Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. II. Ben Jonson to Dryden
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
 
Extracts from The Miscellanies: Ode of Wit
By Abraham Cowley (1618–1667)
 
TELL me, O tell, what kind of thing is wit,
        Thou who master art of it!
For the first matter loves variety less;
Less women love ’t, either in love or dress.
        A thousand different shapes it bears,        5
        Comely in thousand shapes appears.
Yonder we saw it plain; and here ’tis now,
Like spirits in a place, we know not how.
 
London that vents of false ware so much store,
        In no ware deceives us more.        10
For men led by the colour, and the shape,
Like Zeuxis’ birds fly to the painted grape;
        Some things do through our judgment pass
        As through a multiplying glass;
And sometimes, if the object be too far,        15
We take a falling meteor for a star.
 
Hence ’tis a wit, that greatest word of fame,
        Grows such a common name;
And wits by our creation they become,
Just so, as titular Bishops made at Rome.        20
        ’Tis not a tale, ’tis not a jest
        Admir’d with laughter at a feast,
Nor florid talk which can that title gain;
The proofs of wit for ever must remain.
 
’Tis not to force some lifeless verses meet        25
        With their five gouty feet.
All everywhere, like man’s, must be the soul,
And reason the inferior powers control.
        Such were the numbers which could call
        The stones into the Theban wall.        30
Such miracles are ceas’d; and now we see
No towns or houses rais’d by poetry.
 
Yet ’tis not to adorn, and gild each part;
        That shows more cost, than art.
Jewels at nose and lips but ill appear;        35
Rather than all things wit, let none be there.
        Several lights will not be seen,
        If there be nothing else between.
Men doubt, because they stand so thick i’ th’ sky,
If those be stars which paint the galaxy.        40
 
’Tis not when two like words make up one noise,
        Jests for Dutch men, and English boys.
In which who finds out wit, the same may see
In anagrams and acrostics poetry.
        Much less can that have any place        45
        At which a virgin hides her face;
Such dross the fire must purge away; ’tis just
The author blush, there where the reader must.
 
’Tis not such lines as almost crack the stage,
        When Bajazet begins to rage.        50
Nor a tall metaphor in the bombast way,
Nor the dry chips of short-lung’d Seneca;
        Nor upon all things to obtrude,
        And force some odd similitude.
What is it then, which like the power divine        55
We only can by negatives define?
 
In a true piece of wit all things must be,
        Yet all things there agree.
As in the ark, join’d without force or strife,
All creatures dwelt; all creatures that had life.        60
        Or as the primitive forms of all
        (If we compare great things with small)
Which without discord or confusion lie,
In that strange mirror of the Deity.
 
But love that moulds one man up out of two,        65
        Makes me forget and injure you.
I took you for myself sure when I thought
That you in anything were to be taught.
        Correct my error with thy pen;
        And if any ask me then,        70
What thing right wit, and height of genius is,
I’ll only shew your lines, and say, ’Tis this.
 
 
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