Saturday, July 6, 2013

Prompt # 153 – Epigraphing

I’m sure you’ve noticed that many poets choose to include a quotation (epigraph) beneath the title and before the text of their poems. By way of definition: an epigraph (not epigram or epitaph) is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book, a chapter, a story, or a poem that’s borrowed from another writer and included to suggest the theme or to give the reader a hint of what’s to come. Epigraphs are often from classical (Latin, Greek) or Biblical sources and call to mind similar themes or thematic contrasts. Typically, epigraphs are no more than a line or two, but may also be more lengthy.

Among numerous other poets, T. S. Eliot adopted a kind of signature element in using foreign language quotes as epigraphs (as in “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). In addition, Chaucer opened “The Knight’s Tale” with a quotation from the Roman poet Statius; Alexander Pope began the 1743 version of the “Dunciad” with an epigraph from Ovid; and Keats prefaced his “Poems” with a quotation from Spenser. Today’s poets seem to use epigraphs with increasing frequency.

For this week’s prompt, let’s try some “epigraphing.”


1.  Remember that the epigraph you choose should suggest the content of your poem, should be insightful, and should be a source of inspiration for what you write. Feel free to search the Net and to use quotations in any language you wish, including English. If you speak another language, or know someone who does, you might find that helpful in finding a foreign-language epigraph.

2.  The quotations you use don’t have to be from poems; they may be from any source. Spend some time looking for quotes that inspire you.

3.  Once you’ve found a quote to work with, begin free writing to get some ideas going.

4. After free writing, read through what you’ve written and see where your ideas take you.

5. If you draw a blank on this one, here’s an alternative idea: look through your already-written poems and see if you can find an epigraph for one or more of them.

6. Another option is to choose an epigraph from a poem that you like. For example, lines from Phyllis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” form the epigraph for Alfred Corn’s “Sugar Cane” (

8. To format the epigraph for your poem, be sure to insert the quotation (with quotation marks or in italics) between the title of the poem and the text. Immediately after the quote, be sure to credit your source. (If your quote is in a foreign language you may include the translation immediately under the quote and before the source. This isn’t usually done, though, and readers may find it interesting to discover the meaning of your foreign-language epigraphs on their own).

9. For formatting, Here’s are the epigraphs from Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “Waste Land”:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Click Here to Read the Poem

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi

in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:
τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.

For Ezra Pound
il miglior fabbro

10. And, by way of sharing, here’s an example of how I formatted an epigraph for a poem in my book What Matters:

Of Feathers, Of Flight Click Here to Read the Poem

 … if I look up into the heavens I think that it will all come right …
and that peace and tranquility will return again.
—Anne Frank

Before Writing:

Feel free to search the Net to find quotations that work for you. Here are a few that might be helpful.

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
     (From “Separation” by W.S. Merwin)

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
     (From “Hold Fast to Dreams” by Langston Hughes)

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
     (From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver)

One less hope becomes
One more song.
     (From “Song about Song” by Anna Akhmatova)

Within the circles of our lives
we dance the circles of the years,
     (From “Song (4)” by Wendell Berry)

Hope is the thing with feathers
     (From “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson)

Latin: Veni, vidi, vici.           
     I came, I saw, I conquered. (Julius Caesar)

Latin: Minus solum, quam cum solus esset.           
     Never less alone than when alone. (Cicero)

French: Comprendre, c'est pardoner.
     To understand is to forgive. (De Stael)

French: Le plus grand faible des hommes, c'est l'amour qu'ils ont de la vie.
     Man's greatest weakness is his love of life. (Molière)

French: Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas.
     It's just one step from the sublime to the ridiculous. (Napoléon)

Greek: ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα
     One thing I know, that I know nothing. This is the source of my wisdom. (Socrates)

Greek: Ανδρν γὰρ ἐπιφανῶν πᾶσα γῆ τάφος, καὶ οὐ στηλῶν μόνον ἐν τῇ οἰκείᾳ σημαίνει ἐπιγραφή, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐν τῇ μὴ προσηκούσῃ ἄγραφος μνήμη παρ' ἑκάστῳ τῆς γνώμης μᾶλλον τοῦ ἔργου ἐνδιαιτᾶται.
     What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. (Pericles)

Greek: Πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει
     Everything changes and nothing remains still. (Heraclitus)

Examples of Poems with Epigraphs:


  1. Brilliant, Adele! So many contemporary poets use epigraphs, and that adds a special dimension to their poems. This prompt is so well thought out and presented. Your suggestions for epigraphs are great.

    I also love the image you used this week.

    Thanks, as always.

    1. Thanks, Jamie, your kind words are much appreciated.

      The picture is one I took a couple of years ago. The statue stands in my back garden, surrounded by part of my hosta "collection."

  2. H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalolaJuly 7, 2013 at 8:46 AM

    - MOVV -

    "E lascia pur grattar dov'e la rogna" -Dante

    We are a Morld of Violence
    Aver, averre those whom are aggrieved?
    From the petty to the tres eggrege, sans sens

    Each violater, ever seeking recompense,
    Selfright, or deillusory, manic-deceived
    We are a Morld of Violence

    Ubiquitous, do you see!? TV, vel, Its Pathos path, countenance
    Of the battered, bachachopam, ecleansed, without reprieve
    From the petty to the tres eggrege, sans sens

    Biome in flight, think not this assault!?, where but travel in defense?
    Ain't no tricks save euchre up them sleezes'
    We are a Morld of Violence

    A caan, inhumanity played-out on this rollered-ball to vengeance
    But who the gamegainers, but the racquets of affluence in garrished breezes
    From the petty to the tres eggrege, sans sens

    Salvation belied harmony and confluence?
    They'll go as they go, gone, please as they'll pleases
    We are a Morld of Violence!
    From the petty to the tres eggrege, sans sens.


    (From, "Sophistigates: A New Book Of New Poetry: Morld 1: Conflict" -H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalola

    1. So glad you're back, H. E. and hope all is well.

      Your "quirky," intense style shine through. Thanks so much for posting.

      Any chance that you might explain "morld?"

    2. A most interesting poem, though I must confess that I find all but the general meaning difficult to "translate." Glad to see you back and posting again!

    3. H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalolaJuly 8, 2013 at 7:09 PM

      Thank you, Jamie, for the response & the gracious re-welcome; Life on Morld (sometimes as Morlde`or Murdth) is for many, if not most, difficult. The piece attempts to resonate for readers of all persuasion...that you have gleaned the "general" meaning is what any poet would initially aspire. Perhaps you see an opportunity to return for the in-depth revelation...It's there.

  3. H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalolaJuly 8, 2013 at 8:14 AM

    Dear Adele - Thank you for the response (I've been tabbed "eccentric," amongst other labels, on occasion, "quirky" kindly flies). Thought you might be desirous of "Morld;" Simply (sans the political climate at the neologism's/Haroism's coining), are we not inverted?

    1. Can't say that I understand a bit of it, but that's okay!

  4. H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalolaJuly 8, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    AK - (A (bit of) my reply or the piece, or both? I will gladly elucidate any concerns...if not, that's okay; of course you recognized the form as villanelle?

    1. Oh goodness, no I didn't realize that you used villanelle form! Now, back for another read ...

    2. H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalolaJuly 9, 2013 at 8:45 AM

      That's ok (lol) AK; I remain eager...

  5. "Let Nothing Disturb You" Teresa of Avilla

    the storm is raging
    windows banging
    winds whipping

    be not disturbed
    it will pass

    step into a safe place
    remain un-involved

    be not disturbed
    it will pass

    observe it all keenly
    noting infinite details
    with every molecular miracle
    ride it out
    till the wheels fall off

    1. A wonderful epigraph and a poem very much in your inimitable style. Thanks so much for sharing.

  6. Missed last week, so here it is:

    Did Peter Pan
    fly on a moonbeam?
    Did he not stop to visit?

    Oh, dear!
    Perhaps I have aged too much
    to fly through the air.
    I stare out at the night
    from the comfort of my bed.
    Peter's not here
    the moonbeams are.
    My heart still leaps joyfully at their presence.

    1. I love your "memory" of Peter Pan. I wonder how many children of our era grew up hoping he'd come and take them to Never Never Land.

      I suspect that he's there in those moonbeams.

      Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalolaJuly 9, 2013 at 8:42 AM

    Risa - The direct simplicity of this piece grabs; the sonics (alliteration of "s") & imagery/metaphor + the "call-&-respond" of the repeating line. Two observations/suggestions, the placement of "keenly" might better serve as the first of S5 (btw, I like the stanza structure); & you might have the "call-&-respond" as the denouement (the dismount). "Molecular miracle" is a stroke! A most professional piece, one to absorb, integrate & detach, thank you.

  8. H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalolaJuly 9, 2013 at 12:23 PM

    R - Oh my, a two-in-one-morning; perhaps in S2 reverse L4 & L5, this, I believe, will further modify L6 (read It this way, your poetic sense will grasp the difference). Also, give "My heart joyfully leaps at their presence," a shot.

  9. H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalolaJuly 9, 2013 at 4:21 PM

    Bravo! Also, have I replied to the former ("Let Nothing Disturb You") in the non-subscribed space?

  10. This epigraph for someone going to write a love poem:

    "Deh, Violetta, che in ombra d' Amore
    ne gli occhi miei sì subito apparisti,
    aggi pietà del cor che tu feristi,
    che spera in te e disiando more."

    Dalle Rime di Dante Alighieri.

    Please, Violetta, that trough shadow of loves
    in my eyes so soon appeared,
    have pity on my hearth you injured,
    which in you hopes and craving dies.

    1. I love this translation and wondered if you meant the word "hearth" to be "heart." (A typo perhaps?)

      The words in Italian are so beautiful and reminded me of a long-ago love in Rome. With thanks to you, here's the poem you inspired Jago.

      That One Night

      "Deh, Violetta, che in ombra d' Amore
      ne gli occhi miei sì subito apparisti,
      aggi pietà del cor che tu feristi,
      che spera in te e disiando more."

      That one night—the Cyprus
      trees, distant on the hill, the
      Forum ruins deep in their own
      silence—and you, the shape of
      your arms as you turned away.

    2. So evocative and visual, Carol Ricci!

      Thanks so much for sharing with us, and thanks to Jago for the great epitaph and his translation.

    3. Jago,

      Thanks, as always! You never fail to understand the essence of the prompts and your contributions are always perfect.

    4. You are right, Carol: a very dishonorable typo!

      I really like your poem. It was sure a great, magical love...

    5. A long epigraph about Rome from Karl Kirchwey "On the Janiculum"

      For Carol and Adele

      The city lies flushed by sunset in its bowl,
      the snow mountains on the far horizon like a dream,
      as runnels of violet invade each street,
      and what is left, on a winter afternoon,
      is a feeling of joy so closely followed by grief
      you might almost miss the moment of tenderness
      in which both resolve, as if toward something vulnerable:
      though the city does not have you, has never had you, in mind.

    6. WONDERFUL, Jago! Thank you so much!

  11. H.E. Mantel-O'HaroHalolaJuly 11, 2013 at 12:31 PM

    ...Or lost love poem:


    ...I travelled
    to our Ocean
    and It wellcomed me

    I did not Poet
    nor did I fly
    the Mantra of your name
    up to the Wind -

    Death has not eyes
    nor s'it listen,
    the torrent and brine
    in their place
    to bid you goodbye...

    And I went to our Ocean,
    She wellcomed me
    and You
    And a fitting adieu.


    1. Am I missing something? I don't see an epigraph (the subject of the prompt this week). Or is that "...Or lost love poem:" the epigraph?

  12. So glad you found it helpful, and thanks for your comment.