6 Examples of Epigram in Literature

‘Epigram’ is a literary figure of speech consisting of a short, witty statement often to show the opposite ideas, explain something briefly, and understand the general truth or comment.

Epigram was originated from the Latin word “epigramma”. Many writers like Herrick, William Drummond, Dryden and Swift used this literary device in their writings.

Definition of Epigram

A literary figure of speech consists of a short, witty statement often to show the opposite ideas, explain something briefly, and understand the general truth or comment.

Its words seem contradictory; however, it discloses some significant meaning beneath. ‘Epigram’ is an easy way to grasp the audience’s attention and make them think about the sentence.

This literary device is closely associated with Antithesis. In writing, the writers employ the words in brevity to put lasting effect upon readers’ minds or convert the attention towards some general observation but in a funny way. ‘Epigram’ can be humorous, paradoxical and wife. 

Francis Bacon explains the Epigram as a “strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty”.  Through this short, witty statement, ‘Bacon’ is disclosing the deep meaning that the people desirous of becoming powerful often lose their liberty. They used to remain busy with their work and do not enjoy life like others.

Example of an Epigram

  1. The highest art is to disguise art.
  2. ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot.
  3. The child is the father of the man
  4. The hard days will bring joy.
  5. Hard work is the key to success.
  6. He makes no friend who never made a foe.
  7. Little strokes fell great oaks. (Franklin)
  8. I can resist everything except temptation. (Oscar Wilde)

Examples of Epigram in Literature

Example#1

Of Great Places” by Francis Bacon

“The rising unto place is laborious; and by pains, men come to greater pains’, and it is sometimes base; and by indignities, men come to dignities”

The given stanza employs Epigram. In the stanza, the epigram manifests the paradoxical nature of the statements. The contrast between “rising unto place is laborious; and by pains, men come to greater pains and “by indignities, men come to dignities” conveys contradictory ideas in a striking and thought-provoking manner. 

The brief tagline in this stanza is only one illustration of the richness and multiplicity in the pursuit of success and respect. This element compels the reader to meditate on the inherent contradictions and ambivalence in this goal.

Example#2

On Donne’s Poetry” by S.T. Coleridge

“With Donne, whose muse on dromedary trots, Wreathe iron pokers into true love knots Rhymes sturdy cripple, fancy’s maze and clue, Wits forge and fire blast, meaning’s press and screw”.

In the above stanza, Coleridge describes his work in these lines by considering John Donne’s ability and intelligence in combining divergent images, delicacy and intensive intellectual work.

Check also: Literary Devices That Start With E

Example#3

The Statue” by Hilaire Belloc

“When we are dead, some Hunting boy will pass And find a stone ha’f hidden in tall grass, And grey with age, but hav’ng seen that stone, Which was your image ride more slowly on”.

In the paragraph, the writer creates imagery of the boy, who is finding a stone with someone’s picture. It shows how memories can make a person immortal.

The contrast between the lasting stone and life’s transience creates a powerful effect. This style makes the passage deep and making us think about how our presence can last beyond the life.

Example#4

The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.”

The character Algernon speaks about marriage and the social pedestals during his conversation. This excerpt reveals the ability of Wilde to encapsulate thesociety’s complex essence in a single phrase and witty way.

Through this epigram the author humorously depicts the notion that sometimes you just replace, imitate, and turn into your parents, something we all notice in our society, while still keeping their individual characteristics.

This gender differentiation creates other unique perspectives and expectations. It’s a casual stroll which at the same time conveys a sense of the girls and guys different social issues.

Example#5

“An Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

The lines are exhaustive exploration of the rules of literary criticism and good taste. The “Pierian spring” is a mythological sources of aesthetic inspiration particularly linked to Greek mythology. 

Pope’s epigram counsels against the foolish mistakes of easy and naïve comprehension. It means that the basic familiarization with main issues could possibly help people to make not the right decisions. 

The maxim which professes profoundness or abstinence as a precondition of learning, places emphasis on the role that thorough schooling plays in it and warns against reckless lesser knowledge.

See also: Examples of Epigraph in Literature

Example#6

“Poor Richard’s Almanack” by Benjamin Franklin

“Fish and visitors stink after three days.”

This epigram is one of many proverbs that were published by Franklin in his annual symposium that also included foretelling weather, warm household recommendations, puzzle solutions, and witty sayings. 

The almanac had constant readership by Americans across all social strata, the effects of which ranged from social influence to the upholding of social norms.

This well-known humorous saying represents the pragmatical, witty attitude and attentiveness of social circles of the writer. It comments on the burden of hospitality and the human tolerance for disruption in one’s routine.

It suggests that both fish and guests are best enjoyed in moderation. This epigram encapsulates a common feeling about the strains of prolonged visits, offering a light-hearted reminder of the need for personal space. 

Concisely, the verse illustrates a popular feeling among people who exhausted when their visits become too long and therefore amuses someone by saying “get out of my space.”

Examples of Epigram in Literature
Examples of Epigram in Literature

Difference between epigram and aphorism

It is challenging to extract epigram from aphorism because both devices produce short and witty effects. However, ‘epigram is a paradoxical statement often having an ironic effect, while ‘aphorism’ is a statement of truth principle that was didactically used.

The verse epigram was relatively used in the 16th century and onwards, especially in prose or speech, to express something briefly and humorously. In recent times the use of epigram has become rare.

‘Oscar Wilde’ used this literary device to create witty as he said, “Fort years of romance make a woman look like a ruin, and forty years of marriage make her look like a public building”.

In ‘’La Belle Otero, the 19th-century courtesan, the epigram is vividly used as, “God made women beautiful so that men would love them, and he made them stupid so that they could love men”.

The poets, on a large scale, have used epigram. Epigrammatists like Lord Chesterfield, George Bernard Shaw, Byron, F.E. Smith and Ogden Nash used this literary device repeatedly in their works.

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