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An epigram is a stylistic device akin to a proverb, the only difference being that epigrams are coined by individuals whose names we know, while proverbs are the coinage of the people. In other words, we are always aware of the parentage of an epigram and therefore, when using one, we usually make a reference to its author.

Epigrarns are terse, witty, pointed statements, showing the ingenious turn of mind of the originator. They always have a literary-bookish air about them that distinguishes them from proverbs. Epigrams possess a great degree of independence and therefore, if taken out of the context, will retain the wholeness of the idea they express. They have a generalizing function and are self-sufficient. The most characteristic feature of an epigram is that the sentence gets accepted as a word-combination and often becomes part of the language as a whole. Like proverbs, epigrams can be expanded to apply to abstract notions (thus embodying different spheres of application). Brevity is the essential quality of the epigram. A. Chekhov once said that brevity is the sister of talent; 'Brevity is the soul of the wit' holds true of any epigram.

Epigrams are often confused with aphorisms and paradoxes. It is difficult to draw a demarcation line between them, the distinction being very subtle. Real epigrams are true to fact and that is why they win general recognition and acceptance.

Let us turn to examples. Somerset Maugham in " The Razor's Edge" says:

" Art is triumphant when it can use convention as an instrument of its own purpose."

This statement is interesting from more than one point of view. It shows the ingenious turn of mind of the writer, it gives an indirect definition of art as Maugham understands it, it is complete in itself even if taken out of the context. But still this sentence is not a model epigram because it lacks one essential quality, viz. brevity. It is too long and therefore cannot function in speech as a ready-made language unit. Besides, it lacks other features which are inherent in epigrams and make them similar to proverbs, i.e. rhythm, alliteration and often rhyme. It cannot be expanded to other spheres of life, it does not generalize.

Compare this sentence with the following used by the same author in the same novel.

" A God that can be understood is no God."

This sentence seems to meet all the necessary requirements of the epigram: it is brief, generalizing, witty and can be expanded in its application. The same applies to Byron's



1 Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves.


"...in the days of old men made manners;

Manners now make men" (" Don Juan")

or Keats’s

" A thing of beauty is a joy forever" Writers who seek aesthetic precision use the epigram abundantly; others use it to characterize the hero of their work. Somerset Maugham is particularly fond of it and many of his novels and stories abound in epigrams. Here are some from " The Painted Veil."

" He that bends shall be made straight."

" Failure is the foundation of success and success is the lurking place of failure..." " Mighty is he who conquers himself."

There are utterances which in form are epigrammatic—these are verses and in particular definite kinds of verses. The last two lines of a sonnet are called epigrammatic because, according to the semantic structure of this form of verse, they sum up and synthesize what has been said before. The heroic couplet, a special compositional form of verse, is also a suitable medium for epigrams, for instance:

" To observations which ourselves, we make,

We grow more partial for th' observer's sake." (

Alexander Pope)

There are special dictionaries which are called " Dictionaries of Quotations." These, in fact, are mostly dictionaries of epigrams. What is worth quoting must always contain some degree of the generalizing quality and if it comes from a work of poetry will have metre (and sometimes rhyme). That is why the works of Shakespeare, Pope, Byron and many other great English poets are said to be full of epigrammatic statements.

The epigram is, in fact, a supra-phrasal unit in sense, though not in structure (see p. 194).

Poetry is epigrammatic in essence. It always strives for brevity of expression, leaving to the mind of the reader the pleasure of amplifying the idea. Byron's

" The drying up a single tear has more

Of honest fame, than shedding seas of gore, "

is a strongly worded epigram, which impresses the reader with its generalizing truth. It may be regarded as a supra-phrasal unit inasmuch as it is semantically connected with the preceding lines and at the same time enjoys a considerable degree of independence. The inner quality of any sentence to which the rank of epigram, in the generic sense of the term, can be attributed, is that the particularity of the event is replaced by a timeless non-particularity, 1



1 Cf. Chafe, W. Meaning and the Structure of Language. Chicago, 1970, p. 173.

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