The epigram is a brief couplet or quatrain. Epigrams are usually satirical, aphoristic and witty and often express a comic turn of thought. The term epigram is derived from the Greek word epigramma, meaning "inscription," but its greatest practitioner was the first-century Roman poet Martial, who is credited with popularizing the form. The spirit of the epigram is in its terse and succinct form: much can be said with few words.
The witty tone of the epigram was especially cultivated in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by poets like Ben Jonson, John Donne and Robert Herrick; the form has always been popular and one can find examples throughout the history of English literature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, displays the comic wit and clever turn of thought of the epigram in his verses "On a volunteer singer" and "What Is an Epigram?"
Swans sing before they die--'twere no bad thing
Should certain people die before they sing!
What is an epigram? a dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
Here are several more examples.
Matthew Prior, "A True Maid"
No, no, for my virginity,
When I lose that, says Rose, I'll die:
Behind the elms, last night, cried Dick,
Rose, were you not extremely sick?
John Wilmot, "Impromtu on Charles II"
God bless our good and gracious king,
Whose promise none relies on,
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
Bruce Bennett, "Ironist"
I mean the opposite of what I say.
You've got it now? No, it's the other way.
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