests, and it might not be altogether a hopeless task to compile an epigrammatical history from the Revolution to the present time.
While any fair collection of German epigrams will furnish examples that for keenness of wit would be quite in place in a French anthology, the Teutonic tendency to the moral and didactic has given rise to a class but sparingly represented in French. The very name of Sinngedichte bears witness to this peculiarity, which is exemplified equally by the rude priameln or proeameln, of the 13th and 14th centuries and the polished lines of Goethe and Schiller. Logau published his Deutsche Sinngetichte Drey Tausend in 1654, and Wernicke no fewer than six volumes of Ueberschriften oder Epigrammata in 1697; Kastner's Sinngedichte appeared in 1782, and Haug and Weissen's Epigrammatische Anthologie in 1804. Kleist, Opitz, Gleim, Hagedorn, Klopstock and A. W. Schlegel all possess some reputation as epigrammatists; Lessing is facile princeps in the satirical style; and Herder has the honour of having enriched his language with much of what is best from Oriental and classical sources.
It is often by no means easy to trace the history of even a single epigram, and the investigator soon learns to be cautious of congratulating himself on the attainment of a genuine original. The same point, refurbished and fitted anew to its tiny shaft, has been shot again and again by laughing cupids or fierce-eyed furies in many a frolic and many a fray. During the period when the epigram was the favourite form in Germany, Gervinus tells us how the works, not only of the Greek and Roman writers, but of Neo-Latinists, Spaniards, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Englishmen and Poles were ransacked and plundered; and the same process of pillage has gone on in a more or less modified degree in other times and countries. Very noticeable often are the modifications of tone and expression occasioned by national and individual characteristics; the simplicity of the prototype may become common-place in the imitation, the sublime be distorted into the grotesque, the pathetic degenerate into the absurdly sentimental; or on the other hand, an unpromising motif may be happily developed into unexpected beauty. A good illustration of the variety with which the same epigram may be translated and travestied is afforded by a little volume published in Edinburgh in 1808, under the title of Lucubrations on the Epigram Et µiv µaeeiv a bei iraBeiv, Kai µ2j 7ra8e1v, KaXov rev rb µa©eiv' ei b Se? vaBeiv a b' iv µaOeiv, ri bei yaOeav; xpb 'Yap 7raOeIv.
The two collections of epigrams most accessible to the English reader are Booth's Epigrams, Ancient and Modern (1863) and Dodd's The Epigrammatists (1870). In the appendix to the latter is a pretty full bibliography, to which the following list may serve as a supplement: - Thomas Corraeus, De toto eo poematis genere quod epigramma dicitur (Venice, 1569; Bologna, 1590); Cottunius, Dc conficiendo epigrammate (Bologna, 1632); Vincentius Gallus, Opusculum de epigrammate (Milan, 1641); Vavassor, De epigrammate liber (Paris, 1669); Gedanke von deutschen Epigrammatibus (Leipzig, 1698); Doctissimorum nostra aetate Italorum epigrammata; Flaminii Moleae Naugerii, Cottae, Lampridii, Sadoleti, et aliorum, cura Jo. Gagnaei (Paris, c. 1550); Brugiere de Barante, Recueil des plus belles epigrammes des pontes francais (2 vols., Paris, 1698); Chr. Aug. Heumann, Anthologia Latina: hoc est, epigrammata partim a priscis partim junioribus a poetis (Hanover, 1721); Fayolle, Acontologie ou dictionnaire d'epigrammes (Paris, 1817); Geijsbeck, Epigrammatische Anthologie, Sauvage, Les Guepes gauloises: petit encyclopedie des meilleurs epigrammes, &c., depuis Clement Marot jusqu'aux poetes de nos jours (1859); La Recreation et passe-temps des tristes: recueil d'epigrammes et de petits contes en vers reimprime sur l'edition de Rouen 1595, &c. (Paris, 1863). A large number of epigrams and much miscellaneous information in regard to their origin, application and translation is scattered through Notes and Queries. See also an article in The Quarterly Review, No. 233.
Short poems with an unexpected yet pointed ending; much in favor among Jewish writers because of the play of wit which they permitted, though often rather in substance than in form. Such epigrammatic phrasings of ideas were used in birthday and wedding poems, in dirges and tombstone inscriptions, as well as in epigraphs, chapter-headings, introductions, dedications, and approbations and commendations of written or printed books. They were employed especially in scholarly disputes, and have played a prominent part in controversial literature. At times they took a serious turn, at others they were humorous and satirical: to deride man's lot on earth, or to express sentiments of love, friendship, or enmity. They were used even for fervent prayers. Hebrew epigrams take mostly the form of a witty application of some Biblical or Talmudic expression; or they contain simply an allusion to persons and objects with which the reader is supposed to be familiar.
The epigram is represented in the productions of all the Jewish poets of the Middle Ages. Typical are the didactic and ethical epigrams of Samuel ha-Nagid (see Harkavy, "Studien und Mittheilungen," i., especially some of the fragments of (missing hebrew text) (missing hebrew text) and (missing hebrew text) ), the gloomy verses of Solomon ibn Gabirol, the noble, tender, and at times droll epigrams of Judah ha-Levi. Moses ibn Ezra, who was somewhat older than Judah, excels him in both breadth of thought and depth of feeling, as well as in artistic expression. Sharply pointed are the epigrams of the clever and sarcastic Abraham ibn Ezra. Ingenuity and waggishness vie with each other in the productions of Al-Ḥarizi. The Italian Immanuel may also be classed with the masters of this form of poetry. The disputes about Maimonides and his works ("Moreh" and "Madda'") occasioned a great number of epigrams, which have been collected by Steinschneider ( (missing hebrew text) , ed. Meḳiẓe Nirdamim, Berlin, 1885). Some good epigrams were produced by Eleazar ben Jacob ha-Babli, Solomon da Piera, and some of the latter's contemporaries—Azariah dei Rossi, Judah de Modena, Jacob and Immanuel Frances, the three Gavisons (father, son, and grandson, especially the last), and many others. Brüll has published a number of epigrams from a sixteenth century German manuscript, the material of which, however, goes back to a much earlier date ("Jahrb." ix. 1 et seq.).
Among the foremost epigrammatists of modern times, beginning with the period of enlightenment in the eighteenth century, are Ephraim Luzzatto, J. L. Jeiteles, J. B. Lewinsohn, S. D. Luzzatto, Joseph Almanzi, Hirsch Sommerhausen ( (missing hebrew text) , Amsterdam, 1840), J. A. Benjacob, whose collected epigrams ( (missing hebrew text) , Leipsic, 1842) are accompanied by a treatise on the form and essence of the epigram; M. Letteris, A. B. Gottlober, and S. Mandelkern.