Abraham Cowley – “Ode: Of Wit”

One more poet who was so highly appreciated in his times that he was buried in Westminster Abbey, but hardly anybody reads him now. In “Ode: Of Wit” the poet addresses an anonymous person who is in his opinion the master of it, asking them to tell him what wit is. In London, where so many things are on sale, people sometimes flock to counterfeit wit, like birds, according to the legend, flocked to the grapes painter by the ancient painter Zeuxis, but it’s not the real thing. Then he goes through all the meanings of wit, dismissing them one by one. Wit is not a joke told at a party, nor florid talk, because it should be something more lasting. Wit is not the ability to compose poetry and force words into “five gouty feet”, i.e. badly composed pentameter, because wit should be all-permeating, like soul to body. It’s not about coming up with unusual figures of speech, because when they are just tacked on awkwardly, they are like jewels attached to a lip or a nose (little could Cowley predict about modern trends in body adornment). Wit is not puns, because they are good for boys, and not bawdy humour, because if the reader blushes, the author should too. It’s not the pompous speech one can hear in the drama. So what is this thing, which like God, can be defined only negatively, through all the things it is not? In a true piece of wit all things must be combined harmoniously, like the animals who lived peacefully together on the Ark. Finally in the last stanza we reach some kind of hint that the addressee could be a beloved person (of either sex, Cowley AFAIK never married). Love makes one man out of two, and it made me identify myself too much with you, he apologizes, because I thought you could be taught anything about wit, like I could. So please, correct these lines with your pen, and then if anybody asks me what wit is, I’ll point to this poem and say this is it, adds Cowley, mixing self-flattery with a compliment, because he essentially says “this poem is witty, but only thanks to my editor”.


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