A Brief History of the Epigram, with Examples
If you'll pardon the pun, this is a "brief" history of literature's shortest
form: the epigram.
We can trace the epigram back at least 2,000 years, to the ancient Greeks.
The earliest Greek epigrams were poems, usually brief and concise, inscribed on votive
offerings at sanctuaries and on funerary monuments. Our main extant source of
ancient Greek epigrams is the Greek Anthology (also called the Anthologia Graeca),
which was compiled from two earlier manuscripts: the Palatine Anthology of the
10th century and the Anthology of Planudes (or Planudean Anthology) of the 14th
compiled by Michael R. Burch
According to J. W. Mackail, editor of Select Epigrams from the Greek
Anthology, "The Greek word 'epigram' in its original meaning is precisely
equivalent to the Latin word 'inscription'; and it probably came into use in
this sense at a very early period of Greek history, anterior even to the
invention of prose. Inscriptions at that time, if they went beyond a mere name
or set of names, or perhaps the bare statement of a single fact, were
necessarily in verse, then the single vehicle of organised expression."
In other words, the first epigrams were short poems that
were inscribed on things such as gravestones and monuments.
Why poetry? According to Mackail, "Even after prose was in use, an obvious
propriety remained in the metrical form as being at once more striking and more
easily retained in the memory; while in the case of epitaphs and
dedications—for the earlier epigram falls almost entirely under these two
heads—religious feeling and a sense of what was due to ancient custom aided the
continuance of the old tradition."
Herodotus quoted epigrams of both kinds in his History; at that time
the word epigramma was just beginning to acquire its current literary
denotation. Herodotus quoted inscriptions found at the temple of Apollo at
Thebes and on funeral monuments at Thermopylae, where the Greeks, led by a
contingent of valorous Spartans, famously held off a much larger Persian army at
the "Hot Gates." The most famous of the Thermopylae inscriptions is the one
attributed to Simonides. Here is my "interpretation" of his celebrated epigram,
which dates to around 497 BC:
tell the Spartans we lie
here, at Thermopylae:
dead at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
—Michael R. Burch, after Simonides
Simonides (556-467 BC) was considered by many to the most eminent of the Greek lyric
poets, although Sappho is better known today. Mackail says of him, "Beyond the
point to which Simonides brought it the epigram never rose. In him there is
complete ease of workmanship and mastery of form together with the noble and
severe simplicity which later poetry lost. His dedications retain something of
the antique stiffness; but his magnificent epitaphs are among our most precious
inheritances from the greatest thought and art of Greece."
Here’s my "take" on an inscription that has been attributed to Simonides:
These men earned a crown of imperishable glory,
nor did the maelstrom of death obscure their story.
—Michael R. Burch, after Simonides
One of the best and most famous lyric poets of antiquity (or of any era) was
a woman, Sappho. She was born on the island of Lesbos, circa 620 BC. According
to the Parian Marble, she was exiled to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594,
while Cicero mentioned that a statue of her stood in the town hall of Syracuse.
"She is a mortal marvel," wrote Antipater of Sidon, before proceeding to catalog
the Seven Wonders of the World. As J. B. Hare, one of her translators, said,
"Sappho the poet was an innovator. At the time poetry was principally used in
ceremonial contexts, and to extoll the deeds of brave soldiers. Sappho had the
audacity to use the first person in poetry and to discuss deep human emotions,
particularly the erotic, in ways that had never been approached by anyone before
her. As for the military angle, in one of the longer fragments (#3) she says:
'Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth is a host of horsemen, and
some say a host of foot soldiers, and others again a fleet of ships, but for me
it is my beloved.' In the ancient world she was considered to be on an equal
footing with Homer, acclaimed as the 'tenth muse.'"
Here are my loose translations of three of my favorite Sapphic epigrams:
Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds sweeping desolate mountains,
—Sappho, fragment 42, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!
—Sappho, fragment 155, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.
—Sappho, fragment 156, loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Anacreon (582-485 BC) was a Greek lyric poet renowned for his drinking
songs and hymns. Later Greeks included him in the canonical list of nine lyric
poets. Here is my loose translation of an epigram that has been attributed to
He lies in state tonight: great is his Monument!
Yet Ares cares not, neither does War relent.
—Michael R. Burch, after Anacreon
Many of the earliest and best epigrams are couplets, although some of the
best ancient epigrams have up to six or eight lines. Mackail provides us with
this excellent definition of the epigram: "In brief then, the epigram in its
first intention may be described as a very short poem summing up as though in a
memorial inscription what it is desired to make permanently memorable in any
action or situation. It must have the compression and conciseness of a real
inscription, and in proportion to the smallness of its bulk must be highly
finished, evenly balanced, simple, and lucid. In literature it holds something
of the same place as is held in art by an engraved gem. But if the definition of
the epigram is only fixed thus, it is difficult to exclude almost any very short
poem that conforms externally to this standard ..."
Here is an epigram that has been attributed to Plato (circa 424-347
You gaze at the stars, my Star;
would that I were Heaven, that I might look
up at you with many eyes!
—Translated by J. M. Edmonds, revised by John M. Cooper
Here’s my own loose translation of an epigram attributed to Plato:
Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
—Michael R. Burch, after Plato
The way we think of epigrams has changed over time. Today, according to the
Wikipedia article on epigrams, we tend to "think of epigram as having a ‘point’
– that is, the poem ends in a punchline or satirical twist. [But] by no means do
all Greek epigrams behave this way; many are simply descriptive. We associate
[the] epigram with [a] '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 epigrams [were] actually much more diverse, as [indicated by] the
For example, many of the epigrams in the Greek Anthology are sad and/or
tender love poems.
This is another ancient epigram, of the antinatalist variety:
How happy the soul who speeds back to the Source,
but crowned with peace is the one who never came.
—a Sophoclean passage from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, loose
translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
According to Wikipedia, Marcus Valerius Martialis, known in English as
Martial, was born circa 38 AD and died circa 104 AD. He was a Latin poet from
Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) who wrote twelve books of epigrams, published
during the reigns of the emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. His epigrams tend
to be short, witty affairs in which he cheerfully satirizes Roman-era city life and the
scandalous activities of his acquaintances. He wrote a total of 1,561 poems, of
which 1,235 are in elegiac couplets. He is considered to be the creator of the
modern epigram. He has been described as a poet of "satirical thrust and
unquenchable spleen." Here are a few of my favorite Martial epigrams:
There is no glory in outstripping donkeys.
—Marcus Valerius Martial
Lie lightly on her, turf and dew ...
She put so little weight on you.
—Marcus Valerius Martial
Readers and listeners praise my books;
You swear they're worse than a beginner's.
Who cares? I always plan my dinners
To please the diners, not the cooks.
—Marcus Valerius Martial, translated by R. L. Barth
A drop of venom, a little bit of gall.
Lacking these, my friend, your epigrams lack all.
—Marcus Valerius Martial, translated by Richard O’Connell
I’ve noticed when you get up from the couch
You’re buttfucked, Lesbia, by your wretched skirts.
Your left and right hand try to yank them—ouch!—
You weep and moan and pull. I’m sure it hurts.
Your skirts are caught between those massive buns
As big as two Gibraltars—a tight fit.
You want to solve this problem? Listen, hon:
Don’t rise up, and what’s more, don’t even sit.
—Marcus Valerius Martial, translated by Joseph S. Salemi
While Roman epigrams owe much to their Greek predecessors, they are often
more satirical, and sometimes employ obscene language. Latin epigrams could take
the form of graffiti, such as this one found at Pompeii (circa 79 AD):
I'm astonished, wall, that you haven't collapsed into ruins,
since you're holding up the weary verse of so many poets.
Since Martial and other Roman poets adopted and adapted epigrams for their
own purposes, the form has continued to evolve. Here are some modern examples:
For My Contemporaries
How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.
—J. V. Cunningham
These Strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me―
Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven
Be found a Refugee.
What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
fell great oaks.
Oh God of dust and rainbows, help us see
that without dust the rainbow would not be.
Today most epigrams are prose
rather than poetry, and include:
The Tweet is a popular new form of epigram. Here's my favorite Tweet to date:
The Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight.—Gabrielle
Gabrielle Giffords is the Arizona congresswoman who was shot and nearly
killed. While so many other American politicians rage and imagine vain things, I
find her words wonderfully touching and encouraging. Reading her poetic Tweet, I
can actually see our nation's Capitol lit up at night, shining like a beacon,
and feel her sincerity. How many senators and congressmen are humble enough to
feel honored to work for their country, I wonder? In any case, I'm glad to have
Gabby back, and to know that she's not only recovering from her injuries, but
wants to help her country recover from its own deep-seated (albeit
self-inflicted) wounds. I only hope that other Americans will exhibit some of
her grace under fire. After all, if she pulled through her harrowing ordeal, so
can we as a nation, if only we emulate her courage and resolve. And as I write
this, I am reminded of Gabby's favorite epigram, which appears on her Facebook
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as
God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to
bind up the nation's wounds.—Abraham Lincoln
The Pun, or Word-Play
The ballot is stronger than the bullet.—Abraham Lincoln
Your children need your presence more than your presents.—Jesse Jackson
Jackson's epigram is a pun, or word-play, as is Lincoln's.
If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible
warning.—Catherine the Great
As blushing may make a whore seem virtuous, so modesty may make a fool seem
Catherine the Great’s epigram is a stellar example of raillery, which has
been defined as "light, teasing banter," "gentle mockery" and "good-humored
satire or ridicule." It is also an example of drollery: something whimsically
comical. Raillery can be both wonderfully funny, and wonderfully effective.
Here's a bit of rather gentle raillery of my own, called "Saving Graces":
Life’s saving graces are love, pleasure, laughter ...
wisdom, it seems, is for the Hereafter.
—Michael R. Burch
My epigram is dedicated to Christians who claim they'll inherit heaven at the
expense of everyone else.
Perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum from raillery would be waggery
(the wisecrack, the bald-faced jest, the ribald joke which is sexual, excretory
or somehow offensive, to someone):
A man who says he can see through a woman is missing a lot.—Groucho Marx
A man's only as old as the woman he feels.—Groucho Marx
Another name for Marx's method is "the zinger," a potent form of the
comedian's one-liner. The zinger requires upsetting the applecart of our polite
polities. But there are many other "flavors" of epigrams ...
The Bon Mot
One of my favorite categories is best exemplified by the Divine Oscar Wilde,
who upsets the applecart in an entirely different way:
Questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are.—Oscar Wilde
What a wickedly scathing line! This is a wonderful example of the bon mot
("good word"), the best way of saying something. There has never been a better
critic of gossip, innuendo and scandal-mongering than Oscar Wilde (perhaps
because so many prudes, busybodies and gossips considered him to be scandalous,
when the real scandal was that they refused to mind their own business):
Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.—Oscar Wilde
Wilde is every moralist's worst nightmare, because he was wise in the ways of
the world and human nature, while moralists are usually up to their eyeballs in
hypocrisy. Centuries before Wilde, Aristotle proved the ancient Greeks could be
Wit is educated insolence.—Aristotle
But epigrams can also be wonderfully touching and moving:
The births of all things are weak and tender,
therefore we should have our eyes intent on beginnings.
—Michel de Montaigne
If we are to have real peace in the world,
we shall have to begin with the children.
As an Israeli, I have come to understand:
there is no way to love Israel and reject a two-state peace,
no way to love Israel and reject Palestine.
—Yael Dayan, daughter of Moshe Dayan, Israel's most famous general
Epigrams can also be wise, and liberating:
It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before,
to test your limits, to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk
it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to
Shake off all fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are
servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for
every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god;
because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that
of blindfolded fear.—Thomas Jefferson
Epigrams which convey truths or principles are called aphorisms:
An aphorism can never be the whole truth; it is either a half-truth or a
Certain brief sentences are peerless in their ability to give one the feeling
that nothing remains to be said.—Jean Rostand
My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a
The epigram is the simple, elegant black dress of literature; it leaves
nearly everything bared and yet still temptingly open to the imagination. The
best epigrammatists produce belle lettres ("beautiful letters" or "fine
writing") en brief ("in brief"). But there is as much diversity among
epigrammatists as there is in the sea. Take the one below from the master of
relativity himself, Albert Einstein. Einstein, who was quite the ladies' man,
was asked to explain relativity. He chose to describe the perception of time as
an aspect of human nature and physical attraction:
Sit next to a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. Sit on a
red-hot stove for a minute, it seems like an hour. That's relativity!—Albert
Another popular form of the epigram is the limerick. Here's one that delves
into the zanier aspects of relativity:
There once was a woman named Bright
who traveled much faster than light.
She set out one day
in a relative way
and came back the previous night!
Einstein's epigram might be assigned any of a number of sub-terms:
leg-pulling, horseplay, whimsy, a monkeyshine . . . perhaps even a hoodwink,
boondoggle or snow job (since the "relativity" being discussed has little to do
with physics, but much to do with physiques, body chemistry and sex). Still,
Einstein's epigram, whatever we choose to call it, contains considerable wisdom.
But sometimes epigrams can be entirely for amusement, such as this one of mine.
I call it "Nun Fun Undone":
are not for excesses!
—Michael R. Burch
An epigram like mine that is entirely for the sake of humor might earn
sobriquets like: tomfoolery, buffoonery, mummery, a chestnut, a gag, a ha-ha, a
jape, a jest, a lark, a rib, a sally, a quirk, a whim, a vagary.
A similar form of epigram is the comic's one-liner, or quip. One of the most
famous one-liners is:
Take my wife . . . please!—Rodney Dangerfield
One of the more creative types of epigram is the spoonerism, a type of pun,
Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.—Ernest
I'd rather have a bottle in front of me
than a frontal lobotomy.
Other types of epigrams also play on words. For instance the chiasmus repeats
the same or very similar words in a different order:
It's not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, it's the size of the
fight in the dog.—Dwight D. Eisenhower
It's not the men in your life that count, it's the life in your men.—Mae West
I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do
believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.—Ronald Reagan
In effect, a spoonerism is an aural chiasmus: the sounds of words are
reversed, rather than the same or similar words being reversed. Then there is
short light verse: poetry too un-serious about itself and its aims to assume
literary airs. In its silliest and least "literary" forms, light verse is called
doggerel. Masters of English light verse include Lord Byron (the author of "Don
Juan") and my personal favorite, Ogden Nash:
The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
in such a fix to be so fertile.
Another category of epigram is the anecdote, a brief account or narrative,
often to make or stress an important point:
I came, I saw, I conquered.—Julius Caesar
I have not come to praise Caesar, but to bury him.—Brutus
Et tu, Bruté?—Julius Caesar
Epigrams in Unexpected Places
Epigrams can be found in every genre of writing. Here's one I love, by a
If you win, you’re colorful. If you lose, you’re incompetent.—David Climer
Then there are "dead serious" epigrams, called epitaphs. These are the
inscriptions that appear on headstones. Here's one of mine called "Epitaph for a
I lived as best I could, and then I died.
Be careful where you step: the grave is wide.
—Michael R. Burch
Sometimes the lines blur. Here's an epitaph that is also a chiasmus, from the
headstone of the famous boxer Jack Dempsey:
A gentle man and a gentleman.—Unknown
The epigram above is also an example of encomium (praise or eulogy). The
opposite type of epigram, when offered as invective, is the epithet.
An epithet defines or characterizes someone or something. In Homer's day
epithets were often complimentary. But today epithets are generally
non-complimentary, if not insulting or downright offensive. Modern epithets
often descend into derogatory slang and racial invective. But in the hands of a
master epigrammatist like Will Rogers, they can still be sublime in effect:
An economist's guess is liable to be as good as anybody else's.—Will Rogers
Make crime pay. Become a lawyer.—Will Rogers
A fool and his money are soon elected.—Will Rogers
Political epigrams can be equally scathing, whether aimed at liberals,
conservatives or politicians in general:
I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.—Will
A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never
learned how to walk forward.—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and
then misapplying the wrong remedies.—Groucho Marx
As a snow-drift is formed where there is a lull in the wind, so, one would
say, where there is a lull of truth, an institution springs up.—Henry David
A sub-genre of the epithet consists of racial, ethnic or cultural ribbing.
Southerners often poke fun at themselves and their neighbors with "hillbilly
You know you're a redneck if your family tree don't fork.—Unknown
You know you're a redneck if your cars sit on blocks and your house has
Another genre of epigrams engages in parody and lampooning. Here's one I hope
to someday include it in a book of poems to be titled Why I Left the Religious
I've got Jesus's name on a wallet insert
and "Hell is for Queers" on the back of my shirt
and I uphold the Law,
for grace has a flaw:
the Church must have someone to drag through the dirt.
—Michael R. Burch
Yet another class of epigram (although one that is generally less
entertaining) has any number of names. Let's begin with "proverb" and a famous
illustration by one of the world's best-known epigrammatists:
Early to bed, early to rise
makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
Miguel de Cervantes defined a proverb as "a short sentence based on long
experience." There are, it seems, a bazillion other names for such bits of homey
wisdom: adage, moral, homily, bromide, aphorism, apophthegm, axiom, dictum,
maxim, motto, folk wisdom, platitude, motto, precept, saw, saying, truism,
catchphrase, formula, gnome, pithy saying, etc. But alas!, many proverbs are
boring and some are untrue, to boot. How many men got up early every morning,
were poor as dirt, and died early deaths? Surely multitudes! But many epigrams
contain both vital wisdom and sparkling humor. Sometimes the epigram is the
salvo a brilliant, battle-savvy cynic launches against human ignorance,
intolerance, cruelty and insanity:
There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's
notion that he is less savage than the other savages.—Mark Twain
To determine the truth of Twain's remark, just inquire with any black
American slave, or any Native American who walked the Trail of Tears, or any
Palestinian who's been herded inside the walled ghetto of Gaza and had the gates
slammed shut in his face. None of them will praise the white man's self-avowed
"democratic ideals" or his "Judeo-Christian ethics." If you don't agree with
Twain, please be assured that he is the keener observer and savvier student of
history and human nature. But if you read his epigrams, you may quickly close
the gap! And I believe Einstein was in general agreement with Twain when he
I don't know what weapons will be used in World War III, but World War IV
will be fought with sticks and stones.—Albert Einstein
One has only to be able to put two and two together, to understand why
Twain's remark relates to Einstein's. If we don't understand why denying other people
freedom, human rights and dignity will cause us to end up fighting with sticks
and stones after a nuclear Armageddon . . . well, we're just not as observant or
wise as Twain and Einstein. But we certainly can't say they didn't warn us, as
did an American president who was a master of the chiasmus:
Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.—John F.
The history of such epigrams goes "way back" in time. In the 6th century B.C.
the legendarily rich King Croesus of Lydia said:
In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.—Croesus
When we consider the expensive, bloody follies of the U.S. government in the
Middle East, we can only wish American politicians had heeded Will Rogers:
If there is one thing that we do worse than any other nation, it is try and
manage somebody else's affairs.—Will Rogers
And a great French essayist can explain why American freedoms seem to be
The clatter of arms drowns out the voice of law.—Michel de Montaigne
Following in the same vein of questioning whether human beings are using
their advanced brains to "think" when they do such things as wage war, here are
two related epigrams by one of my favorite contemporary writers:
Thinking is often claimed but seldom proven.— T. Merrill
It must be hard being brilliant with no way to prove it.— T. Merrill
Have we remained savages, while only claiming to be an intelligent species?
If we take a step back, open our eyes, look around, and see what man's most
"advanced" civilizations are doing to homosexuals, Muslims and women and
children on a daily basis . . . well, it's hard to credit the idea that we are
actually "thinking." When I was a small boy, evangelical Christian adults
informed me that just thinking about sex was "evil" (because Jesus said lust was
the same as adultery) and that all adulterers went to hell. Just imagine what
happened when I reached puberty: it was a terrifying, soul-shattering
experience. Years later, I learned that a place called "hell" was never
mentioned in the Old Testament, the epistles of Paul (the earliest-written
Christian texts) or the book of Acts (ostensibly the self-recorded history of
the early Christian church). The Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word
clearly mean "the grave," not "hell." So the bizarre "hell" Christians use to
terrorize and brainwash their own children was obviously a very late, very
clumsy addition to the Bible. And yet millions of children continue to be
tortured psychologically, emotionally and spiritually because "hell" is very
good for church business. Mark Twain discovered what I discovered, and said:
I found out that I was a Christian for revenue only and I could not bear the
thought of that, it was so ignoble.—Mark Twain
The great epigrammatists often arise from the ranks of the disaffected and
oppressed. Oscar Wilde, the greatest epigrammatist of them all, served time in
Reading Gaol for "indecency" (he had the temerity to be flamboyantly gay). Twain
wrote volumes exposing and expounding on the massive illogic of orthodox
Christianity (he had the temerity to be a heretic, but had to hold up the
publication of his anti-Christian opus Letters from the Earth for fifty years
after his death, in order to protect his family from fire-breathing Christian
fundamentalists). Einstein produced many of his epigrams against the backdrop of
Nazi Germany (he had the temerity to be a brilliant Jew). Today many of our best
epigrammatists are women who combine sharp minds with even sharper tongues:
Behind every successful man is a surprised woman.—Maryon Pearson
A male gynecologist is like an auto mechanic who never owned a car.—Carrie
The phrase "working mother" is redundant.—Jane Sellman
If high heels were so wonderful, men would still be wearing them.—Sue Grafton
If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a
Grace Kelly did everything Fred Astaire did: walking backwards, in high
Here's a similar epigram that I absolutely love, although it creates
something of a dichotomy:
When women are depressed they either eat or go shopping. Men invade another
Female politicians like Margaret Thatcher may be somewhat at odds (or loose
ends) with female comedians like Elayne Boosler, since Thatcher wasn't above an
invasion herself (of the Falkland Islands). But Boosler hammers the human
funnybone nonetheless. She doesn't have to be perfect, just witty and succinct
enough to make us blink, then think.
The stupendous epigrams above prove women's brains are every bit as good as
men's, as they extract Eve's revenge at the expense of men's prehistoric
prejudices. Here's my favorite epigram in this genre:
Whatever women must do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half
as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.—Charlotte Whitton
A great female epigrammatist can use her razor-sharp wit to deflate bigotry:
I'm not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I'm not dumb, and also I'm not
Has anyone ever made a better case for the combinatory advantages of brains,
wigs and peroxide? (I will refrain from mentioning Dolly's other, even more
Socrates suggested that we define our terms, so for my purposes here I will
use the primary term "epigram" and define it with Webster as a "terse, sage or
witty and often paradoxical saying." Paradox can be both enlightening and
amusing. Here's a stellar example by a contemporary writer:
Nowadays we make quick work of our courtships; it's our divorces that we
spend a lot of time on.—Richard Moore
Paradoxical, indeed! But some epigrams are so paradoxical they seem to be
best taken for purposes of amusement and bemusement only:
You can observe a lot just by watching.—Yogi Berra
There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell
Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.—Yogi Berra
The future ain't what it used to be.—Yogi Berra
I didn't really say all the things I said.—Yogi Berra
To give us the most possible good material to work with, I will construe the
term "epigram" to include one-liners, zingers, spoonerisms, witticisms,
aphorisms, saws, pithy sayings, epitaphs, epithets, proverbs, doggerel, the
chiasmus (I decline to use the strange plural: chiasmi), brief quotes, short
poems, hillbilly humor, maxims, truisms, the wisdom of the ages, etc. I will
take as my motto and my guiding light:
Brevity is the soul of wit.—William Shakespeare
One takes one's literary life into one's own hands when one attempts to go
beyond the Masters, but then again "nothing ventured, nothing gained" (an
epigram and a perfectly good truism), so please allow me to suggest that:
If brevity is the soul of wit
then brevity and levity
are the whole of it.
—Michael R. Burch
But then a good epigrammatist won't let us wriggle easily off the hook of a
Brevity is the soul of lingerie.—Dorothy Parker
The great epigrammatists will invariably do one of two things: they will
either amuse and bemuse us into wisdom, or they will scathe us into wisdom. Let
me give some quick examples to illustrate what I mean, before we launch this
Enterprise off for the stars, to battle the Klingons (pun on "cling-ons"):
A hangover is the wrath of grapes.—Unknown
To be safe on the Fourth,
Don't buy a fifth on the third.
—James H Muehlbauer
I'd rather have a bottle in front of me
than a frontal lobotomy.
The epigrams above certainly amuse and bemuse, and while most people are
unlikely to heed them, they point out the perils of drinking too much: the loss
of brain cells, hangovers, fireworks that explode in our hands, etc. Other
epigrams may be less overtly funny, but still entertaining and enlightening:
I can resist everything except temptation.—Oscar Wilde
The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.—Oscar Wilde
Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be
There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably
To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it.—Michel de Montaigne
Must I do all the evil I can before I learn to shun it? Is it not enough to
know the evil to shun it? If not, we should be sincere enough to admit that we
love evil too well to give it up.—Mohandas Gandhi
What some of the world's greatest writers and wits seem to be telling us, if
I apprehend them correctly, is that orthodox morality is dubious at best, if it
is morality at all. The great wits listen to sermons about sex being a "sin" and
roll their eyeballs toward the heavens, then write scathing epigrams as a way of
possibly curing man of his folly. They know the preacher who lectures his flock
on the "evils" of sex is just as randy as the rest of them, and probably less
inhibited (unless he's a septuagenarian and his hormones have "petered" out, pun
intended). Wilde, Blake and Twain understood human nature and were honest about
it, and themselves. Twain pointed out that any red-blooded man would give up any
possible shot at heaven for a few blissful seconds with the Eve of his dreams.
Anyone who claims the Holy Spirit cures human beings of sexual desire is
obviously wrong, because human sexuality is not a "disease." But I digress ...
One of my all-time favorite epigrams consists of this exchange of repartee
between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor:
Lady Astor: "Winston, you're drunk!"
Winston Churchill: "But I shall be sober in the morning and you, madam, will
still be ugly."
Lady Astor: "Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your
Winston Churchill: "Madam, if I were your husband, I'd drink it."
But a good epigram can also be a call to action:
Discontent is the first necessity of progress.—Thomas Alva Edison
An epigram can also be a call to compassion, empathy and kindness:
Always be kinder than necessary,
for everyone you meet is fighting
some kind of battle.
—attributed to T.H. Thompson and John Watson
Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins.—Native
Robert Frost, probably America's last major poet, said "poetry begins in
delight and ends in wisdom." I would like to paraphrase him, if I may, and say:
Epigrams delight us into wisdom.—Michael R. Burch
Which is not to say that they invariably make us happy! Below is my favorite
among my own epigrams; it illustrates, perhaps, how much can be squeezed into a
tight compartment while still leaving breathing room for "special effects" like
meter, rhyme and alliteration:
half the Bible
—Michael R. Burch
In brief, the epigram is the Harry Houdini of literature.