Epigram (definition & 6 examples in literature)

‘Epigram’ is a literary figure of speech which consists on a short witty statement often to show the opposite ideas, to explain something in brief and to understand the general truth or comment. Here the readers will find out epigram definition and examples.

Originated from the Latin word “epigramma”. Many writers like Herrick, William Drummond, Dryden and Swift used this literary device in their writing.


A literary figure of speech which consists on a short witty statement often to show the opposite ideas, to explain something in brief and to understand the general truth or comment. Apparently, its words seem to be contradictory, however discloses some important meaning beneath. ‘Epigram’ is an easy way to grasp attention of the audience and to make them able to think about the sentence.

This literary device is closely associated to Antithesis. In writing, the writers employ the words in brevity so as to put everlasting affect upon the minds of readers or to convert the attention towards some general observation but in a comic way. ‘Epigram’ can be humorous, paradoxical and wife. Francis Bacon explains the Epigram as a “strange desire to seek power and to loose liberty”.   

Through this short witty statement, ‘Bacon’ is actually disclosing the deep meanings that the people who are desirous to become powerful often lose their liberty. They use to remain busy in their work and do not enjoy the life as others do.

Examples of Epigram:

  1. The highest art is to disguise art.
  2. ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot’.
  3. Child is a father of man
  4. The hard days will bring the joys.
  5. Hard work is the key to success.
  6. He makes no friend, who never made foe.
  7. Little strokes fell great oaks.                       (Franklin)
  8. I can resi’t everything’ except temptation. (Oscar Wilde)

Examples in Literature

Of Great Places by Francis Bacon

“The rising unto place is laborious; and by pains, men come to greater pains’, and it is sometimes base; and by indignities, men come to dignities”

On Donne’s Poetry by S.T. Coleridge

“With Donne, whose muse on dromedary trots, Wreathe iron pokers into true love knots Rhymes sturdy cripple, fancy’s maze and clue, Wits forge and fire blast, meaning’s press and screw”.

Here in the above stanza, Coleridge by taking into consideration the ability and intelligence of John Donne in combining the divergent images, delicacy and intellectual intensive work has described his work in these lines.  

Landor’s work

Landor is considered as the expert of genre. He wrote a good many including this:

“Go on, go on, and love away! Mine was, another’s is, the day Go on, go on, thou false one! Now Upon his shoulder rest thy brow, And look into his eyes until Thy own, to find them colder, fill

The Statue by Hilaire Belloc

“When we are dead, some Hunting boy will pass And find a stone ha’f hidden in tall grass, And grey with age, but hav’ng seen that stone, Which was your image ride more slowly on”.

And de la Mare’s:

‘Homo? Construe!’ the stern-faced usher said, Groaned George, ‘A man, sir’. Yes, Now sapiens?’ George shook a stubborn head, And signed in deep distress

  • Sometime in a verse an epigram takes the form of a couplet or quatrain as part of a poem. For example in the “Essay on Criticism” by Pope, he uses epigram:

We think o’r fath’rs fools, so wise we grow’ Our wis’r sons’, no doubt, wi’l think us so.

To a Skylark by P.B. Shelly

Our sweet’st songs are those that te’l of saddest thought.

  • In Sonnet 76, Why is my verse so barren of new pride by William Shakespeare, use of epigram is evidence as under,

“So all my best is dressing old word’s 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.

Here the “sweetest’’ and the “saddest” oppose each other but in deep meanings the sadder the song the deeper the impression it makes.

Difference between epigram and aphorism

It is difficult to extract epigram from aphorism because both of the devices use for producing short and witty affect. However, ‘epigram is a paradoxical statement having often ironic affect while ‘aphorism’ is a statement of truth principle which is didactically used.

The verse epigram was relatively used in 16th century and onwards especially in prose or speech to express something briefly and humorously. In recent times the use of epigram has become rare.

‘Oscar Wilde’ used this literary device in order to create witty as he said, “Fort years of romance make a woman look like a ruin and forty years of marriage make her look like a public building”. In ‘’La Belle Otero, the 19th century courtesan, the epigram has been vividly used as, “God made women beautiful so that men would love them, and he made them stupid so that they could love men”.

Epigram has been used by the poets on large scale. Epigrammatists like Lord Chesterfield, George Bernard Shaw, Byron, F.E. Smith and Ogden Nash used this literary device repeatedly in their works.

Further Reading

Leave a Comment