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CHAPTER XIII: Wit - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 1 
Elements of Criticism, Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 vols. Vol. 1.
Part of: Elements of Criticism, 2 vols.
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Wit is a quality of certain thoughts and expressions: the term is never applied to an action nor to a passion, and as little to an external object.
However difficult it may be, in many instances, to distinguish a witty thought or expression from one that is not so; yet in general it may be laid down, that the term wit is appropriated to such thoughts and expressions as are ludicrous, and also occasion some degree of surprise by their singularity. Wit also in a figurative sense expresses a talent for inventing ludicrous thoughts or expressions: we say commonly, a witty man, or a man of wit.
Wit in its proper sense, as explained above, is distinguishable into two kinds; wit in the thought, and wit in the words or expression. Again, wit in the thought is of two kinds; ludicrous images, and ludicrous combinations of things that have little or no natural relation.
Ludicrous images that occasion surprise by their singularity, as having little or no foundation in nature, are fabricated by the imagination: and the<382> imagination is well qualified for the office; being of all our faculties the most active, and the least under restraint. Take the following example.
You knew (none so well, none so well as you) of my daughter’s flight.
1 That’s certain; I, for my part, knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal.
Merchant of Venice, act 3. sc. 1.
The image here is undoubtedly witty. It is ludicrous: and it must occasion surprise; for having no natural foundation, it is altogether unexpected.
The other branch of wit in the thought, is that only which is taken notice of by Addison, following Locke, who defines it “to lie in the assemblage of ideas; and putting those together, with quickness and variety, wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures and agreeable visions in the fancy.”* It may be defined more concisely, and perhaps more accurately, “A junction of things by distant and fanciful relations, which surprise because they are unexpected.”† The following is a proper example.
Wit is of all the most elegant recreation: the image enters the mind with gaiety, and gives a sudden flash, which is extremely pleasant. Wit thereby gently elevates without straining, raises mirth without dissoluteness, and relaxes while it entertains.
Wit in the expression, commonly called a play of words, being a bastard sort of wit, is reserved for the last place. I proceed to examples of wit in the thought; and first of ludicrous images.
Falstaff, speaking of his taking Sir John Colevile of the Dale:
Here he is, and here I yield him; and I beseech your Grace, let it be book’d with the rest of this day’s deeds; or, by the Lord, I will have it in a particular ballad else, with mine own picture on the top of it, Colevile kissing my foot: to the which course if I be enforc’d, if you do not all shew like gilt twopences to me; and I, in the clear sky of fame, o’ershine you as much as the full moon doth the cinders of the element, which shew like pins’ heads to her; believe not the word of the Noble. Therefore let me have right, and let desert mount.
Second part, Henry IV. act 4. sc. 6.2
I knew, when seven justices could not take up a quar-<384>rel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an if; as, if you said so, then I said so; and they shook hands, and swore brothers. Your if is the only peacemaker; much virtue is in if.
For there is not through all nature, another so callous, and insensible a member, as the world’s posteriors, whether you apply to it the toe or the birch.
Preface to a Tale of a Tub.
The war hath introduced abundance of polysyllables, which will never be able to live many more campaigns. Speculations, operations, preliminaries, ambassadors, palisadoes, communication, circumvallation, battalions, as numerous as they are, if they attack us too frequently in our coffee-houses, we shall certainly put them to flight, and cut off the rear.
Tatler, No. 230.4
Speaking of Discord,
She never went abroad, but she brought home such a bundle of monstrous lies, as would have amazed any mortal, but such as knew her; of a whale that had swallowed a fleet of ships; of the lions being let out of the tower to destroy the Protestant religion; of the Pope’s being seen in a brandyshop at Wapping, &c.
History of John Bull, part 1. ch. 16.
The other branch of wit in the thought, namely, ludicrous combinations and oppositions, may be traced through various ramifications. And, first, fanciful causes assigned that have no natural relation to the effects produced:<385>
Fare you well, Falstaff; I, in my condition, Shall better speak of you than you deserve.
I would you had but the wit; ’twere better than your dukedom. Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me; nor a man cannot make him laugh; but that’s no marvel, he drinks no wine. There’s never any of these demure boys come to any proof; for thin drink doth so overcool their blood, and making many fish-meals, that they fall into a kind of male green-sickness; and then, when they marry, they get wenches. They are generally fools and cowards; which some of us should be too, but for inflammation. A good sherris-sack hath a twofold operation in it: it ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish, dull, and crudy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes; which deliver’d o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second property of your excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood; which before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale; which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice: but the sherris warms it, and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extreme; it illuminateth the face, which, as a beacon, gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart; who, great, and puff’d up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage: and thus valour comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a<386> devil, till sack commences it, and sets it in act and use. Here of comes it, that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father, he hath, like lean, steril, and bare land, manured, husbanded, and till’d, with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them, should be to forswear thin potations, and to addict themselves to sack.
Second part of Henry IV. act 4. sc. 7.5
Speaking of physicians,
Le bon de cette profession est, qu’il y a parmi les morts une honnêteté, une discrétion la plus grande du monde; jamais on n’en voit se plaindre du médicin qui l’a tué.
Le medicin malgré lui.6
Lard, he has so pester’d me with flames and stuff—I think I shan’t endure the sight of a fire this twelvemonth.
Old Bachelor, act 2. sc. 8.
To account for effects by such fantastical causes, being highly ludicrous, is quite improper in any serious composition. Therefore the following passage from Cowley,8 in his poem on the death of Sir Henry Wooton, is in a bad taste.
Imbowell’d!—if thou imbowel me today, I’ll give you leave to powder me, and eat me tomorrow! ’Sblood, ’twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too. Counterfeit! I lie, I am no counterfeit; to die is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the counterfeit of a man, who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life, indeed.
First part, Henry IV. act 1. sc. 10.9 <388>
And the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves, more than their even Christian.
Hamlet, act 5. sc. 1.
Will you have me, Lady?
No, my Lord, unless I might have another for working days. Your Grace is too costly to wear every day.
Much ado about nothing, act 2. sc. 5.10
I shall be saved by my husband; he hath made me a Christian.
Truly the more to blame he; we were Christians enough before, e’en as many as could well live by one another: this making of Christians will raise the price of hogs; if we grow all to be pork-eaters, we shall not have a rasher on the coals for money.
Merchant of Venice, act 3. sc. 6.11
Ludicrous junction of small things with great, as of equal importance:
Joining things that in appearance are opposite. As for example, where Sir Rodger de Coverley, in the Spectator, speaking of his widow,
That he would have given her a coal-pit to have kept her in clean linen; and that her finger should have sparkled with one hundred of his richest acres.
Premisses that promise much and perform nothing. Cicero upon that article says,
Sed scitis esse notissimum ridiculi genus, cum aliud expectamus, aliud dicitur: hic nobismet ipsis noster error risum movet.*
——— With a good leg and a good foot, uncle, and money enough in his purse, such a man would win any woman in the world, if he could get her good-will.
Much ado about nothing, act 2. sc. 1.
I have a good eye, uncle, I can see a church by day-light.
Having discussed wit in the thought, we proceed to what is verbal only, commonly called a play of words. This sort of wit depends, for the most part, upon chusing a word that hath different significations: by that artifice hocus-pocus tricks are play’d in language, and thoughts plain and simple take on a very different appearance.<392> Play is necessary for man, in order to refresh him after labour; and accordingly man loves play, even so much as to relish a play of words: and it is happy for us, that words can be employ’d, not only for useful purposes, but also for our amusement. This amusement, tho’ humble and low, unbends the mind; and is relished by some at all times, and by all at some times.
It is remarkable, that this low species of wit, has among all nations been a favourite entertainment in a certain stage of their progress toward refinement of taste and manners, and has gradually gone into disrepute. As soon as a language is formed into a system, and the meaning of words is ascertained with tolerable accuracy, opportunity is afforded for expressions that, by the double meaning of some words, give a familiar thought the appearance of being new; and the penetration of the reader or hearer is gratified in detecting the true sense disguised under the double meaning. That this sort of wit was in England deemed a reputable amusement, during the reigns of Elisabeth and James I. is vouched by the works of Shakespear, and even by the writings of grave divines. But it cannot have any long endurance: for as language ripens, and the meaning of words is more and more ascertained, words held to be synonymous diminish daily; and when those that remain have been more than once employ’d, the pleasure vanisheth with the novelty.<393>
I proceed to examples, which, as in the former case, shall be distributed into different classes.
A seeming resemblance from the double meaning of a word:
A seeming contrast from the same cause, termed a verbal antithesis, which hath no despicable effect in ludicrous subjects:
Other seeming connections from the same cause:
Speaking of Prince Eugene:
A seeming opposition from the same cause:
Wit of this kind is unsuitable in a serious poem; witness the following line in Pope’s Elegy to the memory of an unfortunate lady:
This sort of writing is finely burlesqued by Swift:
Taking a word in a different sense from what is meant, comes under wit, because it occasions some slight degree of surprise:
I may sit in a corner, and cry Heigh ho! for a husband.
Lady Beatrice, I will get you one.
I would rather have one of your father’s getting. Hath your Grace ne’er a brother like you?<396> Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.
Much ado about nothing, act. 2. sc. 5.21
My honest lads, I will tell you what I am about.
Two yards and more.
No quips now, Pistol: indeed, I am in the waste two yards about; but I am now about no waste; I am about thrift.
Merry Wives of Windsor, act 1. sc. 7.22
Was he mad, Sir?
An assertion that bears a double meaning, one right one wrong, but so introduced as to direct us to the wrong meaning, is a species of bastard wit, which is distinguished from all others by the name pun. For example.
The pun is in the close. The word disarm has a double meaning: it signifies to take off a man’s armour, and also to subdue him in fight. We are directed to the latter sense by the context; but with regard to Helen, the word holds only true in the former sense. I go on with other examples:
N.B. Jocondus was a monk.
Well! the truth is, Sir John, you live in great infamy.
He that buckles him in my belt cannot live in less.
Your means are very slender, and your waste is great.
I would it were otherwise: I would my means were greater, and my waste slenderer.
Second Part, Henry IV. act 1. sc. 5.27
I pray you bear with me, I can go no further.
For my part, I had rather bear with you than bear you: yet I should bear no cross if I did bear you; for I think you have no money in your purse.
As you like it, act 2. sc. 4.<398>
The seventh satire of the first book of Horace, is purposely contrived to introduce at the close a most execrable pun. Talking of some infamous wretch whose name was Rex Rupilius,
Though playing with words is a mark of a mind at ease, and disposed to any sort of amusement, we must not thence conclude, that playing with words is always ludicrous. Words are so intimately connected with thought, that if the subject be really grave, it will not appear ludicrous even in that fantastic dress. I am, however, far from recommending it in any serious performance: on the contrary, the discordance between the thought and expression must be disagreeable; witness the following specimen.
He hath abandoned his physicians, Madam, under whose practices he hath persecuted time with hope: and<399> finds no other advantage in the process, but only the losing of hope by time.
All’s well that ends well, act 1. sc. 1.
If any one shall observe, that there is a third species of wit, different from those mentioned, consisting in sounds merely, I am willing to give it place. And indeed it must be admitted, that many of Hudibras’s double rhymes come under the definition of wit given in the beginning of this chapter: they are ludicrous, and their singularity occasions some degree of surprise. Swift is no less successful than Butler in this sort of wit; witness the following instances: Goddess—Boddice. Pliny—Nicolini. Iscariots— Chariots. Mitre—Nitre. Dragon—Suffragan.
A repartee may happen to be witty: but it cannot be considered as a species of wit; because there are many repartees extremely smart, and yet extremely serious. I give the following example. A certain petulant Greek, objecting to Anacharsis that he was a Scythian: True, says Anacharsis, my country disgraces me, but you disgrace your country. This fine turn gives surprise; but it is far from being ludicrous.<400>
[1. ]For “Salino” read “Salarino.”
[* ]B. 2. ch. 11. § 2. [The reference is to The Spectator, no. 62, 1711.]
[† ]See chap. 1.
[2. ]Act 4, sc. 3.
[3. ]As You Like It: act 5, sc. 4.
[4. ]Tatler, 230, 1710: Swift’s first letter to the fictitious Isaac Bickerstaff.
[5. ]Act 4, sc. 3.
[6. ]Molière, Le médecin malgré lui: act 3, sc. 1: “The great thing about this profession is that among the dead there is integrity, the finest sense of discretion; you never hear them complain of the doctor who killed them.”
[7. ]“Admire the kindness, admire the tenderness of these slaves of sorcery. They never weary of acquiring riches, for those who wish their death.”
[8. ]Abraham Cowley (1618–87): author, poet, diplomat.
[9. ]Act 5, sc. 4.
[10. ]Act 2, sc. 1.
[11. ]Act 3, sc. 5.
[* ]De oratore, l. 2. cap. 63. [“You know already, however, that the most familiar of these is exemplified when we are expecting to hear a particular phrase, and something different is uttered. In this case our own mistake even makes us laugh ourselves.”]
[12. ]“The doctor of whom you told me knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, the best literature, physic, chemistry and botany; each yielded up advice to him: he also had my own experience. But I want to live a little bit longer.”
[13. ]“Twenty times a day good old Gregory takes care to close his cupboard. What do you think he’s frightened of? For goodness sake! That a burglar finding an easy prey, would carry off all his goods. No: Gregory is scared that he’ll only find out that his cupboard is bare.”
[14. ]“Asthmatic Damon believed that the country air would heal the ravages of time, so he fled, to the great open spaces of Brittany. And you see what effect the fresh air had! Damon would die if he stayed in Paris; Damon died in the country.”
[15. ]“Driven out of mind and home.”
[16. ]“Here lies he who never slept.”
[17. ]“How old is this Iris, of whom there is so much talk?” Cliton asked me recently. “If I must satisfy you,” I said, “she’s twenty by day, and fifty by night.”
[18. ]Edmund Waller (1606–87), member of Parliament and poet: “To a friend of the different success of their loves,” in Poems &c Written upon Several Occasions, London, 1705.
[19. ]“The Vain Love,” 1663.
[20. ]Jonathan Swift: Strephon and Chloe, 1734.
[21. ]Act 2, sc. 1.
[22. ]Act 1, sc. 3.
[23. ]Act 1, sc. 4.
[24. ]Act 3, sc. 1.
[25. ]Marcus Valerius Martialis (a.d. 40–104), born in Spain, author of epigrams that illuminate Roman life: “Unconscionable Cinna, whatever you ask for, you say it’s nothing. Cinna, if you ask for nothing, nothing, Cinna, do I refuse you.”
[26. ]Jacopo Sannazaro (1458–1530): Neapolitan author. His verse and prose Arcadia, 1504, was popular, as was De partu virginis, 1527. “Jocundus placed a double bridge upon you, Sequana [i.e., the Seine]; you would be right to call him ‘bridgemaker.’” (The joke is in the last word, because in classical Latin pontifex means “high priest” but in medieval times meant “the pope.”)
[27. ]Act 1, sc. 2.
[28. ]“Perseus shouts aloud ‘In the name of the gods, Brutus, I entreat you, for it is your habit to rid us of kings, why not cut the throat of this king also? This, believe me, is one of your proper works.’” (Satires I.7: trans. James Lonsdale and Samuel Lee, London, 1873.)
[29. ]Act 4, sc. 5.