Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Use of Epigraphs in Literature

For those of you who find this post interesting, check out the subsequent posts: Of Poetry and Epigraphs, Part 1 and Of Poetry and Epigraphs, Part 2.    

Any of you who read "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder" will notice that I included an epigraph at the beginning of the book -- a portion of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Lines: When the Lamp is Shattered."
     First I should say that I'm a lover of poetry; in my younger days I found good poetry too difficult to be enjoyable as everyday reading, but in later years, I've taken to reading and studying it more deeply and now I'm really appreciative of poetic expression.  When I wrote "Monster," I considered what poem might enhance the meaning of the book and this particular poem of Shelley's came to mind.  I don't think it's one of his best; its imagery is too chaotic and full of mixed metaphors.  However, that very chaos and confused rhetoric fits what happens in my novella, where everything is falling apart like a bird's nest in a windstorm.  The meaning of the word "love" is discussed in the book and at the end Kaitrin Oliva is certainly left "naked to laughter" -- exposed and vulnerable.  So I thought that this poem would serve to reinforce the meaning of the book, if you'll take the trouble to go back and think about it.
     In fact, that's the problem I always have with chapter epigraphs.  It's been awhile since I read Frank Herbert's "Dune," but I remember he uses epigraphs.  After every chapter I would go back and study the epigraph in relation to the chapter and I could never see any connection between the two! 
     I've said earlier that I use epigraphs in "The Termite Queen" and I sincerely hope that readers will be able to discern their relationship with the text!  I could publish the story without the epigraphs -- it would certainly be simpler for me because of the permissions thing -- but I think the quotations endow the book with a significantly deeper layer of meaning.   
     Here's an example:  The first very brief chapter is told in the thoughts of the Shi Ti'shra, the Worker who has been abducted by aliens and turned into a lab specimen.  Of course it has no eyes, but it has plenty of other senses, and it's lying there in a glass cubicle, in a state of total sensory deprivation, with nobody to talk to or touch, dying of xenotoxic infection syndrome and starvation -- completely harmless and at the mercy of its captors.  And what epigraph do I use?  "... eyeless in Gaza ... among inhuman foes ... " (Milton's "Samson Agonistes").  This adds an ironic touch of the mock heroic and alters the perspective; to Ti'shra, it's the humans who are inhuman and its fellow Shshi who are "human."  I also use a quotation from "Samson" on the chapter where Ti'shra dies (" … Death who sets all free / Hath paid his ransom now and full discharge.")  And later when the team finds that the Shshi have built a cairn of stones in memory of their lost fellow, I use "There will I build him a monument," etc., preserving that gentle mock heroic tone right to end of Ti'Shra's role.
     The early portion of the love affair between Kaitrin and Griffen reminded me of a comedy of manners as I was writing it, so I use quotations from Congreve's "Way of the World," which is the only 18th century play I like (not my favorite literary period).  Mirabell and Mrs. Millamont seemed to perfectly reflect my hero and heroine. The use of that comparison also suggests a timelessness -- the same sort of male-female relationship that could happen in 1700 could also happen in the 30th century.
     In the second section of the book, which is laid on the spaceship taking the team from Earth to the exoplanet, I introduce sea imagery, maybe a not-so-original metaphor for space and its dangers but effective just the same.  They "set sail" with the 10th-century poem "The Seafarer" and end with Rabindranath Tagore's "On the seashore" -- "The sea plays with children / and pale gleams the smile of the sea beach" --  slightly sinister imagery that conveys a hint of foreboding, especially since the sea beach they are approaching is the planet 2 Giotta 17A where the giant termites live.  What indeed will that place bring to them in the end?  
     So my hope is that whenever I do get this published, the reader will pay attention to the epigraphs and recognize the depth they impart to the story.


  1. Hello Lorinda. Beautifully written, thought inspiring piece. I've been trying to remember the last mainstream contemporary novel I read that featured epigraphs. Jennifer Egan's wonderful novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, has one (Proust, I believe) at the beginning. But, I'll confess that I never thought much about it's relation to the text. Guess that makes me a lazy reader? As for the epigraphs in Dune you reference, which I read ages ago, I remember little of them as well. What I *do* recall, however, is that there was much between the epigraphs--especially in book 4, God Emperor of Dune--that made not an iota of sense to this rather immature reader. Too much of Leto ruminating about the tension between his human-self and worm-self. Ugh. It would've taken an amazingly resonant epigraph, I suspect, to get through to me. I am looking forward to reading "The Termite Queen."

  2. Thank you, Jack! Nothing a writer likes to hear more than "Looking forward to reading your book!" As for Dune, I've always thought Frank Herbert had a horribly obtuse writing style and it got worse with time. I think I read the first four Dunes and then the fifth started with an interminable philosophical discussion among a bunch of those women who rule his universe (I forget what you call them). Finally I just gave up. Herbert definitely lived in his own world.

  3. When you mentioned that you had a post about epigraphs, the first thing I thought of was Dune. It may be unique to science fiction, but it seems that SF authors love to use epigraphs from fictional authors. I found some of Herbert's very interesting, but as you said, sometimes the connection is less obvious (like invisible). I do love Dune, and even like the next couple of books, but they definitely go downhill in quality.

    About poetry: I gorged on poetry in my teens, even tried my hand at writing it, studying all the forms. It dropped out of my life somewhere along the way, which I regret. I keep thinking about taking it up again.

    And I have to agree about 18th C drama. Too artifical and stylized, as was practically everything from that century.

  4. Thanks for the comment! I always found Dune interesting but it never was my favorite book. I wrote poetry when I was a child and a teenager, but when I went to college, decided to major in English and learned more of what "real" poetry is all about, I gained so much respect for the form that I decided I could never do it justice, so I quit! But the odd thing is, after getting interested again in later years, one of my termites in the books that follow "Termite Queen" needed to compose poetry. And when I was "in his character," so to speak, I found could write some decent stuff (free verse - termite language can't have rhyme)! After all, he's an Orpheus character, so the words he speaks have to be as spellbinding as Orpheus's music (termites don't have music either - totally deaf)! Maybe I'll print one of his poems sometime on this blog!

    And that's all I'm going to say about those later books right now!

    P.S. Congreve's characters in "Way of the World" are amazingly well rounded and fully conceived for having been written in 1700.