S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
There is nothing more certain than that every man would be a wit if he could; and notwithstanding pedants of a pretended depth and solidity are apt to decry the writings of a polite author as flash and froth, they all of them show, upon occasion, that they would spare no pains to arrive at the character of those whom they seem to despise. For this reason we often find them endeavouring at works of fancy; which cost them infinite pains in the production. The truth of it is, a man had better be a galley-slave than a wit, were one to gain that title by those elaborate trifles which have been the inventions of such authors as were often masters of great learning, but no genius.
Every resemblance of ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be such a one that gives delight and surprise to the reader. These two properties seem 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.
As true wit consists in the resemblance of ideas, and false wit in the resemblance of words, according to the foregoing instances; there is another kind of wit which consists partly in the resemblance of ideas, and partly in the resemblance of words, which for distinction-sake I shall call mixed wit. This kind of wit is that which abounds in Cowley more than in any other author that ever wrote. Mr. Waller has likewise a great deal of it. Mr. Dryden is very sparing in it. Milton had a genius much above it. Spenser is in the same class with Milton. The Italians, even in their epic poetry, are full of it. Monsieur Boileau, who formed himself upon the ancient poets, has everywhere rejected it with scorn. If we look after mixed wit among the Greek writers, we shall find it nowhere but in the epigrammatists. There are indeed some strokes of it in the little poem ascribed to Musæus, which by that, as well as many other marks, betrays itself to be a modern composition. If we look into the Latin writers, we find none of this mixed wit in Virgil, Lucretius, or Catullus; very little in Horace, but a great deal of it in Ovid, and scarce anything else in Martial.
It is grown almost into a maxim that good-natured men are not always men of the most wit. This observation, in my opinion, has no foundation in nature. The greatest wits I have conversed with are men eminent for their humanity.
Sometimes [wit] lieth in pat allusion to a known story, or in seasonable application of a trivial saying, or in forging an apposite tale; sometimes it playeth in words and phrases, taking advantage from the ambiguity of their sense, or the affinity of their sound; sometimes it is wrapped up in a dress of humorous expression; sometimes it lurketh under an odd similitude; sometimes it is lodged in a sly question, in a smart answer, in a quickish reason, in a shrewd intimation, in cunningly diverting or cleverly retorting an objection; sometimes it is couched in a bold scheme of speech, in a tart irony, in a lusty hyperbole, in a startling metaphor, in a plausible reconciling of contradictions, or in acute nonsense; sometimes a scenical representation of persons or things, a counterfeit speech, a mimical look or gesture, passeth for it; sometimes an affected simplicity, sometimes a presumptuous bluntness, giveth it being; sometimes it riseth only from a lucky hitting upon what is strange; sometimes from a crafty wresting obvious matter to the purpose. Often it consisteth in one knows not what, and springeth up one can hardly tell how. Its ways are unaccountable and inexplicable, being answerable to the numberless rovings of fancy and windings of language.
As to its efficient cause, wit owes its production to an extraordinary and peculiar temperament in the constitution of the possessor of it, in which is found a concurrence of regular and exalted ferments, and an affluence of animal spirits, refined and rectified to a great degree of purity; whence, being endowed with vivacity, brightness, and celerity, as well in their reflections as direct motions, they become proper instruments for the sprightly operations of the mind; by which means the imagination can with great facility range the wide field of nature, contemplate an infinite variety of objects, and by observing the similitude and disagreement of their several qualities, single out and abstract, and then suit and unite, those ideas which will best suit its purpose. Hence beautiful allusions, surprising metaphors, and admirable sentiments, are always ready at hand.
Pope says, all the advantage arising from the reputation of wit, is the privilege of saying foolish things unnoticed; and it really is so, as to letters, or anything committed to writing. But I dont think it holds good with respect to conversation; for I have observed that where a man gets a reputation for being a little witty, all shun, fear, and hate him, and carp and canvas his most trifling words or actions.
Mr. Locke very justly and finely observes of wit, that it is chiefly conversant in tracing resemblances; he remarks, at the same time, that the business of judgment is rather in finding differences. It may perhaps appear, on this supposition, that there is no material distinction between the wit and the judgment, as they both seem to result from different operations of the same faculty of comparing. But in reality, whether they are or are not dependent on the same power of the mind, they differ so very materially in many respects, that a perfect union of wit and judgment is one of the rarest things in the world.
Edmund Burke: On the Sublime and Beautiful, Introduction, On Taste, 1756.
A wit is a very unpopular denomination, as it carries terror along with it; and people in general are as much afraid of a live wit in company as a woman is of a gun, which she thinks may go off of itself and do her a mischief. Their acquaintance is, however, worth seeking, and their company worth frequenting; but not exclusively of others, nor to such a degree as to be considered only as one of that particular set.
Lord Chesterfield: Letters to his Son, Oct. 12, 1748.
Wit, however, is one of the few things which has been rewarded more often than it has been defined. A certain bishop said to his chaplain: What is wit? The chaplain replied: The rectory of B is vacant; give it to me, and that will be wit. Prove it, said his Lordship, and you shall have it. It would be a good thing well applied, rejoined the chaplain.
Strong and sharp as our wit may be, it is not so strong as the memory of fools, nor so keen as their resentment: he that has not strength of mind to forgive, is by no means so weak as to forget; and it is much more easy to do a cruel thing than to say a severe one.
Wit is not the jerk or sting of an epigram, nor the seeming contradiction of a poor antithesis; neither is it so much the morality of a grave sentence, affected by Lucan, but more sparingly used by Virgil.
The composition of all poems is, or ought to be, of wit; and wit in the poet or wit writing is no other than the faculty of imagination in the writer, which searches over all the memory for the species or ideas of those things which it designs to represent.
These dull harmless makers of lampoons are yet of dangerous example to the public: some witty men may succeed to their designs, and, mixing sense with malice, blast the reputation of the most innocent.
Because the curiosity of mans wit doth with peril wade farther in the search of things than were convenient, the same is thereby restrained unto such generalities as, everywhere offering themselves, are apparent to men of the weakest conceit.
A wit, Mr. Rambler, in the dialect of ladies, is not always a man who, by the action of a vigorous fancy upon comprehensive knowledge, brings distant ideas unexpectedly together, who by some peculiar acuteness discovers resemblances in objects dissimilar to common eyes, or by mixing heterogeneous notions dazzles the attention with sudden scintillations of conceit. A ladys wit is a man who can make ladies laugh, to which, however easy it may seem, many gifts of nature, and attainments of art, must commonly concur.
If wit be well described by Pope, as being that which has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed, [Dryden and his contemporaries] certainly never attained nor never sought it; for they endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts, and were careless of their diction. But Popes account of wit is undoubtedly erroneous: he depresses it below its natural dignity, and reduces it from strength of thought to happiness of language.
If, by a more noble and more adequate conception, that be considered as wit which is at once natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that which he that never found it wonders how he missed; to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen. Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.
But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtility surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.
And hence, perhaps, may be given some reason of that common observation, That men who have a great deal of wit, and prompt memories, have not always the clearest judgment or deepest reason. For wit lying most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those 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 a way of proceeding quite contrary to metaphor and allusion; wherein, for the most part, lies that entertainment and pleasantry of wit, which strikes so lively on the fancy, and is therefore so acceptable to all people.
In wit, if by wit be meant the power of perceiving analogies between things which appear to have nothing in common, [Lord Bacon] never had an equal, not even Cowley, not even the author of Hudibras. Indeed, he possessed this faculty, or rather this faculty possessed him, to a morbid degree. When he abandoned himself to it without reserve, as he did in the Sapientia Veterum, and at the end of the second book of the De Augmentis, the feats which he performed were not merely admirable, but portentous, and almost shocking. On those occasions we marvel at him as clowns on a fair-day marvel at a juggler, and can hardly help thinking that the devil must be in him . Yet we cannot wish that Bacons wit had been less luxuriant. For, to say nothing of the pleasure which it affords, it was in the vast majority of cases employed for the purpose of making obscure truth plain, of making repulsive truth attractive, of fixing in the mind forever truth which might otherwise have left but a transient impression.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Lord Bacon, July, 1837.
Wit may be divided into two sorts, serious and comical. First, with respect to that which is serious or grave: the original signification of the Saxon word signifies wisdom; and therefore a witty was anciently a wise man, and so late as the reign of Elizabeth, a man of great wit signified a man of great judgment; and, indeed, we still say, if a man has the use of his reason, that he is in his wits, and if the contrary, that he is out of his wits. Serious wit, therefore, is neither more nor less than quick wisdom, or, according to Pope,
Second, as to comic wit: this is the general acceptation of wit among us, and is of the easiest kind; for it is much more easy to raise a laugh, than to excite admiration by quick wisdom . This wit in writing consists in an assimilation of remote ideas oddly or humorously connected, as in the poem of Hudibras, &c., but more particularly comic wit is applied to speaking and conversation, and the definition of Pope may be adopted: It is a quick conception and an easy delivery. In order to have wit for this purpose, the principal requisites are, a good imagination, a fund of ideas and words, and a fluency of speech; but all these will be insufficient unless the speaker know how to adapt his remarks and replies to particular persons, times, and occasions; and, indeed, if he would be truly witty, he must know the world, and be remarkably quick in suiting the smallest word or term of an expression to the subject.
I find no other difference between the common town wits and the downright country fools, than that the first are partly in the wrong, with a little more gaiety, and the last neither in the right nor wrong.
I take not wit in that common acceptation, whereby men understand some sudden flashes of conceit whether in style or conference, which, like rotten wood in the dark, have more shine than substance, whose use and ornament are, like themselves, swift and vanishing, at once both admired and forgotten. But I understand a settled, constant, and habitual sufficiency of the understanding, whereby it is enabled, in any kind of learning, theory, or practice, both to sharpness in search, subtilty in expression, and despatch in execution.
If wit is to be measured by the circumstances of time and place, there is no man has generally so little of that talent as he who is a wit by profession. What he says, instead of arising from the occasion, has an occasion invented for bringing it in. Thus he is new for no other reason, but that he talks like nobody else; but has taken up a method of his own, without commerce of dialogue with other people.