SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY IDEAS OF WIT: AN INTRODUCTORY CHAPTER
ONE IS CONSCIOUS of a greater homogeneity in early seventeenth-century poetry than in the poetry of any other age except the Augustan and the word 'wit' has been generally accepted as an inclusive designation. Except with the very limited connotations with which we are familiar in everyday usage, the word went out of circulation as a critical term after the eighteenth century, when it was, in fact, so taken for granted that even Johnson thought it unnecessary to define it when writing at length on the subject in his Life of Cowley. His critical study opens:
The ode on wit is almost without rival. It was about the time of Cowley that Wit, which had till then been used for Intellection, in contradistinction to Will, took the meaning whatever it be, which it now [ 1779] bears.
Johnson is quite inadequate here, of course, but it is pretty clear that in the seventeenth century wit had a special and individual meaning. As a general description the suggestions put forward by Mr Eliot in the essay on Marvell have not really been surpassed:
We are baffled in the attempt to translate the quality indicated by the dim and antiquated term wit into the equally unsatisfactory nomenclature of our own time. . . . It is confused with erudition because it belongs to an educated mind, rich in generations of experience; and it is confused with cynicism because it implies a constant inspection and criticism of experience. It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible. . . .
I want to re-examine what seventeenth-century poets and critics