What is an Epigram? For That Matter, What is an Epigraph?

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

What is an epigram?  Samuel Taylor Coleridge posed this question in a short, funny little couplet that’s its own answer.  Merriam Webster’s online edition defines it as “a concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought . . . a terse, sage, or witty and often paradoxical saying.”  What, then, you might ask, is an epigraph?  Answer: it’s usually not an epigram.*  And, moreover, this blog posting has already answered that question, Coleridge-style . . . and I’ll bet you didn’t even notice.

An epigraph is a quotation at the beginning of a section that hints at its theme.  Academics love these, and for good reason.  They add color, interest—in a word, they’re punchy!  Here are some guidelines for making those epigraphs look professional.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style (online 16th edition), and in something of a miraculous remission of the usual standards of academic writing, you don’t have to fully cite your epigraph.  Instead, after a dash, provide the author’s name and the title of the work (1.36).  No need even for quotation marks, though the block should be indented (either left or right) to set it off from the main text.**  The source should appear on a line below the text of the epigraph (13.34).

And now, friends, you can be correct.  Though correct is a long way from good; for advice on quality, perhaps you should recall what the soul of wit is.

*Nor is it an epitaph, though I imagine you could choose an epigram as an epitaph.
**Nitpickers should note that WordPress blogging software apparently does not believe in indentation.

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2 thoughts on “What is an Epigram? For That Matter, What is an Epigraph?

  1. Pingback: Poetic Panic and Profound Respect | Two Voices, One Song

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