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(1) In classical poetry, a short lyric poem of unspecified content written in the elegiac distich form. Eventually epigrams were written on certain specific themes. For example, they were often written as inscriptions on objects offered to the gods. Some epigrams were didactic, epitaphial, descriptive, or satirical in theme, while others were devoted to love or the joys of the table.
In Greek literature the epigram reached its peak in the work of the Hellenistic poets of the third century B.C. to the first century A.D. These made up the larger part of the Greek Anthology, a work in 16 books. In Roman literature the epigram flourished in the satirical works of Martial in the first century A.D The traditions of the classical epigram were continued in the Byzantine and Latin literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Later these traditions were only occasionally revived, notably in Goethe’s Venetian Epigrams.
(2) In modern European poetry, a short poem usually based on the contrast of a gradual exposition and a final witticism. Epigrams of this type are found in French poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries, based on motifs derived from Martial. They flourished in the 18th century in the works of Voltaire, J.-B. Rousseau, G. E. Lessing, R. Burns, and A. P. Sumarokov. A nontraditional epigram,which developed parallel to the traditional one, was written in direct response to topical, often political events. A. S. Pushkin wrote epigrams of both types. The first type includes works such as “Movement” and “The Curious One,” while the second type includes epigrams on A. A. Arakcheev and F. V. Bulgarin.
By the mid-19th century epigrams of the traditional type began to die out, while those of the topical variety continued as a minor genre. Topical epigrams were written by several 19th-century Russian writers, including D. D. Minaev, and are represented in Soviet literature by the work of A. Arkhangel’skii and S. Vasil’ev.
TEXTS AND REFERENCESGrecheskaia epigramma. Edited by F. A. Petrovskii. Moscow, 1960.
Russkaia epigramma vtoroi poloviny XVII—nach. XX v. Leningrad, 1975.
M. L. GASPAROV