I love gargantuan books, especially after I’ve finished reading them. It’s a unique feeling to look up on the bookshelf and see several inches of the wood occupied by a single title, whether in one or more volumes, and to remember from that sight, taking up so much of one’s vision with its many-paged mass, the myriad characters, spans of years involved, lands visited and perhaps fled, verbose and colorful description of at first seemingly irrelevant matter, &c. But there’s also a pleasure in reading-material that doesn’t take so many months (or years) to first taste — although it may take that long to really digest. I mean here short stories, plays, shorter novels, and poetry, of course, but more specifically I have in mind here the literary form of the epigram.
Epigrams take various forms in various languages, and are sometimes poetic (for example, in Greek and Latin), sometimes not. They are a convenient way for authors to give meaningful statements without full essays or treatises, although, of course, subsequent readers may be thereby inspired (or irritated!) to pen their own interpretation of the theme, in which case the little epigram will have engendered a larger progeny. While they are not the exclusive members of the club, epigrams are the quintessentially quotable bits of an author, being ready-made for such separate employment divorced from their original context (which may be more or less disjointed to begin with).
The word epigram itself is Greek — the word first meant “inscription” — and we have a huge collection of epigrams in that language in the later collection known as the Greek Anthology. (That is not to say that Greek is the earliest language in which epigrams were uttered.) These are in meter and are often somewhat longer than that which we we typically consider to be epigrams nowadays. Latin, too, has verse epigrams, notably those of Catullus and Martial, both of whom are as much a delight to read today as they always have been and always will be by appreciators of language and observers of society.
The epigram in later European literary history is not without some shining examples. I have lately been especially enjoying Nietzsche’s in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (“Sprüche und Zwischenspiele,” the fourth part = §§63-185), Wilde’s (see here for the privately printed Oscariana), and Ambrose Bierce’s printed at the end of the eighth volume of his Collected Works.
It’s worth noting, too, that the lyrics of some modern music — say, from the mid-1960s — might well be classified as at least partly epigrammatic. Examples that leap to the forefront of my mind now are “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (if you’ve not yet heard the forceful and charging version from Before the Flood, do yourself a favor and get it in addition to the one on Bringing It All Back Home) and (maybe?) “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Epigrams can sound very ex cathedra, and I suppose they are; not really more so than any opinionated piece of writing, that is writing that expresses some view on a subject, but epigrams are more poignantly punchy in that they’re so brief compared to a twenty- or thirty-page treatise and generally very clear in meaning (but Nietzsche’s not always so). Anybody who has a problem with the assumed authority of this or that epigrammarian is free, of course, to write his or her own epigrams in response!
Finally, epigrams composed in languages other than one’s own are veritably useful when learning the language(s) in question: they’re fodder for both cultural and linguistic enquiry, and a good exercise for the memory, not to mention suitable for addition to one’s arsenal of conversation for cocktail parties and other settings.
Any favorite epigrams or collections thereof? Please say so in the comments!