More than ever, we need to keep our wits about us. If our shared reality seems increasingly topsy turvy, our need for wit – as a way of seriously and playfully experimenting with language and digesting diverse experiences – must be at its greatest. It’s a subject we’ll be exploring closely on my upcoming online course, Keeping Our Wits.
But what does it mean for a poem to have ‘wit’? The 17th century – a boom time for satirical and subversive art, from Samuel Johnson to James Gillray – offers some answers. Alexander Pope defined wit as “What was oft thought, but ne’er so well expressed”. Joseph Addison distinguished between true (finding similarities in disparate things) and false wit (puns). William Davenant gets it closer when he called it “the Soul’s Powder, which when suppressed (as forbidden from flying upward) blows up the restraint.” Wit, for him, meant blowing up restraints, using language explosively.
The self-proclaimed Augustans of the 18th century demurred. They thought that the poetry of earlier ages had been barbaric or, at best, imperfect. It would take until after the First World War for T S Eliot to take seriously the jagged beauty of Marvell, Donne and others. These writers had that mix of passion and impersonality he craved. Browning and Tennyson may have written copiously and thought hard but, as Eliot put it, they didn’t “feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.”
Could there be any more explosive an example of thought, feeling and odour so perfectly aligned than this anonymous 17th-century encomium to a fart? It opens with a regal toot:
I sing the praises of a fart.
That I may do’t by rules of art,
I will invoke no deity,
But butter’d peas and furmity
Just so you can capture the exact reek the anonymous poet is going for, you should probably know that “furmity” was a dish of wheat boiled in milk and seasoned with cinnamon and sugar. And though no deity is invoked, this ditty is firmly placed at the rear of a grand tradition:
When Virgil’s gnat, and Ovid’s flea,
And Homer’s frogs strive for the day,
There is no reason in my mind,
That a brave fart should come behind
The poet doesn’t shirk from comparison to music and scholarship either:
Music is but a fart that’s sent
From the guts of an instrument:
The scholar but farts when he gains
Learning with cracking of his brains…
And to learn the abstracting art,
What does he get by’t? Not a fart.
The recent horrors of the Civil War are implicitly rendered as a massive farting contest:
The soldier makes his foes to run
With but the farting of a gun;
That’s if he make the bullet whistle,
Else it’s no better than a fizzle:
Finally, the poet assumes a zen-like attitude to poetry itself and the worldly success that’s unlikely to be theirs:
They are but farts, the words we say,
Words are but wind, and so are they.
Applause is but a fart, the crude
Blast of the fickle multitude…
As soon as born, they by and by,
Fart-like, but only breathe and die,
The ending is an indifferent sphincterate shrug in the reader’s direction:
What I have said, take in good part,
If not, I do not care a fart.
And that’s not to mention one of the most majestic couplets in the English language:
And if withal the wind do stir up
Rain, ’tis but a fart in syrup.
Here we see the “intense levity” that Eliot praised in Marvell: the expression of high skill and delirious play, the poet’s light-heartedness never quite de-odorising the tragic stench.
Marvell himself mastered a wildly inventive, twisted kind of imagery that echoed the chaos of the Civil War period. Think of the way he describes himself and his “coy mistress” as “amorous birds of prey”, faced with the choice of either devouring time or being devoured by its “slow-chapped power”. In the midst of such stark choices – devour or be devoured – poetry provided a rare form of respite and resistance.
The influence of 17th century wit, though not openly talked about, is everywhere apparent nowadays. Take this randomly plucked example, a bitingly witty and beautiful poem by Brenda Shaughnessy called ‘Magic Turns to Math and Back’, which begins:
If time were tellable, we wouldn’t keep asking.
Our faces would stop turning to face
the faceless face.
Enough with the hands meeting twice a day.
Enough of expecting change
at the same hour.
Immediately Shaughnessy’s speaker is self-conscious and self-aware about their use of language: in what sense do clocks tell the time? If, in fact, they tell us very little then what are we really asking them? She satirises the anthropomorphic way we talk about clocks, with their “faces” and “hands” endlessly “turning” and “meeting” (but never changing). Maybe, as the mordant undercurrent in these first few lines suggests, clocks are a way of forestalling change, of facing away from death. Keeping your wits means always keeping your eyes open, puncturing false sentiment and sententiousness.
Over the five assignments and feedback sessions of my upcoming course, Keeping Our Wits, we’ll be devouring a variety of old and contemporary work, sharpening our wits and generating new writing. Far from being any one thing, said Abraham Cowley, wit is where “all things must be”. As such, I want to treat wit as a field of experimentation: a way of being fanciful and serious at the same time, yoking together like and unlike, and, of course, blowing up restraints.