epigram: From the Greek epigramma, “to write upon.” An epigram is a short, witty poem or pointed saying. Ambrose Bierce defined it in The Devil’s Dictionary (1881–1911) as “a short, sharp saying in prose and verse.” In Hellenistic Greece (third century B.C.E.), the epigram developed from an inscription carved in a stone monument or onto an object, such as a vase, into a literary genre in its own right. It may have developed out of the proverb. The Greek Anthology (tenth century, fourteenth century) is filled with more than fifteen hundred epigrams of all sorts, including pungent lyrics on the pleasures of wine, women, boys, and song.
Ernst Robert Curtius writes in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953): “No poetic form is so favorable to playing with pointed and surprising ideas as epigram—for which reason seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany called it ‘Sinngedicht.’ This development of the epigram necessarily resulted after the genre ceased to be bound by its original definition (an inscription for the dead, for sacrificial offerings, etc.).” Curtius relates the interest in epigrams to the development of the “conceit” as an aesthetic concept.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined the epigram in epigrammatic form (1802):
What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity and wit its soul.
The pithiness, wit, irony, and sometimes harsh tone of the English epigram derive from the Roman poets, especially Martial, known for his caustic short poems, as in 1.32 (85–86 B.C.E.): “Sabinus, I don’t like you. You know why? / Sabinus, I don’t like you. That is why.”
The epigram is brief and pointed. It has no particular form, though it often employs a rhymed couplet or quatrain, which can stand alone or serve as part of a longer work. Here is Alexander Pope’s “Epigram from the French” (1732):
Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
Geoffrey Hartman points out that there are two diverging traditions of the epigram. These were classified by J. C. Scaliger as mel and fel (Poetics Libri Septem, 1561), which have been interpreted as sweet and sour, sugar and salt, naïve and pointed. Thus Robert Hayman, echoing Horace’s idea that poetry should be both “dulce et utile,” sweet and useful, writes in Quodlibets (1628):
Short epigrams relish both sweet and sour,
Like fritters of sour apples and sweet flour.
The “vinegar” of the epigram was often contrasted with the “honey” of the sonnet, especially the Petrarchan sonnet, though the Shakespearean sonnet, with its pointed final couplet, also combined the sweet with the sour. “By a natural development,” Hartman writes, “since epigram and sonnet were not all that distinct, the pointed style often became the honeyed style raised to a higher power, to preciousness. A new opposition is frequently found, not between sugared and salty, but between pointed (precious, overwritten) and plain.”
The sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, and sometimes sweet-and-sour epigram has been employed by contemporary American formalists, such as Howard Nemerov, X. J. Kennedy, and especially J. V. Cunningham. Here is a two-line poem that Cunningham translated in 1950 from the Welsh epigrammatist John Owen (1.32, 1606):
Life flows to death as rivers to the sea,
And life is fresh and death is salt to me.
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.