• Unit 7: Epigrams

    Unit 7: Epigrams


    We learnt about the sonnet in Unit 6. A sonnet is a poem with fourteen lines. What would you call a poem that has two lines? In this Unit we shall learn about epigrams; some are a single line while others are two or more lines.

    Activity 1

    Read the following:

    a. Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, my brethren, you do unto me. (Jesus Christ)

    b. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. (Eleanor Roosevelt)

    c. There are no small nations …only small minds. (King Leopold of Belgium)

    Discuss the following in your small groups:

    1. What name do we give to this kind of writing?

    2. Read each line again carefully. What makes it interesting?

    An epigram is a short witty expression. For example: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

        Usually, this short witty expression is meant to explain a ‘big’ idea. Think about this: There are no small nations …only small minds.

         Apart from being a short witty expression, an epigram can be a poem. For example, the poem in Activity 2. Here is another poem, which is an epigram:

    Bigfoot often puts his foot in his mouth

    And he has a big mouth too...

    – Tim Ryerson

    This poem is witty – clever and amusing. At the same time, its message is very true. It says that a foolish person usually makes silly mistakes. To add on to that, a fool usually talks a lot of nonsense. Don’t you think that is true?


    As you may have realised, epigrams are mainly written in couplets (two lines) or quatrains (four lines). However just as you saw at the beginning of this section, they can be one-line phrases.

         Epigrams are effective – they get the message across easily. They are also memorable – we remember them.

        An epigram is like word puzzle or riddle. Therefore, it will require you to think to find out what an epigram is saying.

        From your discussions, you have noted that epigrams use figures of speech just like poems.  For instance, epigrams use a lot of satire, sarcasm and oxymoron.

         Satire is the use of humour to mock failure. The failure is usually exaggerated to emphasise it and make the person responsible correct the situation. This is one way of mocking the person for whom the epigram is intended.

         Sarcasm is when we say the opposite of what we mean in order to mock and possibly hurt the feelings of the person we are speaking to. Look at the epigram in Activity 4, how can you say it is sarcastic?

          An oxymoron is a statement that is contradictory.  For example, ‘ugly beauty’. Is it possible for one to be ugly and beautiful at the same time? When we say the ‘living dead’, it is contradictory since you cannot be alive and dead at the same time. We can also say loud silence. Silence is the absence of noise so it cannot be associated with ‘loud’ which implies noise. Can you think of situations when we can use the oxymorons given here?

    History of epigrams

    In early Greece, epigrams were put on statues of famous people and on tombs. They also used to be very long, unlike modern epigrams.

         The Romans also used epigrams. Theirs were more satirical and sometimes they were obscene, or dirty. They were often painted as graffiti on walls. Romans’ would be a few lines, with a joke in the last line − what we call the punch line.

          Epigrams began to be used in English in the sixteenth century, especially with the translations of the Bible. This is when the couplet started being used, particularly those by writers like William Shakespeare.

    Epigrams from different cultures and times in history

    The epigrams below are from different cultures and times in history. Study them in your small groups and discuss the messages and themes in them.

    1. Africa

        It seems impossible until it is done.

        – Nelson Mandela

    2. Rome

         I came, I saw, I conquered.

         −Julius Caesar

         I have not come to praise Caesar but to bury him.

         – Mark Antony

          Brevity is the soul of wit.

         − William Shakespeare

    3. America

           The ballot is stronger than the bullet.

           – Abraham Lincoln

           Early to bed, early to rise

           Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise

           Benjamin Franklin

            Your children need you more than your presents.

             – Jesse Jackson

    4. India

             We have to have real peace in the world,

             We shall have to begin with the children.

              − Mahatma Gandhi

               Error ceases to be error when it is corrected.

               – Mahatma Gandhi

               Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacities.

               – Mahatma Gandhi

    Activity 5

    a. Working in your small groups, discuss and then explain the meaning of the following epigrams.

              i) Sir, I admit your general rule,

                that every poet is a fool.

                But you yourself may serve to show it,

                That every fool is not a poet.

                 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

             ii) There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than other savages.

                 – Mark Twain

             iii ) We hold these truths to be self-evident,

                  that all men are created equal;

                  that they are endowed by their Creator

                  with certain unalienable rights;

                  that among these are Life, Liberty

                  and the pursuit of Happiness.

                  – Thomas Jefferson, with Benjamin Franklin

                iv) An unbending tree is easily broken

                      Lao Tzu

                 v) Another golden rule

                    is: – don’t lose your cool.

                     – Yogi Bear

                    Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.

                     – Oscar Wilde

                    If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.

                     – Catherine the great

                vi) The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.

                     – Albert Einstein

    b. Identify the imagery used in the following epigram.

                    Happiness is like a butterfly:

                    the more you chase it, the more it will elude you.

                    But if you turn your attention to other things,

                    it will come and sit softly on your shoulders.

                    – Henry David Thoreau

                   (Accessed from www.thehypertexts.com)

    c. If you have a library, try to look for a few epigrams and write them down. if you have an internet connection, search for epigrams and write down ten examples in your exercise book.

    d. Compose an epigram of your own. Share it with your classmates.

    Unit 6: Sonnet and rhymeUnit 8: Different forms of drama