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VI.

MEANINGS OF THE WORD 'WIT' IN THE
ESSAY ON CRITICISM.

Among the writers of Pope's age the use of the word 'Wit' was much more common than it is to-day. We still employ the term to denote reason or intelligence, as, for instance, when we say of a dull man that 'he has not wit enough to understand the point,' or speak of a man, who is acting irrationally, as having 'lost his wits,' or as being 'out of his wits.' But in most cases we signify by 'wit' that juxtaposition of ideas which produces an amusing effect, and we also describe as a 'wit' any one who is fertile in devising such droll combinations of ideas. The word occupied a much more prominent position however in the vocabulary of Pope and his contemporaries, and it was applied with meanings of much wider range. Thus in the Essay on Criticism it occurs no fewer than forty-seven times and is used in at least seven different senses. To ascertain on each occasion its precise signification is a matter of some nicety and importance. Let us attempt to trace the evolution of its

various meanings.

The word 'wit' contains the root of wit-an, 'to know,' a root disguised in wis-dom. In its primary sense, therefore, 'wit' denotes (1) the knowing mind, the intellect, and hence (2) what the mind knows, viz., knowledge, learning, culture. The first meaning was afterwards narrowed to indicate, not the mind in its entirety, but certain special departments or faculties of the mind, viz., (3) reason, judgment, or common-sense, and (4) fancy, or imagination. From signifying imagination it came to signify also (5) the products of imagination, i.e. the analogies perceived in nature by the mind of the poet, and (6) the quaint and far-fetched analogies, or conceits, perceived by the mind of the fantastic poet. Lastly it denotes (7) those ingenious writers and thinkers whose highly developed faculty of imagination has endowed them with a special aptitude for detecting such

analogies. In this sense the term is obsolete. Possibly the people are obsolete too. Or it may be that the 'wits' of the Augustan age have their counterparts in the 'men of culture' of our own era1.

In the following paragraph the word 'wit' is referred to its appropriate meaning each time that it occurs in the Essay. The reference is in some cases of an arbitrary character: e.g. in lines 233 and 429 meanings (1) and (2) are equally suitable.

(1) Mind, intellect, mental power, also exceptional mental power, genius : 11. 17, 53, 61, 209, 233, 396, 400, 40, 429.; e.g., 'So vast is Art, so narrow human Wit.' (1.61)

(2) Knowledge, learning, mental culture, sometimes with an idea of disparagement (just as in our own age Mr Frederic Harrison and others wax contemptuous over 'the cant about culture'): ll. 259, 447, 456, 468, 494, 500598, 539, 552, 727e.g.,

To him the Wit of Greece and Rome was known.' (1. 727) (3) Judgment, common sense. In this meaning the term is a anaέ λeyóμevov in the Essay. Pope says, lines 80-1,

'Some to whom Heav'n in Wit has been profuse,
Want as much more to turn it to its use,'

1 The presentation of these meanings in a tabular form may be found useful for reference.

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in other words, 'Some people of rich Imagination require an equal amount of Judgment to employ it properly.' (See note to 1. 80.) Pope usually represents, however, that 'Wit,' meaning Imagination, is controlled by 'Sense.'

(4) Imagination, fancy, the characteristic faculty of the poet: 11. 80, 82, 243,441, 590,652, 657, 717, 722 : e.g.,

'For Wit and Judgment often are at strife.' (1.82)

(5) The discovery and expression of such analogies as produce pleasure or amusement: Il. 238, 297, 302, 303, 449, 531: e.g.,

'True Wit is Nature to advantage dress d.' (1. 297)

(6) The discovery and expression of such analogies as are quaint or far-fetched, called Conceits: 11. 28, 292.

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In search of Wit these lose their common sense.' (1. 28)

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'One glaring Chaos and wild heap of Wit.' (1. 292)

(7) Men of culture, ingenious writers, sometimes with a suggestion of contempt: 11. 36; 38, 45, 104; 153 199, 331, 479, 517, 539, 664 ♪ e.g.,

'Great Wits sometimes may gloriously offend.' (l. 152)

'Or one vain Wit's, that might a hundred tire.' (1.45)

'It was about the time of Cowley,' says Johnson, ‘that wit, which had been till then used for intellection, in contradistinction to will, took the meaning, whatever it be, which it now bears1.' Fitly indeed may we use Johnson's qualifying clause, 'whatever it be,' when speaking of the meaning of the word as used by Pope in the Essay. Yet in spite of Pope's want *of precision, the following idea is generally present and often predominant in the various connotations attaching to the term.

The perception of resemblances which are neither too obvious nor too recondite-this seems to be the distinguishing character istic of wit. Till Pope's time the term denoted generally the serious kinds of wit: more recently it has been restricted t、 comic wit. Macaulay uses it in the older and more respectable

Lives of the Poets, Cowley, p. 18.

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MEANINGS OF 'WIT.

sense when he says of Bacon, 'In wit, if by wit be

power of perceiving analogies between things which appear have nothing in common, he never had an equal1.' Addison has a series of papers in the Spectator2, on the subject of true and false wit, in one of which (No. 62) he quotes from Locke3 'an admirable reflexion upon the difference of wit and judgment.' 'Wit lying most,' says Locke, 'in the assemblage of ideas, and parting these together with quickness and variety wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up. pleasant pictures and agreeable visions in the fancy,-judgment, on the contrary, lies quite on the other side, in separating carefully, one from another, ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another.'

'This is, I think,' says Addison, 'the best and most philosophical account that I have ever met with of wit, which generally, though not always, consists in such a resemblance and congruity of ideas as this author maintains. I shall only add to it by way of explanation, that every resemblance of ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be such an one,as gives delight and surprise to the reader: these two properties seem 1 essential to wit, more particularly the last of them. In order

therefore that the resemblance in the ideas be wit, it is necessary that the ideas should not lie too near one another in the nature of things; for where the likeness is obvious it gives no surprise. To compare one man's singing to that of another, or to represent the whiteness of any object by that of milk and snow, or the variety of its colours by those of the rainbow, cannot be called wit, unless, besides this obvious resemblance, there be some further congruity discovered in the two ideas that is capable of giving the reader some surprise. Thus when a poet tells us, the bosom of his mistress is as white as snow, there is no wit in the comparison; but when he adds, with a sigh, that it is as cold too, it then grows into wit.'

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3 Essay on the Human Understanding, ch. XI. § 2.

2

INTRODUCTION.

VII.

PARAPHRASE OF THE ESSAY ON CRITICISM.

I.

1-8] Whether bad authorship or bad criticism implies the greater ignorance, is a point hard to settle, but bad criticism certainly does the more harm. A bad author tires out our patience, but a bad critic leads our judgment astray. Yet for one bad author we shall meet with ten bad critics.

9-18] On literary questions no two people hold exactly the same opinions, yet everyone regards his own opinion as infallible. If true genius is rare among poets, true taste is equally rare among critics. For the critic, as well as the poet, is born, not made. The man who claims the right of criticising others, should have given proof of ability to write well himself. No doubt authors have unduly high notions of their abilities, but so have critics of their acumen.

19-35] Most men are endowed by Nature with a rudimentary gift of taste and judgment, but then this is damaged by their pedantic course of study. Some lose their way altogether among the conflicting doctrines of different schools of philosophy. Others, whom Nature meant to turn out nothing worse than fools, have their heads turned by vanity, lose their small supply of common sense in the endeavour to pass themselves off as men of culture, and then take to criticism in defence of their own writings. Hatred, springing from a feeling of rivalry on the part of the pedants, and of impotence on the part of the coxcombs, drives them both alike to authorship, though literary skill may be lacking. Every empty-headed scribbler hopes to enjoy a triumph over his rival, and bad though he may prove to be as an author, there will be somebody else to cut still worse a figure as his critic.

36-45] Some who were taken at first for men of culture, and afterwards for poets, become critics and turn out mere fools

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