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epigraph

In choosing an epigraph, says Rosemary Ahern, "authors follow at least one of [these] three dictums." Ahern is the author of The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin (Atria Books, 2012). See Observations (below).

Definition:

(1) A brief motto or quotation set at the beginning of a text (a book, a chapter of a book, an essay, a poem) to suggest its theme. Adjective: epigraphic.

(2) Words inscribed on a wall, a building, or the base of a statue.
See also: Commonly Confused Words: Epigram, Epigraph, and Epitaph.

Etymology:

From the Greek, "write on"

Examples:

  • No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
    John Donne
    (epigraph to For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, 1940)


  • Mistah Kurtz--he dead.

    A penny for the Old Guy

    (epigraphs to The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot, 1925)


  • The broad-backed hippopotamus
    Rests on his belly in the mud;
    Although he seems so firm to us
    He is merely flesh and blood.

    "The Hippopotamus," T.S. Eliot
    (epigraph to The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry, 1994)


  • Historia, ae, f. 1. inquiry, investigation, learning.
    2. a) a narrative of past events, history. b) any kind of narrative: account, tale, story.

    "Ours was the marsh country . . ."
    Great Expectations
    (epigraphs to Waterland by Graham Swift, 1983)


  • History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret.
    Waterland
    (epigraph to Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan, 2009)


  • Life imitates art.
    Oscar Wilde

    I would be a Papist if I could. I have fear
    enough, but an obstinate rationality prevents me.
    Dr. Johnson
    (epigraphs to The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge, 1965)

Observations:

  • "The custom of using epigraphs becomes more widespread during the eighteenth century, when we find them (generally in Latin) at the head of some major works . . ..

    "A somewhat late-developing custom, then, which more or less replaces the classical custom of using dedicatory epistles and which, in its beginnings, seems a little more typical of works of ideas than of poetry or the novel."
    (Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997)


  • "Having surveyed 700 years of literary epigraphs to compile The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin, I found that the links between books and their epigraphs and the epigraphs' sources are as individual as the authors involved. Still, certain strategies emerge. It seems authors follow at least one of three dictums, and often all three simultaneously:

    "Be Brief: While the modern epigraph evolved from the lengthy prefaces of early novels like Don Quixote (1605) and Gulliver's Travels (1726), many authors have adopted the less-is-more approach. One of the most famous epigraphs is a mere two words: 'Only connect.' Thus E.M. Forster announced the theme of Howards End (1910) while dispensing valuable life advice. . . . Brevity amplifies truth and seals it in our memories.

    "Be Funny: Humor is as essential in literature as it is in life. No one understood this better than Vladimir Nabokov, who delighted in subverting expectations. He introduced The Gift, issued in English in 1963, with this excerpt from a Russian grammar book: 'An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.' . . .

    "Be Wise: Epigraphs appeal to those of us who value a good insight. In the one for her 2009 novel A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore suggests that her aim is to examine some painful truths but also to impart the wisdom to bear those truths: 'All seats provide equal viewing of the universe (Museum Guide, Hayden Planetarium).'"
    (Rosemary Ahern, "But First, a Few Choice Words." The Wall Street Journal, November 3-4, 2012)
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