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The reader may observe in every one of these instances, that the poet mixes the qualities of fire with those of love; and in the same sentence, speaking of it both as a passion and as real fire, surprises the reader with those seeming resemblances or contradictions that make up all the wit in this kind of writing. Mixt wit, therefore, is a composition of pun and true wit, and is more or less perfect as the resemblance lies in the ideas, or in the words : its foundations are laid partly in falsehood, and partly in truth: reason puts in her claim for one half of it, and extravagance for the other. The only province, therefore, for this kind of wit, is epigram, or those little occasional poems, that in their own nature are nothing else but a tissue of epigrams. I cannot conclude this head of mixt wit, without owning that the admirable poet out of whom I have taken the examples of it, had as much true wit as any author that ever writ; and, indeed, all other talents of an extraordinary genius.
It may be expected, since I am upon this subject, that I should take notice of Mr. Dryden's definition of wit; which, with all the deference that is due to the judgment of so great a man, is not so properly a definition of wit, as of good writing in general. Wit
, as he defines it, is “a propriety of words and thoughts adapted to the subject." If this be a true definition of wit, I am apt to think that Euclid was the greatest wit that ever set pen to paper: it is certain there never was a greater propriety of words and thoughts adapted to the subject, than what that author has made use of in his Elements. I shall only appeal to my reader, if this definition agrees with any notion he has of wit. If it be a true one, I am sure Mr. Dryden was not only a better poet, but a greater wit, than Mr. Cowley; and Virgil a much more facetious map than either Ovid or Martial.
Bouhours, whom I look upon to be the most penetrating of all the French critics, has taken pains to show, that it is impossible for any thought to be beautiful which is not just, and has not its foundation in the nature of things; that the basis of all wit is truth; and that no thought can be valuable, of which good sense is not the ground-work. Boileau has endeavoured to inculcate the same notion in several parts of his writings, both in prose and verse. This is that natural way of writing, that beautiful simplicity, which we so much admire in the compositions of the ancients; and which no
body deviates from, but those who want strength of genius to make a thought shine in its own natural beauties. Poets who want this strength of genius to give that majestic simplicity to nature, which we so much admire in the works of the ancients, are forced to hunt after foreign ornaments, and not to let any piece of wit, of what kind soever, escape them. I look upon these writers as Goths in poetry, who, like those in architecture, not being able to come up to the beautiful simplicity of the old Greeks and Romans, have endeavoured to supply its place with all the extravagancies of an irregular fancy. Mr. Dryden makes a very handsome observation on Ovid's writing a letter from Dido to Æneas, in the following words: “Ovid (says he, speaking of Virgil's fiction of Dido and Æneas) takes it up after him, even in the same age, and makes an ancient heroine of Virgil's new-created Dido; dictates a letter for her, just before her death, to the ungrateful fugitive; and, very unluckily for himself, is for measuring a sword with a man so much superior in force to him on the same subject. I think I may be judge of this, because I have translated both. The famous author of the Art of Love has nothing of his own; he borrows all from a greater master in his own profession, and, which is worse, improves nothing which he finds : nature fails him, and being forced to his old shift, he has recourse to witticism. This passes, indeed, with his soft admirers, and gives him the preference to Virgil in their esteem.”
Were not I supported by so great an authority as that of Mr. Dryden, I should not venture to observe, that the taste of most of our English poets, as well as readers, is extremely Gothic. He quotes Monsieur Segrais for a threefold distinction of the readers of poetry: in the first of which he comprehends the rabble of readers, whom he does not treat as such with regard to their quality, but to their numbers, and the coarseness of their taste. His words are as follow : “Segrais has distinguished the readers of poetry, according to their capacity of judging, into three classes. (He might have said the same of writers too, if he had pleased.). In the lowest form he places those whom he calls Les Petits Esprits ; such things as are our upper-gallery audience in a play-house; who like nothing but the husk and rind of wit; prefer a quibble, a conceit, an epigram, before solid sense and elegant expression: these are mob readers. If Virgil
and Martial stood for parliament-men, we know already who would carry it. But though they make the greatest appearance in the field, and cry the loudest, the best on't is, they are but a sort of French Huguenots, or Dutch boors, brought over in herds, but not naturalized; who have not lands of two pounds per annum in Parnassus, and therefore are not privileged to poli. Their authors are of the same level, fit to represent them on a mountebank's stage, or to be masters of the ceremonies in a bear-garden : yet these are they who have the most admirers. But it often happens, to their mortification, that as their readers improve their stock of sense, (as they may by reading better books, and by conversation with men of judgment,) they soon forsake them.
I must not dismiss this subject without observing, that as Mr. Locke, in the passage above-mentioned, has discovered the most fruitful source of wit, so there is another of a quite contrary nature to it, which does likewise branch itself out into several kinds. For not only the resemblance, but the opposition of ideas, does very often produce wit; as I could show in several little points, turns, and antitheses, that I may possibly enlarge upon in some future speculation.
No. 63. SATURDAY, MAY 12.
Humano capiti cervicem pictor equinam
HOR. It is very hard for the mind to disengage itself from a subject in which it has been long employed. The thoughts will be rising of themselves from time to time, though we give them no encouragement; as the tossings and fluctuations of the sea continue several hours after the winds are laid.
It is to this that I impute my last night's dream, or vision, which formed into one continued allegory the several schemes of wit, whether false, mixed, or true, that have been the subject of my late papers.
Methoughts I was transported into a country that was
filled with prodigies and enchantments, governed by the
the waters; at the same time that dolphins and several kinds of fish played upon the banks, or took their pastime in the meadows. The birds had many of them golden beaks and human voices. The flowers perfumed the air with smells of incense, anibergrease, and pulvillos; and were so interwoven with one another, that they grew up
in pieces of embroidery. The winds were filled with sighs and messages of distant lovers.
As I was walking to and fro in this enchanted wilderness, I could not forbear breaking out into soliloquies upon the several wonders which lay before me, when, to my great surprise, I found there were artificial echoes in every walk, that by repetitions of certain words which I spoke, agreed with me, or contradicted me, in everything I said. In the midst of my conversation with these invisible companions, I discovered in the centre of a very dark grove, a monstrous fabric built after the Gothic manner, and covered with innumerable devices in that barbarous kind of sculpture. I immediately went up to it, and found it to be a kind of heathen temple consecrated to the God of Dul
Upon my entrance I saw the deity of the place dressed in the habit of a monk, with a book in one hand and a rattle in the other. Upon his right hand was Industry, with a lamp burning before her; and on his left, Caprice, with a monkey sitting on her shoulder. Before his feet there stood an altar of a very odd make, which, as I afterwards found, was shaped in that manner to comply with the inscription that surrounded it. Upon the altar there lay several offerings of axes, wings, and eggs, cut in paper, and inscribed with
The temple was filled with votaries, who applied themselves to different diversions, as their fancies directed them. In one part of it I saw a regiment of Anagrams, who were continually in motion, turning to the right or to the left, facing about, doubling their ranks, shifting their stations, and throwing themselves into all the figures and countermarches of the most changeable and perplexed exercise.
Not far from these was a body of Acrostics, made up of very disproportioned persons. It was disposed into three columns, the officers planting themselves in a line on the left hand of each column. The officers were all of them at least six foot high, and made three rows of very proper men; but the common soldiers, who filled
between the officers, were such dwarfs, cripples, and scarecrows, that one could hardly look upon them without laughing. There were behind the Acrostics two or three files of Chronograms, which differed only from the former, as their officers were equipped (like the figure of Time) with an hour-glass in one band and a scythe in the other, and took their posts promiscuously among the private men whom they commanded.
In the body of the temple, and before the very face of the deity, methoughts I saw the phantom of Tryphiodorus the Lipogrammatist, engaged in a ball with four-and-twenty persons, who pursued him by turns through all the intricacies and labyrinths of a country dance, without being able to overtake him.
Observing several to be very busy at the western end of the temple, I inquired into what they were doing, and found there was in that quarter the great magazine of Rebuses. These were several things of the most different natures tied up in bundles, and thrown upon one another in heaps like faggots. You might behold an anchor, a night-rail, and a hobby-borse bound up together. One of the workmen seeing me very much surprised, told me, there was an infinite deal of wit in several of those bundles, and that he would explain them to me if I pleased. I thanked him for his civility, but told him I was in very great haste at that time. As I was going out of the temple, I observed in one corner of it a cluster of men and women laughing very heartily, and diverting themselves at a game of crambo. I heard several double rhymes as I passed by them, which raised a great deal of mirth.
Not far from these was another set of merry people, engaged at a diversion, in which the whole jest was to mistake one person for another. To give occasion for these ludicrous mistakes, they were divided into pairs, every pair being covered from head to foot with the same kind of dress, though perhaps there was not the least resemblance in their faces. By this means an old man was sometimes mistaken for a boy, a woman for a man, and a Black-a-Moor for an European,