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Do Epigraphs Matter?

HOW DO EPIGRAPHS work? Standing between the title and the text, they (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “indicate the leading idea or sentiment” of a work, but this vastly simplifies the real situation, which has more to do with action than meaning. Epigraphs escort us safely across the boundary between the title page and the story. Easing us into narrative, epigraphs make us pause and notice the transition from the world to the work, from life to the novel. They slow us down—which is why we often skip them.

In the introduction to her new compendium on “the art of the epigraph,” Rosemary Ahern notes that she is always surprised when someone claims not to read epigraphs: to her, this is “an offering refused, a pleasure skipped,” something like turning down tea and cookies. In Ahern’s imagination, epigraphs domesticate literature, wrapping us in the cozy blanket of “the author’s sensibility.” The friendly epigraph, she says, “remind[s] us that writers are readers” just like us. Other commentators see epigraphs as authorial strutting—a way to impress readers with the depth and the breadth of the writer’s literary knowledge. Yet neither the intimate nor the cynical view of the epigraph accurately captures its most basic function: it reminds us that the creation of literature is a social act.

In removing these epigraphs from their sources, The Art of the Epigraph attempts an impossible task and achieves an interesting failure. A symbiotic literary form, the epigraph cannot survive alone. Although Ahern offers some explanatory context for many of her selections, these brief descriptions can not restore to readers the deep roots that anchor epigraphs in the fertile ground of their hosts. If it floats alone, the epigraph is merely a quotation. Epigraph collections are therefore rare (though The Art of the Epigraph does have a few Tumblr cousins).

But quotation collections have a storied past, and The Art of the Epigraph belongs to that long tradition, which stretches from the Renaissance florilegia and commonplace books, which gathered the “flowers” or “jewels” of lifetimes of reading, to books like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and Victorian collections of the “wit and wisdom” of famous novelists. Ahern follows the conventions of such collections, and divides her compilation topically: “Life,” “Love,” “Follow Your Bliss,” “Know Thyself,” and “Tell the Truth” strive with “Human Folly,” “Warnings and Lamentations,” and “Bitter Truth.” Relativism is given a nod (“A Matter of Perception”). Philosophy is not neglected (“The Existential Epigraph”), nor are the ladies (“An Excellent Thing in a Woman.”) Quotes from the Bible to P.J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores, from Daniel Defoe’s The History of the Devil to Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time rub elbows between the blue covers of this appealingly bound and designed little book.

But epigraphs, as their rich history shows, are not just quotations, and in relegating this book to the Bartlett’s bucket we risk losing a sense of the epigraph’s distinctiveness. Epigraphs (or “mottos” as they were often called) first became popular in Europe during the early eighteenth century, accompanying the growing phenomenon of middle-class reading. Before this moment, to be literate was to be well-versed in the classical tradition. If you could read English, you were likely also familiar with the work of authors like Ovid, Horace, and Virgil. Writers didn’t need the obviousness of an epigraph to tether themselves to previous writers. Their work was shot through with their reading, and their readers almost effortlessly tracked their implicit references to the literary tradition.

But as the middle-class reading public materialized in the middle of the eighteenth century, almost no self-respecting publication could do without an epigraph. Emerging readers knew the English but not necessarily the classical tradition; they needed a path, a map of literary culture. Epigraphs stuck like burrs to the title pages of books of history, travel, and poetry, and even graced reference works such as Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary. (Johnson’s epigraph from Horace’s Epistles nervously invoked the classical tradition to authorize neologism: New words he’ll use if sanction’d they shall be/ By custom—parent of all novelty.) In this way, epigraphs allowed an author to rightly place (and justify) their work as a piece of the ever-growing literary conversation.

As the century wore on, the epigraph spread to the novel, taking up residence at the head of every chapter of Gothic novels, such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. Walter Scott’s historical romances, Fenimore Cooper’s adventures, and Balzac’s realist novels used epigraphs liberally. Some novelists even began to make them up. George Eliot invented almost half of Middlemarch’s chapter epigraphs; Scott and Stendhal were known for similar fabrications. These made-up epigraphs dramatized in miniature the novelist’s vexed relation to the idea of literary tradition. Ahern catalogs several examples of such fictional (or potentially fictional) epigraphs here, including those by Flann O’Brien and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Isolated from the novels they once fortified, however, any sense of textual interplay is lost, despite Ahern’s best efforts to fill in some of the context. 

As Ahern’s catalog progresses, the book begins to give a sense of the ongoing literary conversation. The nineteenth-century novel, the scene of so many struggles over epigraphic authority, becomes a rich resource for more recent writers. A sentence from George Eliot“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence”appears as the epigraph to Carol Shields’s Unless, Henry James’s The Ambassadors, and Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies. It is also used in Dickens’s David Copperfield and fronts Sybille Bedford’s A Compass Error in slightly—probably deliberately—misquoted form. (A Compass Error makes further epigraphic mischief by taking for itself one of the epigraphs Eliot invented for Middlemarch.) Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm opens by commanding “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” the first line of the final chapter of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Austen in fact goes on to dwell on quite a bit of guilt and misery, and this jokingly self-conscious complexity reverberates throughout Gibbons’s own parodic novel. Such nuances are necessarily clipped in a collection such as this one.

The most compelling part of The Art of the Epigraph is Ahern’s collection of those curious moments when literature brushes up against the language of commerce or politics. In “Unexpected Sources,” Ahern collects epigraphs from advertisements, museum guides, political speeches, grammar textbooks, comic books, and children’s literature; they are “unexpected”—though Ahern does not say so—because they are decidedly unliterary. Though this section’s epigraphs draw almost entirely from twentieth-century works, the appeal of the unliterary epigraph stretches back to the beginning of the epigraph tradition itself, via Moby Dick’s opening catalog of miscellaneous whale knowledge (part of which Ahern includes here under “Human Folly”) and the advertisement for shoe-blacking that opens Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee, from 1836. The less-than-literary epigraph may be unexpected, but it is the most dramatic demonstration of what all epigraphs are designed to do—make us notice that that creation of literature is a shared act between author and reader. When we read a decidedly unliterary phrase as the first words of a literary work, we are forced to notice the flickering moment when we pass from the world to the book—when words become literature. 

So it may be that when we begin collecting epigraphs, we end by dispersing the very social relations that make literature meaningful. The Art of the Epigraph’s epigraph, drawn from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, says that books “continue each other in spite of our habit of judging them separately.” This is true—but it might not be the whole truth. For though we like to imagine the autonomy of a world of books that speak to one another, separate from our own fallible judgments and best guesses and wishful thinking, it may be that all we have are groups of readers, gathering in circles around the glimmering lights of our authors’ epigraphs, building literature together one line at a time.

Rachel Sagner Buurma is Assistant Professor of English Literature at Swarthmore College.