This Begins with an Epigraph

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.”

– Michel de Montaigne

In the stone tower of his chateau in Dordogne, the sixteenth-century French writer Michel de Montaigne worked on his essays while surrounded by classical quotations painted on the oak beams of his study. Here, among the scenic vineyards within site of the Pyrenees, Montaigne had aphorisms of scholarly Horace, tragic Sophocles, introspective Lucretius, and of course the Bible, stenciled in red and green on the bare wooden joists and columns of the library. I like to think of Montaigne’s decorative fragments as a type of architectural adage, or epigraphic interior design. Indeed they served the same function that an epigraph does at the beginning of an essay or a novel, to introduce themes, spur anticipation, to pause for an initial reflection, to possibly connect the author to illustrious predecessors, and perhaps to also react against those same predecessors.

But epigraphs are probably theorized about as much as wallpaper is. Indeed the epigraph to a book, if it is thought about at all, is normally simply classified as another bit of paratextual adornment that is largely unimportant. In the Great Chain of Being that constitutes what occupies our literary attention, epigraphs are much lower than titles, perhaps only a bit higher than blurbs and ISBN information. For many, focusing too much on the epigraph would be, if I am to extend my architectural metaphor, as if we stayed in the foyer rather than entering the building. But as an ornate decorative doorknocker can tell us something about the owner of a house, so to can an epigraph tell us something about a book before we cross the threshold of its entrance. Epigraphs (and decorative door-knockers) may be rarely analyzed, but neither are they incidental. Whether we’re considering epigraphs while interpreting a literary text, or we’re utilizing them in our own writing, what we need is a general theory concerning their use. And so I tentatively offer some thoughts on epigraphs here.

First, what exactly is an epigraph (and for that matter what exactly isn’t it)? The epigraph is often confused with the “epitaph” (a commemoration of the dead) or the “epithet” (normally a derogatory statement), though no doubt an enterprising writer can come up with a single example that demonstrates all three terms. From the Greek “to inscribe,” (appropriate to my earlier rhetorical conceit the epigraph has always had a bit of the architectural about it) the etymology of the very word harkens to the representative lines chiseled at the bottom of a sculpture. Someone said those lines in marble before, and so as it is with the epigraph, which is always a quotation, whether from the author of the text it precedes, another writer, or from something completely fabricated. The epigraph is a particular species of reference or allusion, or for the more academically inclined among you a type of “heteroglossia,” or a “dialogic statement.” But what purposes does the epigraph serve, this artifact that is placed like some sort of relic from a Wunderkammer upon the entrance to one’s writing?

Most pragmatically, the epigraph is an acknowledgement, or perhaps more accurately an advertisement, which proclaims that the author is taking part in a literary conversation with venerable antecedents; that you’re not merely writing sui generis but that you participate in an important tradition – or depending on the epigraph in relation to the author, that they are subverting that tradition. This theory of the epigraph claims that these quotations are the author’s way of saying, “This is what has been said before, and what I have read, and shortly you will see what I think about it.” Herman Melville in the “Extracts” section of Moby-Dick (supplied by a “Sub-sub-librarian”) provided a staggering eighty epigraphs, ranging from the Bible to Charles Darwin (and, of course, including Montaigne). In his motley of quotations, Melville presented mythic, historical, theological, philosophical, and scientific morsels about cetology, demonstrating his encyclopedic familiarity with the subject, but also so as to act as an aperitif for the reader, before presenting a main course that said something new. Both the Renaissance humanist with his commitment to the Greek and Latin tradition, or the modernist and post-modernist with theirs to pastiche, bricolage, and tapestry are equally partisans in the army of the epigraph. All writing is a process of mixing and matching words not of your own invention: the epigraph serves as a literary memento mori to remind us of the literal transience of the individual text, and the eternal reality of all Literature. Epigraphs accomplish this task right at the moment before we set out on our individual journey through a given book.

Epigraphs are but one thread in this vast, intertextual tapestry that is the totality of all literature. If I can mix my metaphors a bit, epigraphs have a whole litany of close family members who are involved in the inescapable quality of literary interconnectedness. As we (rarely) speak words of our own invention, all of language is by definition “epigraphic” to varying degrees. Some of the epigraph’s cousins include the allusion, the reference, and the in-text quotation. Allusions can be cryptic or ambiguous, references academic and pedantic, and while the quotation within a text is the closest relative to the epigraph, it is the epigraph alone that is constructed as the antechamber to a particular work. In this sense an epigraph is more of a greeting, a motto, a summation, a banner, an aphorism, an adage, a cryptic fragment, or perhaps the novel’s yearbook quote. One could envision a transcendent hypothetical novel taking Melville in an even more extreme direction, a book that is a collection of nothing but epigraphs. The ancient Romans perfected a poetic genre which is sadly underemployed today, called the “cento,” whose name is both a pun on the word for hundred and for a type of garment assembled from disparate bits of fabric. And as a patchwork cloth is made of many squares, the cento was an original production composed from the lines of other poems written by different poets. Perhaps some enterprising experimental novelist could write a book that is a cento, constructed of nothing but epigraphs?

But the composition of any novel, or poem, or essay is an exercise in stitching together strange parts, the filching of organs that don’t belong to you and their reconstitution into a new being. A writer’s hands are the hands not of a surgeon, but of a taxidermist or mortician. Yet there is electricity in the writer’s trade! For what is assembled from these inert organs drawn from other bodies but a new body, with a new life? Appropriately enough consider the epigraph from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, drawn from the Romantics’ hero, John Milton. The blind Puritan wrote in Paradise Lost “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me Man, did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” Milton could have scarcely imagined that a brilliant young girl a century and a half hence would take his words and associate them with the monster that she birthed into the world. The epigraph serves to place Frankenstein in what Shelley saw as a canonical Miltonic tradition, and also to specifically give her monster a Miltonic cadence. Adam’s lament is thus connected to a creature made not by God but by science. For Shelley the quote serves to associate herself, Milton, and indeed Frankenstein with the tribe of tortured, creative makers, while emphasizing the ramifications of that creation upon the created. For indeed, the epigraph to Frankenstein, though entirely in the words of Milton, tells Shelley’s story in its entirety before the spine of the book is even cracked. “This shall be a tale of how a creature was abandoned by the ultimate Creator, a story that is our collective story.”

If Melville and Shelley placed their works within the lineage of an ancient guild of literature, some renegades kick against the strictures of that guild (and in the process affirm their membership all the more). Hunter S. Thompson chose an immaculate epigraph from Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century lexicographer, for his acid masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Good Dr. Johnson wisely and accurately said “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man,” an apt description of intoxication and one taken to heart in the addicted perambulations of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo (and a subtle message often lost on the legions of freshmen males who idolatrize Thompson’s strange book). But what Dr. Thompson does in his appropriation of Dr. Johnson is engage the later in a bit of shared humanity, a cord of empathy, across two centuries. What connects Dr. Thompson with his aviator glasses and his Hawaiian shirts (with mirror and razor in hand), to Dr. Johnson with his powdered wig and his spectacles (snuff box and pint glass in hand), is this common thirst and hunger that so often enlivened and endangered them. Thompson’s epigraph is not ironic, but every bit an announcement of membership as Shelley’s was. When he lived in San Juan, Thompson used to drink cheap rum and get stoned at his typewriter, punching out all of the letters of For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and The Old Man and the Sea at his Remington just to see if he could ascertain some of that theurgy Ernest Hemingway used in crafting those novels. We might consider Hemingway’s two epigraphs in The Sun also Rises, every bit the equal to Thompson’s in their paradoxical cheeky affirmation of self. One of the epigraphs Hemingway chose was a fragment delivered by his mentor Gertrude Stein “in conversation,” when she told the author that he was of a “lost generation,” and the other was from the book of Ecclesiastes. Papa’s ego was such that a side conversation with his friend and Solomon could share equal importance in the Kingdom of White Space that is the page.

Not all epigraphs need to actually be from real books, and indeed often times writers most engaged with the modernist injunction to “Make it new” have ironically deployed the artifice of the imaginary epigraph. As a conceit, the imaginary epigraph dresses up the joke (or the hoax) in the uniform of authenticity. Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald quoting Thomas Park D’Invilliers at the outset of The Great Gatsby, when D’Invilliers was himself a creation of Fitzgerald who first appeared in This Side of Paradise? Or what of the fictional quotations used by Jorge Louis Borges, or the extensive fictional epigraphs of Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune, with its quotations from books with names like the “Orange Catholic Bible?” And consider the bit of metaleptic fourth-wall breaking in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Mark Twain interrupts the beginning of your reading by duly informing you that “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Twain stands athwart Mount Parnassus and rejects the reductive tyrannies of symbol and didacticism. And as the good American confidence man that he was, he has no need to use the words of another man to accord us of his independence, but rather with pen on page and tongue in cheek he’ll epigraph all of us with his own radical injunction.

The cynical reader could interpret the utilization of epigraphs, especially Melville’s maximalist deployment of them, as baroque and affected pretension. In this straw man of a reader’s estimation, the epigraph’s primary purpose is to demonstrate the learnedness of the author. “These are the important things which I have read, am I not, by proxy, also important?” If I am searching my own soul, then sometimes my deployment of epigraphs has a bit of that gloss about it. Why the quotations of Shakespeare, the Bible, Montaigne (of course), and one memorable time Johnny Cash? Truthfully, in part it is to demonstrate those things that I know. But more importantly, it is to present those things which I love. That is the practice of epigraph as talisman, as good luck charm, as fragment shored against the ruin and used as a North Star for one’s own frightening and uncertain task of moving west into writing not yet discovered. We need our maps after all, and past writers are the cartographers who with the compass of book and the sextant of pen explored that terrae incognito before us. And as no traveler should set sail without a St. Christopher medal firmly around their neck, epigraphs serve for me as relics, bits of consolation to make me feel less alone when engaged in that solitary act of writing. That way, the epigraph is more properly thought of as a faithful act of humility, for contrary to the curiously American affliction which pretends that the best creative writing is the most minimalist, and the most authentic is that which pretends as if it was produced by an untutored, simple primitive, the epigraph is an admission that the author (indeed no author) is truly or completely original.

Because the history of literature is nothing but the recounting of one giant conversation involving millions of people chattering for thousands of years, one engaged by every person with a head and every human with a tongue. The epigraph is a potent reminder that even though writing is inescapably always about appropriation, that composition is also always conversational. Even the manuscript written in private and burnt has an imaginary audience in mind, and all words are words of another. Where the individual’s freedom lay is in her choice of the order in which those beads are strung onto their string. The epigraph is a message from the collective body of all literature produced by all people explaining that by necessity we are standing on the shoulders of giants (even if we are ourselves very short). Even Christ quoted Euripides to Paul, telling him that it is “hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” and indeed it is hard to ignore that ground which constitutes all letters written before us. Rather than kick against that ground, the epigraph is a reminder of how fertile that soil actually is.


Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, and a contributor at several different sites. He can be followed on his website, or on twitter @WithEdSimon.