164. (Herman Melville)

When T.S. Eliot characterized that peculiar mental life we and he call wit, he had in mind a metaphysical poet of the seventeenth century, Andrew Marvell, for whom “wit” would have encompassed “intelligence”; for Eliot, though, the wit of the seventeenth century was the highest species of intelligence: With our eye still on Marvell, we can say that wit is not erudition; it is sometimes … Continue reading 164. (Herman Melville)

102. (Samuel Menashe)

Samuel Menashe (American; 20th c.) is not a witty poet, despite having written one of the best modern poems on wit: Sharpen your wit– Each half of it– Before you shut Scissors to cut   Shear skin deep Underneath wool Expose the sheep Whose leg you pull   Wit is brief and bracing. It conjoins and affirms the suitability of the conjunction by the rapidity, … Continue reading 102. (Samuel Menashe)

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, … Continue reading 99. (William Empson)

97. (Oscar Wilde)

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon quips: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” The actors must have paused for laughter, because the next line turns the joke upon the audience. Jack asks: “Is that clever?” And Algernon saves the audience from the embarrassment of satire: “It is perfectly phrased! And quite as true as any observation should … Continue reading 97. (Oscar Wilde)

92. (Robert Lowell)

My mind is snared by wit, and Marvell’s wit in particular. The Greatness of that poet, once proclaimed, has burned out in critical conversation; but it was a real thought, mid-century, that he was very great indeed, and when Robert Lowell decided, in the 1960s, to ride the iambic tetrameter for many poems in Near the Ocean, he had the MP from Hull in mind. But … Continue reading 92. (Robert Lowell)

90. (Andrew Marvell)

Yesterday’s post on Andrew Marvell perhaps flew too high in abstraction; the thought that literature might be classified by tolerance of waste on the one hand and the abundance or scarcity of the world on the other could seem perversely arbitrary or narrow, even taking into consideration waste’s variety. But it can be defended. First from the guarded position that to claim these characteristics are … Continue reading 90. (Andrew Marvell)