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The Best Epigrammatists

Who were the greatest epigrammatists of all time? Or in less technical language, who created the best epigrams? Here is my personal top ten, which is of course highly subjective:

The Top Ten Epigrammatists of All Time

(#10) Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe (tie)
(#9) Eleanor Roosevelt
(#8) Will Rogers
(#7) William Blake
(#6) Martial
(#5) William Shakespeare
(#4) Voltaire and Michel de Montaigne (tie)
(#3) Mark Twain aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens

(#2) The Divine Oscar Wilde
(#1) Sappho of Lesbos

High Honorable Mention: Woody Allen, Anacreon, Aristotle, Yogi Berra, Buddha, George Carlin, Winston Churchill, Dante, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Mohandas Gandhi, Jesus, JFK, MLK, Abraham Lincoln, Groucho Marx, Michelangelo, Mohammed, Napoleon, Plato, Dorothy Parker, Dolly Parton, Will Rogers, Socrates, Jonathan Swift, Mother Teresa, Mae West

The rankings above and commentary below were created by Michael R. Burch

Epigram Definition

An epigram is a brief, pithy, memorable statement which is often (but not necessarily) ironic, satirical, humorous or clever. Terms commonly used to describe epigrams include: ingenious, witty, pointed, terse, concise, cutting, scathing, and paradoxical.

If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning.—Catherine the Great
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.—Oscar Wilde
As blushing may make a whore seem virtuous, so modesty may make a fool seem sensible.—Jonathan Swift
Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.—Marilyn Monroe
Brevity is the soul of wit.—William Shakespeare
Brevity is the soul of lingerie.—Dorothy Parker

But epigrams can also be wonderfully warm, wise and tender.

The births of all things are weak and tender,
therefore we should have our eyes intent on beginnings.
—Michel de Montaigne

It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before,
to test your limits,
to break through barriers.
And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
—Anaοs Nin

If we are to have real peace in the world,
we shall have to begin with the children.
—Mohandas Gandhi

Examples of Epigrams

Never tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon.—Unknown
The real danger lies not in aiming too high and falling short, but in aiming too low and hitting the mark.—Michelangelo
It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.—Eleanor Roosevelt
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.—Albert Camus
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.—Eleanor Roosevelt
If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and his impersonators would be dead.—Johnny Carson
To err is human, but it feels divine.—Mae West
An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.—Mohandas Gandhi
For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.—Virginia Woolf
I'm not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I'm not dumb, and also I'm not blonde.—Dolly Parton
He does not believe, who does not live according to his belief.—Sigmund Freud

Poetic Epigrams

tell the Spartans we lie
here, dead at Thermopylae:
murdered at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
—Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

One of the best and most famous lyric poets of antiquity (or of any era) was a woman, Sappho. She was born on the island of Lesbos, circa 620 BC. According to the Parian Marble, she was exiled to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594, while Cicero mentioned that a statue of her stood in the town hall of Syracuse. "She is a mortal marvel," wrote Antipater of Sidon, before proceeding to catalog the Seven Wonders of the World. As J. B. Hare, one of her translators, said, "Sappho the poet was an innovator. At the time poetry was principally used in ceremonial contexts, and to extoll the deeds of brave soldiers. Sappho had the audacity to use the first person in poetry and to discuss deep human emotions, particularly the erotic, in ways that had never been approached by anyone before her. As for the military angle, in one of the longer fragments she says: 'Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers, and others again a fleet of ships, but for me it is my beloved.' In the ancient world she was considered to be on an equal footing with Homer, acclaimed as the 'tenth muse.'"

Here are my loose translations of three Sapphic epigrams:

Eros harrows my heart:
wild gales sweeping desolate mountains
uprooting oaks.
—Sappho, fragment 42, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!
—Sappho, fragment 155, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.
—Sappho, fragment 156, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here’s my loose translation of an epigram attributed to Plato:

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
—Michael R. Burch, after Plato

The way we think of epigrams has changed over time. Today, according to the Wikipedia article on epigrams, we tend to "think of epigram as having a ‘point’ – that is, the poem ends in a punchline or satirical twist. [But] by no means do all Greek epigrams behave this way; many are simply descriptive. We associate [the] epigram with [a] 'point' because the European epigram tradition takes the Latin poet Martial as its principal model; he copied and adapted Greek models (particularly the contemporary poets Lucillius and Nicarchus) selectively and in the process redefined the genre, aligning it with the indigenous Roman tradition of 'satura', hexameter satire, as practised by (among others) his contemporary Juvenal. Greek epigrams [were] actually much more diverse, as [indicated by] the Milan Papyrus."

For example, many of the epigrams in the Greek Anthology are sad and/or tender love poems.

According to Wikipedia, Marcus Valerius Martialis, known in English as Martial, was born circa 38 AD and died circa 104 AD. He was a Latin poet from Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) who wrote twelve books of epigrams, published during the reigns of the emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. His epigrams tend to be short, witty affairs in which he cheerfully satirizes Roman-era city life and the scandalous activities of his acquaintances. He wrote a total of 1,561 poems, of which 1,235 are in elegiac couplets. He is considered to be the creator of the modern epigram. Here are a few of my favorite Martial epigrams:

There is no glory in outstripping donkeys.—Marcus Valerius Martial

Lie lightly on her, turf and dew ...
She put so little weight on you.
—Marcus Valerius Martial

Readers and listeners praise my books;
You swear they're worse than a beginner's.
Who cares? I always plan my dinners
To please the diners, not the cooks.
—Marcus Valerius Martial, translated by R. L. Barth

While Roman epigrams owe much to their Greek predecessors, they are often more satirical, and sometimes employ obscene language. Latin epigrams could take the form of graffiti, such as this one found at Pompeii (circa AD 79):

I'm astonished, wall, that you haven't collapsed into ruins,
since you're holding up the weary verse of so many poets!

Since Martial and other Roman poets adopted and adapted epigrams for their own purposes, the form has continued to evolve. Today most epigrams are prose rather than poetry, and include tweets, puns and one-liners ...

A man who says he can see through a woman is missing a lot.—Groucho Marx
A man's only as old as the woman he feels.—Groucho Marx
Questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are.—Oscar Wilde
Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.—Oscar Wilde
My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book.—Friedrich Nietzsche
Sit next to a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. Sit on a red-hot stove for a minute, it seems like an hour. That's relativity!—Albert Einstein
Take my wife . . . please!—Rodney Dangerfield, who borrowed the catchphrase from Henny Youngman
An economist's guess is liable to be as good as anybody else's.—Will Rogers
Make crime pay. Become a lawyer.—Will Rogers
A fool and his money are soon elected.—Will Rogers
I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.—Will Rogers
A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward.—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.—Groucho Marx
As a snow-drift is formed where there is a lull in the wind, so, one would say, where there is a lull of truth, an institution springs up.—Henry David Thoreau
There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.—Mark Twain
I don't know what weapons will be used in World War III, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.—Albert Einstein
Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.—John F. Kennedy, Jr.
If there is one thing that we do worse than any other nation, it is try and manage somebody else's affairs.—Will Rogers
The clatter of arms drowns out the voice of law.—Michel de Montaigne
I found out that I was a Christian for revenue only and I could not bear the thought of that, it was so ignoble.—Mark Twain
Behind every successful man is a surprised woman.—Maryon Pearson
A male gynecologist is like an auto mechanic who never owned a car.—Carrie Snow
The phrase "working mother" is redundant.—Jane Sellman
If high heels were so wonderful, men would still be wearing them.—Sue Grafton
Grace Kelly did everything Fred Astaire did: walking backwards, in high heels!—Unknown
When women are depressed they either eat or go shopping. Men invade another country.—Elayne Boosler
Whatever women must do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.—Charlotte Whitton
If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.—Margaret Thatcher
Nowadays we make quick work of our courtships; it's our divorces that we spend a lot of time on.—Richard Moore
You can observe a lot just by watching.—Yogi Berra
There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell 'em.—Yogi Berra
Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.—Yogi Berra
The future ain't what it used to be.—Yogi Berra
I didn't really say all the things I said.—Yogi Berra
A hangover is the wrath of grapes.—Unknown
I can resist everything except temptation.—Oscar Wilde
The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.—Oscar Wilde
Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.—William Blake
There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.—Mark Twain
To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it.—Michel de Montaigne
Discontent is the first necessity of progress.—Thomas Alva Edison
Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins.—Native American proverb

In brief, the epigram is the Harry Houdini of literature.

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