“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing.” – Benjamin Franklin
You've probably read or heard many epigrams in your lifetime, even if you've never heard the term epigram. The one above, from a man who is known for many epigrams, is a good example of what they are and are not. But it's important to make a distinction between an epigram, an epigraph, an aphorism, and a proverb. And that's just what we'll do in this article on Epigram Examples.
- The definition of an epigram.
- Differentiating epigrams from other literary terms.
- Examples of modern and classic epigrams.
Table of contents
What is an Epigram?
An epigram is a short poem or witty saying that deals with a single thought or idea. There are two key things to remember about epigrams. The first is that there's generally some wit, satire, or comedy in the saying, which differentiates an epigram from other, similar literary terms.
The second is that epigrams are often — though not always — in the form of very short poems. For something to be an epigram, it needs to meet one of these two criteria — or both.
Epigram vs Proverb
A proverb and an epigram are often easily confused. A proverb is also a short, often witty statement, just like an epigram. They usually pertain to life in general terms. But the main difference is, proverbs are not often accredited to anyone.
Some of the most common proverbs are those you hear people say so much that they have even become cliches. Here are some examples of proverbs:
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
“Ignorance is bliss.”
“Fortune favors the bold.”
Epigram vs Aphorism
There are slight differences between epigrams and aphorisms. Both are brief, witty, and often deal with a single idea or universal “truth.” But the big difference lies in tone. Aphorisms can range in tone from comedic to serious and everywhere in between. Also, aphorisms are not usually in verse form.
Epigram vs Epigraph
Thanks in no small part to the similar spelling, epigrams and epigraphs are often confused. An epigram comes at the beginning of a story, chapter, or literary text in the form of a saying, quote, poem, or even a proverb. An epigram stands on its own, although it can be taken from the author's larger works, as is often the case.
An epigram can be used as an epigraph when placed at the beginning of a literary text. However, given the wide range in tone and style, epigraphs are not constrained by such a narrow definition as a short, witty poem that stands on its own.
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Greek and Latin Epigrams
The word epigram is derived from the Greek word for inscription. In fact, in Ancient Greek times, they inscribed short poems on funeral urns, statues, and headstones. The Hellenistic epigram is perhaps the most well-known, as it became its own literary genre during that period of history.
But while the epigram poem is still recognized today, we've revised our definition to include the modern epigram, which doesn't necessarily have to be in verse form. But those epigrams not in the form of short poems are usually denoted by some sort of wit, humor, or satire.
Below, we give you a wide range of epigrams. Like other literary devices, epigram norms have changed since the days of ancient Greece. So to fully understand the epigram, we have included everything from classic to modern examples. You'll also see several epigrams from the same author. Certainly, some writers have excelled at creating memorable epigrams throughout history. And chances are you'll recognize at least one famous epigram below.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”-Oscar Wilde
“Live simply, so that others may simply live.”-Mother Teresa
“So all my best is dressing old words new, Spending again what is already spent: For as the sun is daily new and old, So is my love still telling what is told.”-William Shakespeare
“Two, by themselves, each other, love and fear,
Slain, cruel friends, by parting have join’d here.”-John Donne
“There are no gains, without pains.”-Benjamin Franklin
“Experience is the name everyone gives their mistakes.”-Oscar Wilde
tell the Spartans we lie
here, at Thermopylae:
dead at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?”-Simonides (Greek epigram)
“Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she's at rest – and so am I.”-John Dryden
“You say their Pictures well Painted be,
And yet they are Blockheads you all agree,
Thank God, I never was sent to School
To be Flogg’d into following the Stile of a Fool.
The Errors of a Wise Man make your Rule
Rather than the Perfections of a Fool.”-William Blake
“I can resist anything except temptation.”-Oscar Wilde
“Pray thee, take care, that tak'st my Book in hand,
To read it well: that is, to understand.”-Ben Jonson
“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”-Oscar Wilde
“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain – and most fools do.”-Benjamin Franklin
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”-John F Kennedy
“It is not the length of life, but the depth.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”-William Blake
“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”-Eleanor Roosevelt
“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
“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”-Winston Churchill
“Thus times do shift, each thing his turn does hold; New things succeed, as former things grow old.”-Robert Herrick
“We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”-William Butler Yeats
“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”-Jonathan Swift
“Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson
“You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.”-Warren Buffett
“Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.”-Viktor Frankl
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”-Epictetus
“To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.”-Winston Churchill
“The passionate poets seem to die younger than the reflective.”-Jane Wilde
“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”-Mark Twain
“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”-Jose Ortega y Gasset
Using Epigrams in Your Work
Whether you aim to write epigrams, or simply want to quote one in your work, it's good to be familiar with these short, snappy poems or sayings. As you've no doubt noticed, not every epigram above was written by a poet. In fact, not all of them are written in verse form.
But they all share another theme. They take a witty or unique angle on universal truths otherwise explored in proverbs or aphorisms.
Of course, you can certainly come up with your own epigrams in both fiction and nonfiction work. If you have a wise and/or snarky character, you can slip some pearls of wisdom in through their dialogue or inner monologue. Or, you can use them in narration.
Epigrams can certainly add substance to your book, and they can help your work stick in readers' minds long after they put the book down.
If you want to use someone else's epigram as an epigraph in your book, check out our article on epigraphs here for more information.