These are brief quotations at the beginning of a poem, story, novel, or chapter that are often taken from other works of literature. They serve to set a specific tone, suggest a theme, or create a larger context.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel Tender Is the Night has an epigraph from John Keats' “Ode to a Nightingale." The epigraph includes the line Fitzgerald used for the title:
Already with thee! tender is the night . . .
. . . But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
But the connections do not end there. An entire essay could be written on the way the poem and novel intertwine. Put briefly, the two works both engage the similar subject matter of human mortality.
Epigraphs don't have to be quotes from other works of poetry or fiction. Vladimir Nabokov's epigraph for his novel The Gift comes from A Textbook of Russian Grammar by P. Smirnovski:
“An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable."
Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye includes an epigraph from the scientist Stephen W. Hawking's nonfiction book A Brief History of Time:
“Why do we remember the past, and not the future?"
Sharon Olds' poem “Calvinist Parents" has two epigraphs. One comes from a review of her earlier book The Unswept Room:
“Sometime during the Truman Administration Sharon Olds's parents tied her to a chair, and she is still writing about it."
The other is from Prescott Sheldon Bush Jr., George H.W. Bush's brother, on his father's method of discipline.
Some authors even invent the epigraph. In his novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald used an epigraph from the fictional poet Thomas Parke D'Invilliers that appeared as a character in his novel This Side of Paradise.