Witty sayings and short poems are known as epigrams. Here are 10 epigram examples that stood the test of time.
When you’re searching for examples of epigrams, you’ll notice that many great minds throughout history provided witty statements that have entertained generations.
The definition of epigram is simple: it’s a witty statement or short poem that conveys a clever or satirical statement to the reader. No specific poetic form is required—an epigram is simply a literary device that conveys a quick, thoughtful message, often employing paradox or wordplay. It’s key to note that an epigram is different than an aphorism (a short statement that conveys a universal truth, such as “honesty is the best policy”).
Whether you already have a favorite epigrammatist (like Benjamin Franklin) or you’re new to the idea of using an epigrammatic style, you’ll find that reading a good example of an epigram isn’t just educational—it’s fun!
- 1. “There is only one thing worse in the world than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” – Oscar Wilde
- 2. “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour” – William Blake
- 3. “I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.” – Groucho Marx
- 4. “I am unable, yonder beggar cries, To stand, or move; if he say true, he lies.” – John Donne
- 5. “So all my best is dressing old words 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.” – William Shakespeare
- 6. “Little strokes fell great oaks.” – Benjamin Franklin
- 7. “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” – John F. Kennedy
- 8. “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” – Alexander Pope
- 9. “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.” – Dorothy Parker
- 10. “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
- FAQs About Epigram Examples
- Poetry Resources
1. “There is only one thing worse in the world than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” – Oscar Wilde
One of the most well-known epigrammatists of all time, Oscar Wilde is known for his snarky, intelligent one-liners. In this famous epigram, Wilde describes how difficult it is to be the subject of gossip—but how it’s even harder to live a life that goes unnoticed by the world. We’d guess that the aphorism “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” would have been right up Wilde’s alley.
2. “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour” – William Blake
English poet William Blake wasn’t well-known during his lifetime, but today, his epigrams, art, and poetry are widely recognized as defining parts of the Romantic Age. His thoughts on nature and the infinite wonder of the universe have captured the minds of students, philosophers, and critical thinkers for centuries.
3. “I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.” – Groucho Marx
Comedian, actor, and writer Groucho Marx wasn’t just known for his command of the silver screen, small screen, and the stage. He’s also beloved for his zingy one-liners that made people laugh—and think. Marx’s razor-sharp wit kept audiences on their toes from setting up a picnic lunch during a serious tennis match with Charlie Chaplin to wowing vaudeville crowds.
4. “I am unable, yonder beggar cries, To stand, or move; if he say true, he lies.” – John Donne
Now considered the first metaphysical poet, John Donne was born in 1572. He’s best known for his paradoxical work, delving into common questions of the human condition, including faith, love, and salvation. While much of Donne’s work was quite serious in nature, his epigrams provide readers with a view into his unique sense of humor.
Epigrams give you pause for thought and plenty to think about. Much like this collection of thoughtful quotes.
5. “So all my best is dressing old words 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.” – William Shakespeare
The last four lines of Sonnet 76 include some of the most well-known epigrams in the English language. There is some argument amongst literary scholars about Shakespeare’s Fair Youth sequence, including Sonnet 76. Some academics believe that Shakespeare was writing these poems to a young man, while others believe they were written to a young woman.
6. “Little strokes fell great oaks.” – Benjamin Franklin
Known for his wit and ingenuity, Benjamin Frankin was a one-of-a-kind wordsmith who never failed to express himself through prose. In this epigram, Franklin speaks of persistence and commitment to a task, using small steps to accomplish a larger goal.
7. “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” – John F. Kennedy
JFK had a flexible defense strategy that required careful calculation of military moves, minimizing the chance of miscalculating a threat. Kennedy’s interest in international matters took root while he was a student at Harvard, long before he began his presidential run.
8. “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” – Alexander Pope
Born in the late 17th century, Alexander Pope was an English satirist and poet known for speaking out against the accepted morality of the time. While Pope certainly was not the first popular writer, he’s widely regarded as the first writer to make a living from their craft, as he earned money from those who subscribed to his translations of Homer and his editions of Shakespeare’s works.
9. “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.” – Dorothy Parker
New York City-based poet and writer Dorothy Parker was known for her quick-witted quips, often laced with language and an attitude considered shocking in the early 21st century. A shining example of Parker’s attitude and love for epigrams was made clear when she asked for “Excuse my dust” for her epitaph.
10. “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Strength, grace, and wit are synonymous with Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy. The longest-serving First Lady in American history was known for her activism as much as her command of the English language, as evidenced by her many epigrams that are still quoted today.
For more interesting quotes, check out our article on inspiring creative quotes.
FAQs About Epigram Examples
What is an antonym for Epigram
Epigrams are typically a witty saying, one that expresses an idea in an unconventional or
comedic way. Some famous examples include many of Oscar Wilde’s most famous lines (such
as ‘I can resist anything except temptation’). Some Antonyms for Epigrams include
Dysphemism, Euphemism, and Misconstruction.
What is an Epigram Poem?
Epigram poems are usually short, comedic verses that express a single idea. However, this idea
is usually expressed in an unusual or roundabout way. For example, the concept that
‘Happiness is hard to find’ could become ‘Happiness is like a Butterfly; the more you chase it,
the more it will elude you’ (Extract from a work by Henry David Thoreau).
What is the difference between an Epigram and an Aphorism?
Aphorisms are typically short statements that reveal an universal truth. Epigrams also do this,
but tend to have a satirical or comedic twist, which can make it hard to tell them apart from each
other. For example, one of Oscar Wilde’s most famous quotes is ‘In this world, there are only
two tragedies. One is not getting what we want, and the other is getting it’ is an Aphorism rather
than an Epigram, as it is a statement of truth rather than a joke or poetic piece.
How do you write an Epigram?
The most straightforward way to create an Epigram is to decide upon an idea you wish to
express, and then convey it in an unexpected or witty fashion. Take for example this Epigram
from Fernando Pessoa, who expresses the idea that beauty is impossible to define: ‘To define the beautiful is to misunderstand it. This elevates the original idea with wit
What is the purpose of an Epigram?
The purpose of an Epigram is similar to that of a proverb; to communicate wisdom and insight in
a short and concise piece with the addition of humour and an unexpected approach to the topic.
What separates Epigrams from Proverbs is that Eprigrams typically have a satirical or withering
perspective on the world or mankind, pointing out odd or harsh truths as the punchline of the
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