Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Art of the Epigraph

Ah, the art of the epigraph, that tantalizing bit of writing that is used by many authors to introduce their story, not always fiction.  What is interesting about these epigraphs, is that you are left with a puzzle, why did the authors choose those specific words?  And, as you read their words the authors' intentions are not always clear.

Any bit of writing is used--from the Bible, songs, poetry, politics, opera, Shakespeare and sometimes it is made up by the author to appear to be some well-known writing, but the epigraph is fiction as well, as F. Scott Fitzgerald's introduction to The Great Gatsby written by "Thomas Park D'Invilliers, who was not a poet, as Fitzgerald implied, but a character from another of his novels.

One of my favorites, and there are many, is from Ernest Hemingway in his novel, The Snows of Kilimanjaro,
Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and it is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Nghe Nghe”, the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude. (Hemingway, Kilimanjaro, 

A line from Pablo Neruda's poetry, the famous, XX, would be a terrific epigraph to a story about unrequited love, passion, or even something dark.

"Tonight I write the saddest lines, I loved her and sometimes she loved me too."  

What is your favorite?


  1. Hi Nat - I wish I was well read ... but I found this looking up epigraph ...: (I'm fond of Hippos!!)

    The broad-backed hippopotamus
    Rests on his belly in the mud;
    Although he seems so firm to us
    He is merely flesh and blood.
    "The Hippopotamus," T.S. Eliot
    (epigraph to The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry, 1994)

    But your example from Pablo Neruda ... would, I totally agree, be a terrific epigraph ...

    "Tonight I write the saddest lines, I loved her and sometimes she loved me too."

    The Snows of Kilimanjaro reminded me of a 2011 film of the same name based on a Victor Hugo poem (Les Pauvres Gens - Poor People) and from the song of the title:
    Pascal Danel's song Kilimandjaro, known in French as Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro

    Made me think .. cheers Hilary

  2. But you are well read Hilary. Who else could write such an amazing blog as you do.? Most of us know scraps of information and unless we have graduate degrees in everything, we just remember a few things, but the important thing is curiosity to and never stop learning. Tonight, our PBS TV station is featuring "Secrets of Westminster." As a lover of all things British, I will watch and will look up the song on my IPhone.

    1. Hi Nat - I hope it was interesting ... was it Ptolmey Dean, the Surveyor of the Fabric of WA? If it was he's very interesting .. and I'd like to see the programme again - just as all things I can't encompass everything I'd like to write about! I did use some of Ptolmey's tv programme in this post: and I see you commented!

      If it's the same programme it was very good .. cheers Hilary

  3. I usually make up my own epigraphs if I use them, and have never used one from another published source. I instead write them in a journal for inspiration when I need it. I collect them for personal pleasure. If it resonates with me, then I record the writer's name. I have included my fiction ones in some of my novel writing.
    This is an interesting topic, loverofwords!

  4. So you and FScott share the same creative pull, to use your words, no one else's, which in my mind puts you on a higher plane. But I do enjoy reading them from other authors, it sets up the story as you have it in mind as you read on. I checked FScott's other books and that was the only time he used an epigraph in the books I have.