Wit and Witticisms
English poetics of the Augustan period, that is, from the 17th through the 18th century, was ambivalent about the deployment of wit- ‘false wit’- in its poetry particularly and prose generally. In Roger D. Lund’s “The Ghosts of Epigram, False Wit, and the Augustan Mode” he refers to George Williamson (1961), who quotes Robert South thus: “[b]revity and succinctness of speech is that, which in philosophy or speculation, we call maxim, and first principle; in the counsels and resolves of practical wisdom, and the deep mysteries of religion, oracle; and lastly, in matters of wit, and the finenesses of imagination, epigram.”
Generally an epigram is a short witty saying; but in the Augustan sense it could be an epigrammatic couplet standing as a stanza or a longer short poem in couplets, as a legitimate form within a hierarchy including the epic, the dramatic, the lyric, the elegaic, the epoenetic and the bucolic. Lund notes that the epigram was the most problematic in rhetorical legitimacy for the critics of the day, like John Dryden, Joseph Addison or even Alexander Pope, who nevertheless wrote several epigrams himself or who, according to J. Paul Hunter “brought the couplet – already the dominant form of English poetry for more than a century – [and one of the chief characteristics of the epigram] to its most finished state of formal perfection and at the same time popularized its accessible conversational ease.” Before we proceed, here is an example from Pope’s “Essay on Criticism:
A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Although those lines are excerpted from a much longer poem, and were not composed in the usual short forms epigrams come in – especially in the epigrammatic epitaph – it can nevertheless stand alone as an epigram. It is complete as an epigram, with rhyming couplet (or the heroic couplet), equivocation in the first line, pun in ‘draughts as juxtaposed against ‘drinking’ and closure and surprise in the last line where the drunken becomes magically sober from more drinking. The ring of the first line sounds like a maxim, or a truth although it is built on the fiction and sloganeering and the myth of the Pierian spring; its truth is closer to fiction than to that of logic, philosophy or science. Now let us take another example from the same ‘Wit’ – for these poets with such quick turns of sharp utterances where also referred to as wits:
See how the World its Veterans rewards!
A Youth of frolicks, an old Age of Cards,
Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
Young without Lovers, old without a Friend,
A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot,
Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot!
The above is quoted by Lund, who notes the emphasis on antithesis – common in Pope, for example in the long poem, “Essay on Man”, and in the Augustan epigram generally – which we can equate with the equivocation in the first example due to the similarity in rhetorical move.
Such was the hold of the epigram on the 18th century that in spite of its “equat[ion] with the exploitation of puns and conceits that everyone conceded to be forms of false wit”, it was nevertheless difficult to exorcise the poetic imagination of the day of what, in the first place, made it ‘witty’. One reason for the paradox can be deduced from Hunter’s assertion that there was a grey area between writing and talking in the 18th century and that active conversation was an art that was cultivated and diligently pursued in coffee houses – especially in the city. As such the close approximation of the Augustan epigram to everyday speech, embellished with couplets and equivocations, antithesis, ‘the point’ or closure and surprise and humour, had popular appeal; besides these epigrams where the main content of ‘miscellanies’, which were ‘textbooks’ on cultivated speech and ‘universal truths’ and a part of the education of young men of class. This popularity made it easy to simply anchor formal metric features unto popular speech, insinuating a sophistication of wit – for all it is worth, with the results passing for elevated literary speech while managing to maintain the distinction between prose proper and poetry.