What is an epigram?
It is one of the most important and ancient lyrical subgenres of literature. In fact, in ancient Greece we find epigrams that were placed on the doors of places and even at the feet of the statues they made. At this time the epigram had the function of commemorating a fact or the life of a person or figure of great social or political importance, in this way it was kept alive through the epigram.
Later on, the epigram will adopt another character, such as satire, which will become one of its many possibilities of creation. In fact, the epigram in its beginnings contained themes of the time as an expression of concerns or other interests.
Meaning of epigram
The term epigram comes from the Latin word epigramma, which was taken from the Greek word and refers to “overwriting”, or the inscription on an object. Thus, epigramma, in its beginnings, was an inscription made on a fragment of stone, metal or other material. The term was later used to name a type of short poetic composition that focuses on the expression of a single thought.
The brevity of the epigram, allowed that later the term allowed to make texts of varied themes, characterized by the sharpness that transmits and its short length.
The epigram is a type of brief poetic composition that seeks the expression of a specific thought that can be festive or satirical. It is communicated through a short text in which various topics may be present, such as dealing with content related to social classes, the vices of human beings, social denunciation, feelings of friendship, among others.
Origin of the epigram
The epigram has its roots in the lyric poetry of antiquity, so it is one of the first subgenres of this area that will appear later in literature. At first it was considered a Hellenistic genre, typical of this period mainly because of the content of its composition, as well as the short length and the form it adopts in the first place. Thus, the epigram at this time in history, is a melting pot of societies in which we will see figures of simple life classes, as they were considered and that brought together carpenters, weavers, sailors, but also include other topics such as love between heterosexuals, lesbian love, religiosity, courtship, parties, sexuality, criticism, pets, among others.
The bearers of the epigram are the poets, so that all the elements and themes must pass through the erudition of these figures who begin to produce testimonies of experiences and the concerns of the human being of this time. This is how the epigram was born in ancient Greece, referring to an inscription that was installed on an object such as an ex-voto, a type of offering, a statue, a tomb or a gift. When they were incorporated into the tombs, they became known as epitaphs.
The epigram was born in Greece but also developed in Rome, where Giulio Cesare, a humanist, established that the construction of the epigram should have two specific elements: brevity and sharpness. These elements will define this type of composition for the history of literature, because later on it will be used as an appropriate type of work to exhibit courtly wit and other key authors will begin to work on it.
Characteristics of the epigram
The qualities and characteristics of this type of lyric composition are as follows:
The short length of the epigram proposes a path of no deviation, where the author of the composition develops a single theme that leaves limited the field of feeling to embrace a single and main one that he will develop in his stanza, so it is a concrete and precise theme. It can also specify a burlesque or moral content and can be related to human virtues, vices, etc., always with the reflection of a personal point of view or a denunciation of social character.
Aim of the epigram
Although the themes of the epigram can be varied and what is sought is the manifestation of sharpness, the purposes can also be different from each other. However, it is generally recognized that the purpose of the epigram can be to amuse the reader, a playful or entertaining objective.
Form of writing
Although it does not happen in all the composition of epigrams and it is not an obligation, the epigram presents a particular form of writing in which the attitude of the speaker is situated. In this sense, another aspect has to do with the type of language used, which is completely free with a concise expression that does not necessarily include rhetoric but is more natural and direct, in some cases obscene.
Within the epigram, as a lyrical composition, the use of several rhetorical figures is included, which are used with different intentions. Thus, we can find figures such as alliteration, parallelism and anaphora, which are frequently used.
Since the epigram is a poetic composition that is characterized, in addition to its brevity, by the sharpness that reflects the author or poet, also appears the presence of paradox within his writing, giving clarity to a deeper expression that is presented as an apparent contradiction.
An epigram is reduced to a short text extension, so that in little space it will be able to manifest its main expression.
Structure of an epigram
The form in which the epigram is composed is relatively simple, this is mainly due to the brevity of its length, however we can highlight the following divisions:
In this first part of the composition, the objective presentation of both the situation to be dealt with and the character, if there is one in particular, is made. This first part opens the epigram to situate the reader.
The heart of the epigram
In this second part, subjectively, the epigram is fully developed. It is characterized because in this section a sudden phrase or word appears on the idea of the epigram in its central theme, in a way that makes evident the sharpness and wit of the poet’s composition.
How to write an epigram?
Now that we have seen what an epigram consists of, let us move on to see how it is possible to construct one:
As we mentioned, the epigram is characterized by its brevity, but also by the wide variety of topics that we can address within the composition, where an epigram contains only one of them. Therefore, if you still do not know what to write your epigram about, the best thing to do would be to take a sheet of paper and a pencil to brainstorm.
Remember that sharpness is one of the main aspects of the epigram, so be sure to gather ideas that match its main intention.
Define the topic of the epigram
Choose a topic that you really want to talk about and on which you can develop the epigram’s own sense, taking into account its main features within the theme and structure. Select the topic on which you can apply wit, paradox, and burlesque tinge.
Identify your audience
Once you have chosen the topic you want to address, also identify the type of audience the epigram is aimed at according to its own content. That is, the type of people who can identify with it or who are in the same context to understand its content. Accordingly, you can use a language subject to words and terms that are used by this community to facilitate the encounter with the composition.
Let’s get to work. It’s time to start writing according to the theme and tone you want to originally imprint on the epigram. Remember that the extension must be short, so every word you use is key, avoid detours and go to the central point. Starting with the writing of the epigram also involves making several attempts that allow you to play and try to find the precise terms that allow you to express the meaning of what you want to say and thus find the composition that pleases you most.
Review as many times as necessary the characteristics of the epigram and its possibilities, you can also read several examples of recognized authors, such as the one you will find at the end of this section to find other references and writing options.
Revise and correct
Once you have created the composition you think is final, then you should make several spelling and sense revisions to perfect it, proofread it if necessary and read it out loud. You can even read it to someone else to know their opinion and if it is easy for them to understand and finally publish it or keep it, if that is what you want.
A large part of the epigrams of Greek origin can be found in the Palatine Anthology, a collection of poems, including epigrams, which were written during the classical Byzantine period. With the development of the epigram, Rome also followed the practice with authors such as Gaius Valerius Catullus and Marcus Valerius Martial, poets.
Centuries later, other works and authors would appear such as Agudeza y Arte de Ingenio, written by Baltasar Gracián of Spanish origin, Poesías Selectas de Varios Autores Latinos by Joseph Morell, among others such as Oscar Wilde, Alexander Pope, Voltaire, Oliverio Girondo, Jonathan Swift, Ernesto Cardenal, Camilo José Cela, Jaime Gil de Biedma, Pío Baroja and others who also developed poetic compositions of epigram.
Example of Epigram
This is an epigram written by Francisco de Quevedo, entitled “A dos Luis de Góngora”:
Don Luis says that he has written me
a sonnet, and I say
that, if Don Luis wrote it,
it will be an accursed sonnet.
I refer him to the works:
then the poem will be seen;
but no one who writes believes,
the more it is not cultivated,
because he who writes does not write
verses that there is no one who reads them.
To learn about other sub-genres of the lyric genre, don’t forget to check out our Literature section where you will find all the information you need and even take a look at the other literary genres.