An epigram is a very short poem—rarely more than ten lines, often only two. Epigrams are clever, with the second part of the poem usually having an ironic, surprising, or even humorously cruel twist.
Epigrams developed in ancient Greece, and have remained a part of Western language and literature ever since. This epigram is by the Roman poet Martial, written about 100 CE.
Philo swears he never eats in: it’s true:
he never eats when nobody invites him.
Queen Elizabeth I wrote an insightful epigram, perhaps inspired by a lifetime of court intrigue, years before her coronation.
No crooked leg, no bleared eye,
No part deformed out of kind,
Nor yet so ugly half can be
As is the inward suspicious mind.
The British poet Thomas Bastard (yes, his real name) wrote an eloquent epigram in 1598.
Age is deformed, youth unkind,
We scorn their bodies, they our mind.
John Wilmot used an epigram to tease his employer, King Charles II of England, in about 1660:
We have a pretty witty king,
And whose word no man relies on,
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one
British poet John Dryden had some unkind words for his late wife in 1700.
Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she's at rest, and so am I.
Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ Founding Fathers, included an epigram in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1750:
Little strokes
fell great oaks.
Another American leader, President Abraham Lincoln, wrote whimsical epigrams as a teenager. This was scribbled in a notebook in about 1825.
Abraham Lincoln
his hand and pen
he will be good but
god knows When
Epigrams flourished in the early 20th century. Edna St. Vincent Millay questioned conventional wisdom with this epigram from 1922.
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!
Dorothy Parker’s wit also leant itself to epigrams. In 1925, she wrote a long epigram that may be the last word on the subject.
Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.
  1. John Wilmot actually pays Charles II a compliment, calling him a “pretty, witty king” who “never said a foolish thing.” How does he incorporate an insult into his short poem?

    • Answer

      While Charles II may have never said a foolish thing, according to Wilmot, he also never did a wise one. Wilmot implies the king is vain and shallow, with nothing substantial to say or offer to his subjects.

  2. Ben Franklin was a leader of the American Revolution. How could his epigram be interpreted as a revolutionary poem?

    • Answer

      “Little strokes/fell great oaks” is a smart, serious commentary on the power of isolated, “small” individuals or groups of individuals. Years after this epigram was written, the “little oaks” of the American Colonies (Franklin, George Washington, other Founding Fathers and “Minute Men”) would fell the “great oak” of the British Empire.

  3. Dorothy Parker’s “Resume” is a little longer than most epigrams, with a slightly different tone. How does the concluding verse of “Resume” differ from other epigrams?

    • Answer

      Many epigrams begin with a positive or predictable situation—Martial verifies his friend’s claim that he never eats in, while John Dryden bids a fond farewell to his late wife, for instance. The close of these epigrams then abruptly turns negative—Martial’s friend never eats in because his friends never invite him to their homes, while Dryden actually expresses relief at his wife’s death.


      “Resume” turns this structure upside-down. The initial rhymes are all about pain and suicide, while the concluding verse is positive and upbeat—you may as well live!


to dim or blur because of tears.


ceremony or act of officially crowning a monarch.


well-spoken and expressive.


short, witty poem.


to thrive or be successful.


series of manipulations or secret plotting.


using words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of what is being said or written.


regular written or spoken language, not poetry.


to distain, mock, or treat with contempt.


scattered and few in number.


playful and lighthearted.


smart, funny, and insightful.