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Epigram ( ancient Greek ἐπίγραμμα epigramma , German 'inscription' ), a short, pointed poem, was originally an inscription on a consecration gift , a tomb , a work of art and the like, only with the purpose of designating the object and its meaning. The creation of epigrams is called epigrammar .

These inscriptions were later given a poetic expansion, in that they also gave space to feelings and thoughts in the most concise version of the meaning, mostly in distiches , which were linked to the person, action or event in question, and thus formed an independent, in the 20th Century.


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing explains the epigram as a poem in which "in the manner of the actual inscription, our attention and curiosity about any single object aroused, and more or less held out in order to satisfy it with one". By “inscription” Lessing means the original narrow meaning of the term epigram as an inscription on a memorial or a heading: “The inscription is inconceivable without what it is written on [...].” It announces something and arouses curiosity about something about which the monument (or a text following the heading) provides information.

In a similar way - so Lessing - the epigram triggers feelings. According to Lessing, "expectation" and "disclosure" are the two essential parts of the epigram, of which the former is tense (like a riddle) through an apparent contradiction, the latter is brought about by a surprising interpretation of the meaning (hence the German name Sinngedicht for Epigram, created by Philipp von Zesen ).

Charles Batteux similarly defines the epigram as a two-part art form: “the first [part] is the recitation of the subject, the thing that produced or caused the thought; and the other the thought itself, which is called the pointe , or that which excites the reader, what interests him ”.


Simonides von Keos (5th / 4th century BC) is considered the founder of epigrammatic art , whose epigrams, largely composed as monuments of the fighters in the Persian Wars, are models of poetic perception and are distinguished by their sharpness of thought and greatness Distinguish simplicity. As a result, the epigram found widespread care, and the poetic sense of the Greeks continued to develop in such small poems a great grace, versatility and dexterity, even after they had lost the strength for larger productions.

Part of the rich national treasure of Greek epigrams is preserved in the Greek anthology . Epigrammatic poetry came to Rome from the Greeks and was cultivated here with preference, but soon assumed a predominantly satirical character. In the period of Augustus the first poets of Rome and the most respected men of the state are named among the epigram writers. Domitius Marsus falls into this period . But the most important thing that has survived of this kind of Roman poetry are the epigrams of Martial , which in his epigrams reproduced the life of the Roman imperial era in an unsurpassable formal perfection. One can read the 1500 poems like a society novel in aphorisms, an ensemble of encounters and reactions of the poet to his time and its social and literary conditions. Ausonius emerged as an epigrammatist among the poets of late antiquity . Even among the Romansh peoples, the epigram mostly had the biting character, but was partly transformed into a madrigal and partly also a sonnet . The historical name for a satirical epigram is Stachelreim in German .

It was most popular in France, where Clément Marot (1495–1544) is mentioned as the first known poet in this genre. Especially since Richelieu's time and shortly before the outbreak of the revolution, the condemned political opposition was in the habit of using the epigram to express itself . In England, it was mainly John Owen (1616–1683) who knew how to strike the tone of martial. Another John Owen (1564-1622) was nicknamed "the English Martial" . The “ Priameln ” of the 13th and 14th centuries are considered to be the oldest German epigrammatic products, but similar to the epithets of the Orient (India, Persia), they are more general sayings of morality and wisdom.

In the 17th century, Germany followed the example of the ancients and took Martial's sarcastic sharpness as a model, for example Friedrich von Logau and Christian Wernicke or later in the 19th century Heinrich von Kleist . Goethe and Schiller's epigrams, with the exception of the sharply striking Xenia , are mostly aphorisms of more general content. Similarly with Lessing and Friedrich Haug . More recently, August Graf von Platen , Franz Grillparzer , Friedrich Hebbel , Erich Kästner , Friedrich Theodor Vischer and Hansgeorg Stengel should be mentioned. The most popular form of the epigram is still today the distich , which can be seen as a complete formal scheme in which the hexameter gives the expectation, the pentameter gives the brief summary. However, the short iambus with matching rhymes is also suitable as a carrier for the epigram. As an example, here is an epigram by Lessing that relates to the genre itself:

You who don't like an epigram
, unless long and rich and heavy:
Where did you see a spear being snapped
from a bow instead of an arrow?

Lessing dealt with the theory of the epigram in the "Notes on the Epigram" and Herder in the treatise "On the Greek Epigram", the one preferably in relation to the satirical epigram of the Romans, this one following the Greek anthology from a more comprehensive point of view.


Since the 19th century, the term epigram has also been used as a title for compositions , especially in the German-speaking area . Either it is vocal music that sets literary epigrams to music, for example:

Examples of miniatures with an epigrammatic character for instrumental ensembles can be mentioned:


German epigram
  • Klemens Altmann: German epigrams from five centuries. Munich 1966.
  • Walter Dietze : Outline of a history of the German epigram. In: Walter Dietze (Ed.): Erbe und Gegenwart. Structure, Berlin 1972, pp. 247-391.
  • Gerhard Neumann : German epigrams. Stuttgart 1969, 1971 (= Reclam UB. Volume 8340-43).
Ancient epigram
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing : Scattered comments on the epigram and some of the most distinguished epigrammatists. (1771). In: Werke , fifth volume, Munich 1973, pp. 420–529.
  • Marion Lausberg : The single list. Studies on the ancient epigram. Munich 1982.
  • Gerhard Pfohl : The epigram. On the history of an inscribed and literary genre. Darmstadt 1969.
  • Gerhard Pfohl: Epigram Philology. In: Specialized prose research - Crossing borders. Volume 8/9, 2012/2013, pp. 177-188.
Latin epigram
  • Paul Barié: Martial. Reality reflected in the Roman epigram. Exemplary series Literature and Philosophy Vol. 17. Sonnenberg, Annweiler 2004, ISBN 978-3-933264-34-3 .
  • Walter Berger: Distiches. Latin epigrams as a humanistic legacy. Vienna 1994.
Greek epigram
  • Hildebrecht Hommel : The origin of the epigram. In: Rheinisches Museum. Volume 66, 1939, pp. 193-206.
  • Günther Kapeller: Motifs inscribed on the grave. A study of epigrams from the 7th to 5th centuries BC Chr. Philosophical dissertation Innsbruck 1987.
  • Werner Peek : Greek verse inscriptions. Volume 1: Grave Epigrams. Berlin 1955 (second volume not published).
  • Gerhard Pfohl: Elements of the Greek epigraphy. Darmstadt 1968.
  • Olivier Reverdin (Ed.): L'epigramme grecque. (= Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique. Volume 14) Vandoeuvres-Geneva 1968. ISBN 978-2-600-04407-3 .
Spanish epigram
  • Jürgen Nowicki: The epigrammatic theory in Spain from the 16th to the 18th century. A preliminary work on the history of epigrammatics. Wiesbaden 1974.

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: Epigram  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikisource: Category Epigrams  - Sources and Full Texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Wilhelm Hammond-Norden : Why are epigrams no longer being written? In: The literature. Volume 41, Issue 12, 1939, pp. 725-728.
  2. GE Lessing 1973, p. 424.
  3. GE Lessing 1973, p. 423.
  4. GE Lessing 1973, p. 427.
  5. ^ After Lessing 1973, p. 425.
  6. Helmut Häusle: Simple and early forms of the Greek epigram. Innsbruck 1979 (= Commentationes Aenipontanae, XXV; Philology and Epigraphik. Volume 3).
  7. See also Jutta Weisz: The German Epigram of the 17th Century. Stuttgart 1979.
  8. Helmut Hasenkox: The epigrammatic Franz Grillparzer as an expression of literary reflection in the political and social environment of the 19th century. Frankfurt am Main 1989.
  9. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: To the reader at Zeno.org .
  10. ^ Kurt Schlueter: The English Ode. Studies of their development under the influence of the ancient hymn. Bonn 1964, p. 264 f. (on the borderline case of ode and epigram).