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” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175604).
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.
The Waste Land Click Here to Read the Poem
Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi
in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:
Σιβυλλα 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.
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 ἢ 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: