Epigram – Concept, characteristics, authors and examples

We explain what an epigram is, its origin, history, characteristics and authors who cultivated it. Also, examples throughout history.

An epigram can have a satirical meaning or formulate a brief truth.

What is an epigram?

An epigram is a form of poetic composition, usually brief, that expresses in a verse and in an ingenious way, a content of a festive or satirical nature. At the same time, it is also possible to call this any phrase from a larger text (a novel, a short story, a play) that contains in its formulation a succinct truth, usually a generalization, which on the other hand is considered valuable.

Its name comes from the Greek voices epi (“Over” or “over”) and gramma (“Writing”), since it was originally a short and deep phrase that was inscribed on a weapon, a gift or even the wall of the tomb (thus giving rise to the epitaph and the epigraph, among other texts).

Sometime around the 4th century BC. C. the term happened to designate a short and suitable verse to be inscribed in this way, with erotic, sententious or moral contents, and reached its apogee during the Alexandrian era. From there it became part of the Greek heritage in Roman culture and, later, of the Roman heritage in European literature.

The epigram has been practiced and valued from ancient times to today, and compilations of Greek and Roman epigrams (such as the Palatine Anthology edited in 917, but with much earlier texts), as well as medieval and other historical moments.

Great modern authors such as John Donne, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Voltaire, Ramón Gómez de la Serna or Camilo José Cela, to name just a few, have left a vast epigrammatic or poetry work very close to the epigram.

Characteristics of the epigram

In general terms, an epigram is characterized by the following:

  • It’s brief (one or a few lines of extension) and can be given in prose or, more commonly, in verse.
  • It has a satirical content, humorous, scathing either reveals a deep truth or a hidden meaning. However, they are not usually moralizing or have any moral.
  • Generally consists of two parts: in the first a situation is presented or evaluated more or less objectively, and a second that subjectively finishes what has been said.
  • They have a free language (which can even be vulgar) and a playful purpose.

Examples of epigrams

Below, as an example, some epigrams by well-known authors:

  • Why don’t I send you, Pontiliano, my little books?
    So that you, Pontiliano, don’t send me yours.
    Marco Valerio Marcial (Roman poet, 40-104).
  • Mr. Don Juan de Robres,
    with unparalleled charity,
    made this holy hospital …
    and he also made the poor.
    Juan de Iriarte (Spanish poet, 1702-1771).
  • Margarita was lucky
    as an interposed person,
    Well, Juarez found her exposed
    but he made her a wife.
    Salvador Novo (Mexican poet, 1904-1974).