Ode: Of Wit

A definition of wit

This poem by Abraham Cowley is interesting, in that it attempts to define wit, a central concept for the Metaphysical poets. Cowley, like Crashaw, was a second generation Metaphysical, and it is often left to the second generation to define what the first generation achieved.

A friend of Crashaw

Abraham CowleyCowley was, in fact, friendly with Crashaw whilst at Cambridge, and later, as Queen Henrietta Maria's secretary in Paris, found Crashaw in dire straits and helped him. Cowley wrote an exchange of poems with Crashaw for and against ‘Hope', and after Crashaw's early death, wrote a memorial poem on him. He became a very popular poet of his day, dying after the Restoration in 1667, but he was already becoming forgotten when Dr Samuel Johnson wrote a biographical essay on him in his Life of the Poets in the mid-eighteenth century. Today he is regarded as minor, one of those poets who could turn out several different styles, as the fashion of the day demanded.

A quality of the mind

We do not use the term ‘wit' much these days, and if we do, it is usually means ‘witty', able to make jokes easily. The word, however, comes from the Old English witan, which means ‘to know'. In the seventeenth century it meant a quality of the mind and also of the imagination also. There is also the term ‘a wit', which means someone who has wit.

What wit isn't

Here, Cowley appears to be addressing someone who could be considered a wit. The first stanza suggests how elusive its definition is, and in stanza two, how easily false wit can be taken for genuine. This leads in to the main part of the Ode, which consists of a list of twelve marks of false wit, or rather, twelve ways in which true wit is not to be defined.

Investigating Ode: Of Wit
  • See if you can find the twelve negatives in stanzas 3-7 of Cowley's Ode

What wit is

Noah's ArkCowley only leaves himself a small space (stanza 8) in which to define positively what wit actually is. The only thing he can come up with is an analogy: the story of Noah's Ark (Genesis 6:14-7:3). Just as the many diverse animals got on together in the one ark, so wit is quite diverse elements, images, conceits, etc, brought into harmony and unity by the poet's shaping imagination. The last stanza is merely a compliment to the addressee: you knew this already because you practise it.

Investigating Ode: Of Wit
  • Would you say Cowley's Ode is a particularly good example of wit?
  • Are you any clearer about what Metaphysical wit is after reading it?
  • In your previous discussions and analyses of Donne or other Metaphysical poets, has the concept of wit helped your analysis?

(see Themes and significant ideas > Writing as poet or priest).

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