99. (William Empson)

Whatever else its relationship to genre, wit is a particular way of coping with the world’s fragility, its tendency to waste and isolation. Wit happens when the intelligence detaches itself from a situation in which that fragility is keenly felt and is able, by virtue of that detachment, not only to extract from it those dispersed and discordant elements that threaten to waste and isolate life, but to arrange them in a balanced design that makes them seem as inconsequential as ornament.

It stops short of madness in its never forgetting that they are more consequential than the design seems; wit is a temporary detachment only. It may resemble barbarism in the rejection of decorum required for the extraction and arrangement; but an acquaintance with decorum makes the apprehension of the elements possible in the first place. Finally, it is open always to the charge of insincerity, because the design holds up the arrangement as a bauble; but the operation is entirely sincere to its own purposes, which is to cast something in another light; hence it can be felt to hedge.

Baudelaire is a supreme wit; as is Marvell; as is Pope; as is Swift; as is Wilde; as is Christina Rossetti; as is Robert Lowell; as is Stevie Smith. They are all capable of taking a detached delight in the discord that threatens life with waste and isolation, by seeing in that discord patterns and harmonies which are irrelevant to the threat it poses. Wit is the art of refining the inessential from the consequential; it can be responsibly or irresponsibly achieved, depending on whether the consequential is forgotten entirely.

Wit can be a matter not only of invention, but of extraction and arrangement by observation; by recording in the right way. So it is that Christopher Ricks can affirm Geoffrey Madden’s journals as instances of wit. It is also why Carroll’s Alice books may be accounted witty: the madness and nonsense are not sources of wit, but are themselves the threats to the world, viewed from a vantage of detachment, placed within a design.

The curious case for me is William Empson. Empson, who proudly teased that T.S. Eliot invented some of his mind (how much, Empson wasn’t sure, but the implication was that the influence was too deep to measure), would seem nowhere more indebted to Eliot than in the latter’s characterization of wit, in the essay on Andrew Marvell (to which the above discussion is indebted). And Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral takes up a bevy of authors who might be thought exemplars of wit. And Empson’s own discussion of those authors, in terms of pastoral, suggests the connection between wit, waste, and isolation. But wit does not feature centrally in the book, even in the chapter on Marvell. Empson engages most with wit in The Structures of Complex Words attending to the word “wit” in Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.”

But Empson’s exegetical and lexicographical powers attend to a word’s range of meanings rather than a movement of intelligence. Perhaps Empson, along with all historicists, would claim that nothing more could be done, that the idea of a movement of mind characteristic of wit, is a platonic ideal; that Eliot is in a realm of illusion. But if it is a movement that we can see poets making throughout history, if it feels a fairly generalizable impulse of thought and feeling, which is covered by at least some of the senses of “wit” that Empson unearths, then there seems no reason that Empson might not have speculated on it. In the condemnation and praise implied by the word, in the worry over counterfeit claims and hollow pretensions that swarm around it in the poem, we might expect Empson at some point to take up (or on) Pope’s own wittiness, as it manifests in passages where the word does not appear. Instead, the chapter on Pope tells us as much as could be said in so many pages about Pope’s mental apparatus, fears, and sense of himself as a poet without touching on the quality of which Pope, in the view of Eliot (inventor of Empson’s mind), was a master. 

Granting that it is not the sole characterization of wit, I accept Eliot’s rough outline offered in the essay on Marvell, supplementing it with Empson’s own work on the MP from Hull; what’s more, I accept that the quality of wit as perceived in the roster of poets that Eliot proposes (Baudelaire, Dryden, Marvell, Pope, Swift) can be found in other poets, but not in all; that it is a quality that can be isolated and described, and that it is a quality that concerns a poet’s (or author’s) response towards the threat of waste and isolation. And following from this, there to my mind a real puzzle concerning Empson’s appreciation of wit, bearing on his criticism and poetry, perhaps touching on his inability to read Wallace Stevens with much enjoyment. For now, it’s all I can do to take the puzzle down from the shelf and to set out some of its pieces.


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