The epigram

M. Thomas Hester

in The Oxford Handbook of John Donne

Published in print February 2011 | ISBN: 9780199218608
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks of Literature

 The epigram

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  • Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)
  • Literary Studies (Poetry and Poets)


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Epigrams, in a small space, transmit the grammar of death, having originated as inscriptions on tombs or buildings, encomia, or memorial markings, an origin that even in the ancient world tended towards satire and, by Donne's time, had expanded to include not only engraved lapidarian testaments but brief, saucy, and racy riddles that a resident at the Inns of Court might well find scratched on the surface of his door or wall. These were a brief, pointed, poetic version of the graffi to or Pasquil, as Puttenham intimated in his description of the genre as written ‘vpon a table, or in a windowe, or vpon the wall or mantel of a chimney in some place of common resort, where it was allowed every man might come’. This article traces the importance of Donne's epigrams. His epigrams were his earliest poems, instructive microcosms of his poetic achievement. In fact, the importance of Donne's poetry to his age might reside less in the rather uneven quality of his Latin and English epigrams themselves than in their contribution to what has been called ‘the epigrammatic transformation’ of English poetry in the late sixteenth century.

Keywords: epigrams; Donne's epigrams; English epigrams; English poetry; Puttenham

Article.  7901 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Literary Studies (1500 to 1800) ; Literary Studies (Poetry and Poets)

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