When T.S. Eliot, in his essay on Andrew Marvell, offered his incomparably confusing characterization of “wit,” what was he onto? That he was onto something is clear less from his strained reach of eloquence than from his sequence of instances; Eliot’s eye for exemplary passages and for juxtaposition of passages was among his gifts as a critic and they delineate more clearly than the words he chooses.
Those famous words: With our eye still on Marvell, we can say that wit is not erudition; it is sometimes stifled by erudition, as in much of Milton. It is not cynicism, though it has a kind of toughness which may be confused with cynicism by the tender-minded. It is confused with erudition because it belongs to an educated mind, rich in generations of experience; and it is confused with cynicism because it implies a constant inspection and criticism of experience. It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every kind of experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible, which we find clearly in the greatest as in poets like Marvell.
Eliot’s words are suffused with the great critics before him and anticipate the great critics to come (they recall Coleridge’s description of the imagination, which Eliot had quoted in the essay; they modify Arnold’s “criticism of life”; they are indebted to Johnson’s antithetical discriminations; they quicken with Empson’s plangent admiration for ironic detachment and balance).
But they admit to their own uncertainty of discovery: the new territory being touched, the fog descends: “probably.”
What of that territory? What is Eliot charting? He is moving the word “wit” away from a mental faculty or, more narrowly, away from a clever verbal brilliance of epigrammatic proportion, and he is establishing it instead as a distinct attitude to life and the world. And in the examples Eliot gives, we find that there is not so much a scintillating potential for repartee and quip as there is a consistent attitude to life, which—from the sense Eliot offers of it—might, in lesser or other works of literature, coincide with that capacity and willingness for switch-blade verbal parries. What then is that attitude?
The extremes between which Eliot balances are erudition and cynicism; wit is not these, but is characterized by being critical and experienced. Here is where Eliot is perhaps least helpful; what great literature is not critical and experienced?
Another frame might be helpful, bearing in mind especially that Eliot has offered us instances from Baudelaire, LaForgue, Marvell, Swift and Dryden. Something akin to the dandy is in the back of his mind (so Wilde is not mentioned, but might be inferred, even if Eliot thinks less of him than of these masters of wit), but also something to do with genre.
Wit is not tragedy, comedy, pastoral, or satire, but it might coincide with some of these; most crucially, it might be understood by the same axes as these genres.
Christopher Ricks has distinguished comedy and satire thus: (paraphrasing): “Comedy means saying, these are evils in the world, but there is no changing them, so we should learn to get along with them.” “Satire is saying, these are evils in the world, but they should be otherwise, so we ought to rail against them.” Tragedy, I imagine, could be: “There are evils in the world, and they are too great to be endured; we can not make sense of tolerating them and we can not imagine changing them.” Pastoral, the most difficult to characterize, might be set out as follows: “these are evils in the world, and they are intractable, but they coincide inextricably with consolations that make the world tolerable.”
One axis by which genres are defined is toleration of evils in the world: “this can/must be tolerated” or “this must/can not be tolerated.” The difference between “must” and “can” in each depends on the interaction with the other axis (I would say that tragedy and comedy take “can” and pastoral and satire take “must”).
But I would modify the Ricks line in one way. Rather than evils, suppose “waste of life” and then along the other axis set another opposition: on one hand, the universe as abundant and fertile, and on the other, the universe as scarce and fragile.
This other axis by which they are defined is not derived from Ricks, but instead from an idea that is well expressed by Michael Wood, in his essay on William Empson (Wood is, along with Ricks, a sure guide to Empson) in the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism (it appears in vol. 7): Tragedy is the mode where the horror of waste finds its full accounting; and comedy redeems waste, recycles it for renewed and integrated used. Pastoral acknowledges waste and allows us to place it, to find room for it and to remember what else there is in life.
With tolerance or intolerance for waste on one axis and the abundance and scarcity of the universe on the other, we arrive at the following: Comedy says we can tolerate the evils of the world, and the universe is a place of abundance; tragedy says we cannot, and the universe is a place of unredeemed loss; pastoral says we must tolerate waste and the universe is a place of scarcity; satire says we must not tolerate waste and the universe is a place of abundance.
The Essential point to make is that the two aces are not casually dependent. Tolerance of waste does not arise from the view that the universe is abundant; intolerance does not rise from a sense of scarcity. The relation between tolerance and the view of the universe must be worked out differently in each work, for each author (Jonson and Shakespeare write comedies very differently). What’s more, the reasons for tolerance and the view of the universe differ from author to author.
(Another Essential point would be: waste takes many forms; there is the waste of life above all, which is itself diverse, ranging from idleness to thwarted potential, from untapped potential to massive destruction, from retirement from action to aimless action; and waste itself may be undeveloped resources, or mis-used, or resources allowed to corrupt).
One could imagine a chart of two intersecting axes (x and y), with abundance running upwards, scarcity downwards; with toleration of waste running to the left, with refusal to tolerate running to the right; we would therefore find satire in the quadrant with +1, +1 (refusing to tolerate; viewing the world as a place of abundance); comedy in (-1, +1); pastoral in (-1, -1; willing to tolerate; place of scarcity); tragedy in (+1, -1; refusing to tolerate; place of scarcity). And as a parlor game, authors could be set throughout the grid, with some perhaps deeper into the quadrants than others.
What Eliot is imagining, I think, are a set of authors who do not fit neatly into any of these quadrants; their wit comes from an uncertainty, or a consistently held double-perspective (and this is what he means by the ability to see another possible experience in any one experience). I think what it means is that these authors live along one axis or another. At first, I thought they must live along the axis that is undecided as to whether or not to tolerate; but I think it possible that they live along the axis of abundance/scarcity too. They walk these, like they are walking ridges, able to see down into the valleys on either side; at times descending into them. Hence Empson can read Marvell as a pastoral author in “The Garden”; and Dryden and Swift write from a position of wit, even though they also engage in savage satire; Gulliver”s Travels, I think, is in fact a work of wit, and is undecided in whether these things must change or can be tolerated.
The real hero of Eliot’s Marvell essay is French poetry of the nineteenth century (Eliot’s criticism establishes a pattern of illuminating as much the object of fleeting comparison as the primary subject who he intended to illuminate by comparing in the first place), and the instance he gives from the French dandy-satanist in the essay on Dryden (another hero of wit) seems a fine example of the trait that Eliot describes:
Avez-vous observe que maints cercueils de vielles
Sont presque aussi petits que celui d’un enfant?
[Have you ever noticed that often the coffins of old women | Are nearly as small as those of children?]
Eliot remarks: “Those lines are the work of a man whose verse is as magnificent as Dryden’s, and who could see profounder possibilities in wit, and in violently jointed images, than ever were in Dryden’s mind.”
But nonetheless Marvell is as near to Eliot as an English writer can be to exemplifying the attitude to wit. He does not call Marvell a great poet, but he does suggest that Marvell occupies a very strange place on the grid: perhaps at its center, the intersection of its axis, so that he looks into all four valleys at once. The curious detachment this implies is similar to irony, except that irony is everywhere in the four valleys. The “profounder possibilities in wit, and in violently joined” images are related, because the violence is necessary if those images are to look in two directions, or if they are to breathe the air of two or more valleys at once:
Who from his private gardens, where
He lived reserved and austere
(As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot)
Could be industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of Time,
And cast the kingdoms old
Into another mold.