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Essays on Wit No. 2   By: (1600-1678)

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Series One:

Essays on Wit

No. 2

Essay on Wit (1748); Richard Flecknoe's Of one that Zany's the good Companion and Of a bold abusive Wit (second edition, 1665);

Joseph Warton, The Adventurer , Nos. 127 and 133 (1754); Of Wit (Weekly Register , 1732).

With an Introduction to the Series on Wit by Edward N. Hooker

The Augustan Reprint Society November, 1946 Price : 75c

Membership in the Augustan Reprint Society entitles the subscriber to six publications issued each year. The annual membership fee is $2.50. Address subscriptions and communications to the Augustan Reprint Society in care of one of the General Editors.

General Editors: Richard C. Boys, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan;

Edward N. Hooker, H.I. Swedenberg, Jr., University of California, Los Angeles 24, California.

Editorial Advisors: Louis L. Bredvold, University of Michigan; James L. Clifford, Columbia University; Benjamin Boyce, University of Nebraska; Cleanth Brooks, Louisiana State University; Arthur Friedman, University of Chicago; James R. Sutherland, Queen Mary College University of London.


The age of Dryden and Pope was an age of wit, but there were few who could explain precisely what they meant by the term. A thing so multiform and. Protean escaped the bonds of logic and definition. In his sermon "Against Foolish Talking and Jesting" the learned Dr. Isaac Barrow attempted to describe some of the forms which it took; the forms were many, and it is difficult to discover any element which they held in common. Nevertheless Barrow ventured a summary:

It is, in short, a manner of speaking out of the simple and plain way, (such as Reason teacheth and proveth things by,) which by a pretty surprizing uncouthness in conceit of expression doth affect and amuse the fancy, stirring in it some wonder, and breeding some delight thereto.

And about sixty years later, despite the work of Hobbes and Locke in calling attention to the importance of semantics, the confusion still existed. According to John Oldmixon ( Essay on Criticism , 1727, p. 21), "Wit and Humour, Wit and good Sense, Wit and Wisdom, Wit and Reason, Wit and Craft; nay, Wit and Philosophy, are with us almost the same Things." Some such confusion is apparent in the definition presented by the Essay on Wit (1748, p. 6).

In general it was recognized that there were two main kinds of wit. Both fancy and judgment, said Hobbes ( Human Nature , X, sect. 4), are usually understood in the term wit ; and wit seems to be "a tenuity and agility of spirits," opposed to the sluggishness of spirits assumed to be characteristic of dull people. Sometimes wit was used in this sense to translate the words ingenium or l'esprit . But Hobbes's disciple Walter Charleton objected to making it the equivalent of ingenium , which, he said, rather signified a man's natural inclination that is, genius. Instead, he described wit as either the faculty of understanding, or an act or effect of that faculty; and understanding is made up of both judgment and Imagination. The Ample or Happy Wit exhibits a fine blend of the two ( Brief Discourse concerning the Different Wits of Men , 1669, pp. 10, 17 19). In this sense wit combines quickness and solidity of mind.

In the other, and more restricted sense, wit was made identical with fancy (or imagination) and distinguished sharply from reason or judgment. So Hobbes, recording a popular meaning of wit, remarked ( Leviathan . I, viii) that people who discover rarely observed similitudes in objects that otherwise are much unlike, are said to have a good wit. And judgment, directly opposed to it, was taken to be the faculty of discerning differences in objects that are superficially alike. (Between this idea of wit as discovering likeness in things unlike, and the Platonic idea of discovering the One in the Many, the Augustans made no connection.) A similar distinction between wit and judgment was made by Charleton, Robert Boyle, John Locke, and many others... Continue reading book >>

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