The culture of the epigraph and where it’s going next
Most people who sit down to start writing fiction have almost innumerable influences that they consciously or unconsciously draw on. In fact many of our best-loved pieces of work comprise more than one voice, and many are veritable patchwork quilts of voices, until it seems that our literary history has been collaborative from the very beginning. Here are some of the ways writers have been confronting and honoring their influences over the past century and how the trend is evolving:
T S Eliot filled his opus poem The Waste Land with references to dozens of writers, Homer, Ovid,Saint Augustine of Hippo, Shakespeare, Hermann Hesse, Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker, to name but a few. Though it’s common practice to read the poem with the help of an annotated guide that contextualizes these references, the poem exists by itself unapologetic of its texture of borrowed voices. The references themselves are part of a complex network of influences. Shakespeare also read Ovid’s Metamorphoses for example, and Stoker was reportedly very influenced by Whitman and so on.
James Joyce made his Ulysses dense with references too and even with an annotated guide ten times the size of the work itself, the reading experience is at times hallucinatory, at times unintelligible. There is consequently a realm of stuff that lies behind and around the text itself, informing it and messing with it as we read. Different readers will have different reactions, not just because of how they relate to the story of Leopold Bloom in Dublin but because of their varying knowledge of the other sources.
More recently, Jorie Graham, in her collection Overlord takes her influences a step further. Overlord is not a typical collection; instead of a group of discreet, finished poems, it protests against finished-ness, presenting several “drafts” of some poems. Within one of these unfinished poems, “Disenchantment”, Graham reproduces a whole page of text from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Amid Graham’s reworkings comes Woolf’s unmistakable prose describing Mrs. Ramsey’s existential wonderings while observing the come and go of the lighthouse’s flare across the sea.
The epigraph is a form of this tradition that continues to be wide-spread and is as popular today as it was in the twentieth century. Many authors have dedicated their work to other writers by using quotes, infusing the story to follow with some quality of their admired contemporary or predecessor. Mary Shelley for example foreshadows her Frankenstein with this quote of John Milton:
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
Shelley fills the opening of the book with the sense of mystery and grandeur that Milton created in his epic poem. Eliot’s aforementioned The Waste Land also has an epigraph, taken from Petronius’ The Satyricon, which, when translated from the Latin and Greek, means “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.” This epigraph, as well as a dedication to Ezra Pound, has been scrutinized in the same vein as the poem itself.
So we see that behind the orderly shelves of the library of world-changing books lies a labyrinthine other library, of influences and collaborations. A network so vast that we will never be able to consider it in its entirety. And this has huge implications for where literature goes next, with our increasing dimensions of virtual interaction and influence to draw on and a more collaborative online writing culture.