A definition of wit

Intellectual playfulness with ideas and images is often termed wit. The seventeenth century spent some time discussing exactly what wit was, as the concept was very important to them in coming to a right judgement about poetry:

  • The word in Old English simply meant the ability to know. It had nothing to do with making jokes.
  • By the seventeenth century, it meant both verbal dexterity and skill and an imagination that could bring quite different ideas and images together in an overall unity.

At their very best, Metaphysical poets employed wit and passion in equal amount, making for complex but highly unified poems. At their worst, they merely displayed verbal gymnastics. You might like to look at Abraham Cowley's attempt to describe this topic in his poem Ode: Of Wit.

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