How do I explain the epigrams in “An Essay on Criticism”?

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An epigram is "a witty, ingenious, and pointed saying that is tersely expressed." The key aspect of an epigram is its "terse expression"—an epigram packs a great deal of meaning into a single phrase. Popular culture is full of epigrams, and you are probably familiar with many already. Consider the following examples:

"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."
—Eleanor Roosevelt

"Never interrupt an enemy making a mistake."
—Napoleon Bonaparte

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple."
—Oscar Wilde

I chose these examples to give you a sense of how powerful epigrams are at transmitting ideas. Each example contains layers of meaning. In order to explain an epigram, you need to "unpack" those layers.

I'll unpack an epigram from Alexander Pope's famous "Essay on Criticism" here, to show you what I mean.

"A little learning is a dang'rous thing."

The first layer of meaning here is the literal meaning of the words: "a little learning" (in the sense of "a little bit of education") is...

(The entire section contains 544 words.)

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