« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
antients had scarcely attained to it, before the deluge of gothic barbarity broke in, and swept away all the tender plants of literary genius.
THOUGH some of their early writers carried sublimity and beauty to their higheft perfection, yet were they in general utterly devoid of a just taste for that elegant and delightful artifice of composition termed wit, and their attempts in it were to the highest degree coarse and unpolished. Ovid had a brilliancy and artificial turn of fancy, which frequently produced true wit, but more frequently that false glitter which is only its counterfeit. Martial advanced so far as to give perfect models of his particular branch of wit, the epigrammatic; yet a prevailing number of faulty pieces demonstrates that he was void of judgment to distinguish the most excellent parts of a faculty which he possessed.
By the Lyric poets wit appears to have been quite unknown or disregarded. Anacreon and Horace, have indeed a gaiety and smartness of sentiment, but extremely different from the turn of thought in such modern pieces as we shall include in the present class.
A Taste for true wit foon followed the revival of learning and the fine arts in Europe ; for, modern literature being founded upon the classical remains of antiquity, had not a tedious gradation to go through, but acquired immediate refinement; and genius awaking from her long Number, seemed to proceed towards perfection as if she had never been interrupted. Italy, where the arts had been entombed, first felt the genial warmth of their revival. Every elegant production there shone forth with its wonted luftre; and wit, peculiarly favoured by the tem
per of the inhabitants, flourished more extensively and with greater brilliancy than it had ever done. From thence it made excursions into Spain and France, and came late, but in full vigour and maturity into England. After having in time refined itself from the debasing mixture of quibble and conceit, it became so universally admired and fought after, that a considerable period of English genius may be distinguished by the title of the witty æra. During this period, the dominion of wit was so extensive, that it usurped a place in several compositions where its presence was altogether improper, and foreign to the purpose ; this however does not appear to be the case with respect to its alliance with the Lyric muse, whose versatility of character is such, that she is capable of adapting herself to the sprightly and ludicrous., equally with the tender and pathetic.
Various writers have attempted to give a definition of wit, but like most of the qualities of thought, it is more easily described, and pointed out by instances, than defined. Opinion has considerably varied concerning the proper application of this term ; for while our oldest authors use it to signify knowledge and good sense in general, the succeeding restrain it to what is called fine writing, and its more modern fignification is still farther limited. Fine writing has been ingeniously defined to consist of thoughts, natural, but not obvious; the effects of which are, that besides the emotions or sensations excited by their particular nature, they also occasion a degree of pleasing surprize at their uncommonness. Surprize is also the effect which characterises wit; but in this it is so much more the object, that scarcely any other effect, except what secondarily results from it, is produced. The thought therefore is nei
ther obvious nor natural, but entirely artificial.
THE best definition of wit I take to be that of Locke and Addison, thus contracted by Lord Kaims: A junetion of things by distant and fanciful relations, which surprize because they are unexpected.
The figures of comparison, fimile, allufion, metaphor and allegory, being the most obvious means of junction between different objects, will, from this definition, appear to be the chief fources of wit. Comparison is used for various purposes, It is employed in grave and didactic subjects for the sake of illustration. In sublime and pathetic poetry it is used to elevate and adorn, and like a reflected light to redouble the effect of the simple object, For both these purposes it is evident, that the more complete the resemblance is, be