Epigraphs are a funny kind of thing. For a body of work as insular as a book, an author choosing to begin one’s own words with the words of another, the inclusion of an epigraph is akin to appointing a gatekeeper at watch. It may have taken me a full week and some change to firm up and put, pen to paper, an epigraph for my agenda and theme this year, but I found mine.
The older I get, the less impressed I become with originality. These days, I’m far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity as a quiet resonance that never fails to stir me. (Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert)
Much like my love for digesting first lines of novels, and some memoirs, I look to epigraphs as a clue. A key, mind you, that will help me to access deeper meaning and messaging of the author. For a memoir essay I submitted for publication years ago, I led my own story with an epigraph.
Much like an amuse-bouche, a well chosen epigraph gives a delicious promise of what is yet to come.
Epigraphs may seem trivial and trite, but I look to them as an indication of what was inspirational to the author during, or through the result of, creating the book, essay, or poem.
Read on for 15 great epigraphs to inspire your own plans for this new year.
You are all a lost generation. — Gertrude Stein in conversation (The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway)
In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones. — Sufi proverb (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)
Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. –C.K. Chesterton (Coraline by Neil Gaiman)
If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. — Juan Ramón Jiménez (Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury)
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!” — Thomas Parke D’Invilliers (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
… and so who are you, after all?
— I am part of the power which forever wills evil and forever works good. — Goethe’s Faust (The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov)
Lawyers, I suppose, were children once. — Charles Lamb (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question. — Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat (The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri)
No one knows how to love anybody’s trouble. — Frank Stanford (Look! Look! Feathers by Mike Young)
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal. — William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by J.K. Rowling)
I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant. — Miss Peggy Lee (Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion)
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. — Ecclesiastes (The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton)
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? — Paradise Lost, X, 743-45 (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
Behind every great fortune there is a crime. — Balzac (The Godfather by Mario Puzo)
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.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance. — (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
And one more, a bonus, because I love Tom Robbins so dang much, and I could devote a list entirely to the brilliance of his use of epilogues. And, of course, it must be of Kafka, who I read ridiculously early in life, and who ignited my obsessive love of literature.
You don’t need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Don’t even listen, simply wait. Don’t even wait.
Be still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you.
To be unmasked, it has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet. —Franz Kafka (Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins)
What is your favorite epigraph? Better yet, what is leading your inspiration this year?