Forms of verse: Epigram

Form of the epigram

This is a very short, highly polished poem. In English, verse epigrams virtually always use rhyme; they often take the form of a couplet or quatrain (four-line stanza). Epigrams are often collected together into groups or series.

Characteristics of the epigram

An epigram is marked by conciseness. Every word is chosen for impact. Most epigrams make a single point. They often contain a surprising twist of some kind.

In ancient Greece, the epigram was frequently used for praise or compliment, as in this example:

Diodorus did not sculpture this satyr, he put him to sleep.
The silver holds sleeping life: one poke and you'll wake him up.

On a silver relief of a satyr, by Plato, trans. Gillian Spraggs

In Roman times the epigram became strongly associated with satire. A popular form of epigram is the brief satirical portrait. Here is a modern example:

From gallery to gallery you pass
And point your camera into every case,
Yet look at nothing. Tell me, what satisfactions
Derive from spurning things for their reflections?

To a Tourist in the V&A, by Gillian Spraggs

Another kind of satirical epigram reflects, usually ironically, on wickedness, stupidity or false values. In the epigram that follows, the poet and artist William Blake expresses his contempt for the fashions in art that dominated after the end of the Renaissance (the 'Age of Raphael'):

Degrade first the Arts if you'd Mankind Degrade.
Hire Idiots to Paint with cold light & hot shade:
Give high Price for the worst, leave the best in disgrace,
And with Labours of Ignorance fill every place.

  Advice of the Popes who succeeded the Age of Raphael, by William Blake (about 1808)

Blake is using irony: his own beliefs and values are opposite to those recommended in this epigram. This is the unexpected twist in this poem. It is common for the twist in an epigram to have an ironic flavour.

Advice on writing your own epigram

If a museum object, or a style of art, should prompt you to some crisp reflections, or watching museum visitors inclines you towards satire, consider writing an epigram, or a series of epigrams.

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