An epigraph is a quotation set at the beginning of a literary work or one of its divisions to suggest its theme.

History of the Epigraph

Epigraphs first became popular in Europe during the early eighteenth century, accompanying the rise of a literate middle-class. Before this time, to be literate meant one was familiar with the classical tradition. If a person could read English, they were presumably well-versed in the work of writers like Ovid, Homer, and Virgil. Authors did not need to tie themselves to previous works with an epigraph because readers were assumed to make connections themselves. 

As the middle-class reading public grew, publications began implementing epigraphs. Emerging readers did not necessarily know the classical tradition, so writers added epigraphs to place their work as part of the literary conversation and tether it to literary culture. Epigraphs allowed readers to understand connections that authors wanted made between works.

Over time, the scope of epigraphs has evolved. Epigraphs are used not just to make connections between works, but also to set the tone for a poem, present text to which the poem will then respond, or to introduce the reader to the topic addressed. An example of an epigraph can be found in Francis Ellen Watkins Harper’s “The Revel,” in which she quotes from the Bible to set the tone for the poem, and then uses the quote as a refrain throughout. Other examples of poems with epigraphs include One Vote by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Practice Standing Unleashed and Clean by Patricia Smith, and Lament of Submerged Persons by Sasha Pimentel.