I. What is an Epigram?
An epigram is a short but insightful statement, often in verse form, which communicates a thought in a witty, paradoxical, or funny way.
II. Examples of Epigram
I can resist everything but temptation
This brief epigram by Oscar Wilde is remarkably witty: temptation, is by definition, something we attempt to resist. By saying he can resist everything but temptation, the speaker is also saying he can resist nothing.
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
This epigram speaks to the idea that being gossiped about may seem bad, but being completely ignored often feels even worse. Readers would expect the opposite of a bad thing to be good, but in this case, the opposite is even worse. This statement illustrates the paradoxical side of many epigrams.
Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.
In this example, wit and brevity communicate the larger idea that people soften their mistakes by claiming to learn from the experience.
III. The Importance of Epigram
Epigrams show that the truth can be conveyed concisely and wittily. Whereas many writers and speakers take time, effort, and space to make the truth known, epigrams take advantage of brevity. Short sayings are more memorable and more easily passed down over time than long essays and arguments. Because it is often difficult to concisely and wittily express complicated or universal truths, a well-written epigram is considered an admirable poetic and intellectual feat.
IV. Examples of Epigram in Literature
Because epigrams can be both witty statements and concise poems, they are prominent figures in literature.
Of all my verse, like not a single line;
But like my title, for it is not mine.
That title from a better man I stole:
Ah, how much better, had I stol’n the whole.
In “Underwoods: Epigram,” Robert Louis Stevenson expresses the witty idea that his poem’s title has been stolen, but he would be better off if he could steal an entire poem from a different poet.
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
In “A Man Said to the Universe,” Stephen Crane uses the epigrammatic form to express that although human beings feel important, the universe does not always treat them as such.
V. Examples of Epigram in Pop Culture
Although epigrams are often literary, they can also be found in pop culture. Numerous celebrities have coined epigrammatic phrases. Here are a few examples:
Winners never quit, and quitters never win.
Lombardi’s statement is concise, witty, and ultimately true: a great example of an epigram.
For a last example, consider the quote by the actress Audrey Hepburn:
The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.
Hepburn emphasizes that the most valuable thing in life is, in fact, not a thing but other people.
VI. Related Terms
An aphorism, like an epigram, is a brief and thoughtful statement that expresses a generally accepted truth. There are a few slight differences between aphorisms and epigrams. For one, epigrams are often in verse form, whereas aphorisms are not. A second difference is epigrams tend to be witty or paradoxical, whereas aphorisms can have a variety of tones from serious to witty to humorous.
Epigraphs and epigrams are a few letters away from being the same, and their definitions also have overlaps. An epigraph is a brief quotation placed at the beginning of a literary composition, whereas an epigram is simply a brief and witty statement. An epigram may be used as an epigraph, but epigraphs range in tone, form, and subject much more widely than epigrams do.
VII. In Closing
Brevity is difficult, and so is wit, but the epigram effortless combines the two for a memorable and universal expression of truth. Epigrams can be poetic, witty, paradoxical, and surprising. Sources of epigrams range from classical poets to modern celebrities, showing great truths can be found in many places.