Proverbs, Epigrams and Adages

William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence is written in four-foot iambic lines, which means four beats per eight syllable line. It moves along, which seems appropriate for the sayings included within. Here are two examples:

He who shall train the Horse to War

Shall never pass the Polar Bar.                             

The Beggar’s Dog and Widow’s Cat,

Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.

James Fenton, in his book, An Introduction to English Poetry, calls these proverbs. Later, he says many couplets such as these can stand by themselves as epigrams. What, I wondered, is the difference? Here is what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says.

A Proverb is a brief popular epigram; an adage, e.g., “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

An Epigram is 1) a concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought; and 2) a terse, sage, or witty and often paradoxical saying, e.g., “Remember that time is money.” B. Franklin

An Adage is a saying often in metaphorical form that embodies a common observation, e.g., “The early bird gets the worm.”

There seems to be some distinction when a phrase enters common language without attribution versus when the author is known and cited, as in the case of B. Franklin. Proverbs and adages and sayings apparently have entered the common domain and require no authorial attribution.

Among these definitions, epigrams seem the most interesting. Sadly, my rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter come off more like very bad greeting card entries.

The ugly squash will always be / the one that tastes so sweet to me.

The prettiest corn I’m shucking / has worms that are ripe for plucking.

The coupon for a dollar off / expires like a candle moth.

Poet Amy Gerstler in her book of poems called Bitter Angel, is not burdened by rhyming couplets. Her poems are mostly short prose essays. The book blurb on the back cover, written by Jorie Graham, says, very stylishly I think, that Gerstler’s work reveals “subtle yet energetic negotiations between the voltages of experimentation and the undertow of classical balance…driving narrative into the extended slow-motion conflagration of post-modern lyricism.” Goodness.

I decided to look for some epigrams in Gerstler’s book.  Here is one that I found, somewhat out of context:

The prick of the thistle revives

your faith that for every hurt

there is a leaf to cure it.



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