Amatoritsero Ede


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”[1] 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.”[2] 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”[3], 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.


Pages: 1 2 3


Miklos Legrady October 8, 2015 at 9:19 pm

This editorial is a jewel, an acrobatic and aerial dance of language. It combines scholarship with poetics and just blows me away. Congratulations.

Miklos Legrady October 8, 2015 at 10:06 pm

The editorial starts out great and that’s a mark of brilliance. I was pleased with the formal lesson that ends in the bubonic, although the word “elegiac” always has a mysterious hint to it. Like others who have said the same I like a bit of education in my reading, learning the new or being reminded of a higher level of language. The rest of the page is easy to follow as a general background till page 2 where we encounter the dangers of a little learning, where conflict rears its conflicting head. Now I want to know what false wit is, and I learn that it is the less serious and less refined, more common form. By this point I never thought I’d be attending a lecture on the finer points of wit but I love it, and it’s a good showcase for obviously doctorate level knowledge you’re sharing with us.

Coincidentally, I made a choice today of serious subject matter over a comic one for the very same reasons you describe. And yet I find I also want to make another version that’s the more plebeian jest. I thought my joking iconoclasm had become a habit, embedded itself in my blind spot so it might have alienated the public. In your essay even from the start I felt it would have to come to this point on page two, of notions of quality, of what is cheap and what is high. I love the way you write… “the ‘true wit’ of the Greeks as distinct from that Latinate impostor introduced by Martial Ausonius”. The spices you put into your sentence, the flavour of pronunciation that turns a sentence into a lush carpet.

Jar Din is great, I’m enjoying reading this and forming a respectful understanding of the depth of your studies, the knowledge you bring to us. The introduction of literature is so that the reader’s mind is educated and enlarged by following the twists and turns of thoughts by the master. Often great literary figures introduce new ways of twisting a sentence which then becomes a tool available to all. This is how mind, though, and language grows. That entire paragraph of deconstructing jar din the way you have sliced it into cultural layers allows us to ride on the surfboard of your thoughts on the waves of comprehension. It’s like a coach helping someone exercise so their muscles get stronger. (Then later below I read exactly the same thought of how poets expand language.)

“That language is arbitrary and difficult to master does not mean that there are no agreed units, rules and modes of signification.” Exactly the argument I am having with the art world who say that we cannot judge a work of art nor it’s quality. I will be quoting this editorial in later essays. I’ve said all that needs be on Duchamp and Benjamin and want to focus on quality in art. Your editorial is timely, and perhaps that’s synchronistic or shows how ideas may be culturally spreading across many at one time.

OMG! “plunderverse”. Here in literature you’re discussing exactly the “ready made” I was castigating in art. And your arguments are great, I’ll be quoting those too. And yes, critics crying “fowl” is hilarious. Page 3 starts with advice directly from you to me on how to go about my work. You are definitely a contemporary poet. For the refined reader will know you’re including yourself and totally justified in doing so, since we’re convinced by the mastery of your language.

Wow, Amatoritsero, impressed, especially with the second half of page 3. Very clear thinking that can also be told to the visual art audience. I am totally impressed and congratulate you on a great editorial.

Web developer October 9, 2015 at 1:42 am

Thank you, Miklos. I am happy you enjoy this editorial, which I first originally wrote around 2006, and published in the Sentinel Online Poetry journal that I was editing back then. I was not even in the PhD program when I wrote this, so it was just a working poet’s professional reflection.


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