The Proper Wit of Poetry

The Proper Wit of Poetry

The Proper Wit of Poetry

The Proper Wit of Poetry

Excerpt

Stand close around, ye Stygian set,
With Dirce in one boat convey'd!
Or Charon, seeing, may forget
That he is old and she a shade.

LANDOR

For our time the wit of seventeenth-century poetry was first defined by T. S. Eliot. His tentative definition was later narrowed by F. R. Leavis to a 'line of wit' that extended to Pope. Although a modern concern, this is not a new topic of criticism. In Pope's time, moreover, the theory of poetic wit was reformulated by Addison -- out of the explorations of Dryden. For their century the great 'wits' were Donne and Cowley, but our time often prefers a third. Marvell was not a wit for Addison, but in his prose satires he used and appreciated The Rehearsal , Etherege, Dryden, Hudibras, Donne, Rochester, and even 'Bishop Davenant' of Gondibert . And in poetry, we are inclined to think, his range of wit was exceeded by none. Yet the droll Marvell whom Dryden mentioned was the prose satirist.

But one thing must be said for Addison: he wrote before the tradition of wit was broken. In criticism the consequence of this break, for which Addison prepared the way, becomes clear when Hazlitt, in The English Comic Writers , defines wit and imagination as opposites: 'Imagination may be said to be the finding out something similar in things generally alike, or with like feelings attached to them; while wit principally aims at finding out something that seems the same, or amounts to a momentary deception where you least expected it, viz. in things totally opposite.' For Hazlitt the object of imagination is to magnify, of wit to diminish; and the purposes of wit are served by superficial resemblances . . .

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