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2.9 From text to context - Std, ES and EAL/D

Let’s explore how context influences meaning through analysing an epigram, a witty saying. Such brief, well-selected words were traditionally popular ways to sum up a story, particularly fables. Advertisements work in the same way as epigrams and the sayings in fables, using short sharp statements which become associated with similar contexts.

What is an epigram?
Epigrams are a kind of microform, not unlike a well-composed Tweet. An epigram is a poetic form that is highly economical and often has a didactic purpose or, in other words, a purpose that is extremely pointed. This activity begins with an epigram by the romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘What is an epigram?’

  • Using Coleridge’s epigram, and with a partner, determine the characteristics of an epigram. What does Coleridge say about its length, wit, integrity or ‘completeness of idea’?  Share with the class your answers to the question: what is a dwarfish whole?
  • Read the following epigrams and choose one that impresses you, for example your interest might be drawn by its relevance to its time or to your own context or how the witty use of language gives you an insight into its context.
    • Give your reasons.

Comment on any similarities and differences between this epigram and Coleridge’s epigram.


Thomas Alva Edison:
Discontent is the first necessity of progress.

Anaïs Nin
It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before, to test your limits, to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

Catherine the Great
If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning.

Oscar Wilde
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.

Ernest Hemingway
Chapter Heading
  For we have thought the longer thoughts
And gone the shorter way.
  And we have danced to devils’ tunes,
Shivering home to pray;
  To serve one master in the night,
Another in the day.

Ernest Hemingway also wrote a short story in six words.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Thomas Bastard
Age is deformed, youth unkind,
We scorn their bodies, they our mind.

Dorothy Porter
My wife is no one’s moon.
I am no one’s sun.

These epigrams can be found at the following sites:

Design you own original epigrams about:

  • Drink driving
  • Speeding
  • Ignoring stop signs
  • Jaywalking
  • Using a mobile phone as you drive

Experimenting with text and context

This activity enables you to apply the concepts you have learned to an unfamiliar text.

John Donne was a poet, a politician and a cleric. In 1623 he fell dangerously ill and was expected to die. However, he recovered and during his convalescence wrote a series of devotions, the most famous of which is Meditation XVII – No Man is an Island, an extract of which is below. Donne’s devotions were published in 1624.

A meditation is a call to embrace a particular attitude at a particular point in time. The meditation, below, by John Donne is so famous that expressions such as No man is an island entire of itself and for whom the bell tolls are in common usage today. Meditations:

  • are contemplations on significant human experiences
  • are deeply personal
  • intended as guidance for others
  • often use a sustained image as an argument
  • are concise texts

No Man is an Island

'No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

  • Read Meditation XVII so slowly that you feel you can hear its voice speaking to you.
  • Visualise each idea in the text to 'see' the sequence of images. Describe or sketch what you can see.
  • After your class has discussed what No Man is an Island has to say about humanity, consider
    • the problem it presents and
    • the answers to this problem it offers.
  • Identify sentences, phrases or words in the text, if any, that are significant for you.
    You might want to consider:
    • What aspects of the world depicted in Meditation XVII resonate with the contemporary world
    • The values and attitudes presented by the author and their relevance.
  •  Donne’s meditation is effective in its use of imagery, comparison and sentence structure. Working with a partner discuss:
    • the contemplation he offers on human experience
    • the advice he offers others
    • imagery associated with the physical landscape
    • comparisons associated with scale
    • his use of sentence structure to create comparisons.

Experimenting with meditation:

Working with a partner and using the suggestions below, compose a meditation on a significant human experience. You might like to base it on a particular image as Donne does.

And therefore……

Like the texts on the Centre for Road Safety website, the extract from Donne’s meditation brings together ideas of community and mortality.
Write a brief meditation on a road safety issue for your own time and place.

Last update: 24th January 2019