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Essay Upon Wit
by [?]


The battle between the puritans and the sophisticates is never ending. At certain stages of cultural development the worldly wise are in the ascendent in the literary world, as they were in the Restoration and after the first World War. Yet those with a more sober view of life are never submerged, even when they are overshadowed. The court of the restored Charles gave full play to the indelicacy of Rochester, Dryden, and their circles, but most of their contemporaries were probably more content to read George Herbert, Queries, Baxter, and Bunyan. Though the fashionable and urbane remained dominant in letters through the age of Dryden, the forces of morality were rallying, and after 1688 the court (with which Blackmore was connected) threw its weight on the side of virtue. Jeremy Collier was but the most important voice of a great movement, destined to have its effect on literature.

Sir Richard Blackmore contributed his share to the growing wave of bourgeois morality, which in the 18th century was reflected in the middle-class appeal of Addison and Steel, Lillo’s London Merchant, and Richardson’s almost feminine plea for virtue rewarded. A physician, Blackmore had turned to poetry for relaxation and composed his soporific epics, by his own admission, in the coffee-houses and in his coach while visiting patients. In the preface, to Prince Arthur (1695) the City Bard took occasion to flay the Wits of the day for their immorality, an attack which he followed up in 1697 with the Preface to King Arthur, whose thinly disguised political allegory won him a knighthood. Up to this point the Wits had treated him with amused scorn, but when he called his big guns into action in the Satyr against Wit (dated 1700 but issued late in 1699) the Wits set out to crush him for once and all. Commendatory Verses on the Author of the Two Arthurs and the Satyr against Wit (1700), the reply, was far from commendatory. Edited by Tom Brown and sponsored by Christopher Codrington, this miscellany attempted in scurrilous and often bad verse to laugh the Knight out of literary existence. Its main distinction lies in the list of contributors, among whom were Sir Charles Sedley, Richard Steele, Tom Brown, and probably John Dennis. Blackmore’s supporters answered Commendatory Verses with Discommendatory Verses on Those Which are Truly Commendatory, on the Author of the Two Arthurs, and the Satyr against Wit. (1700). It is not at all certain that Blackmore emerged second best in this exchange of blows in the miscellanies. At any rate, unabashed he went on to write more epics on Elizabeth, Alfred, Job, and to win himself a doubtful immortality by being pilloried in Pope’s Dunciad.

Throughout his writings Blackmore has a good deal to say about Wit, and much about the abuse of it. While Swift in the Tale of a Tub scolds the Wits for their addiction to nonsense and irreligion, Blackmore goes still further in the Satyr, seeing Wit as something which, in common practice, is evil and vicious, to be eradicated as quickly as possible. It is the enemy of virtue and religion (in the Preface to Creation, 1712, he links it with atheism), a form of insanity, in opposition to ‘Right Reason’, and the seducer of young men. Combatting its iniquities, Blackmore proposes to set up a Bank and Mint of Wit to assure that it will be refined and purified. By this process, the works of Dryden, Congreve, Southerne, Wycherley, Garth, and Vanbrugh will be melted down to separate the sludge from the pure metal. In the Nature of Man (1711) he takes a more kindly attitude towards Wit and pairs it with Sense, Reason, Genius, and even Piety. While he is moderate in his denunciation of Wit in the Essay upon Wit, he does insist that even at its best it can never be noble. Wit is harmful, he states, because it is often employed in immoral subjects, raillery, ridicule, and satire. It is chiefly useful as ornamentation: “The Addition of Wit to Proper Subjects, is like the artful Improvement of the Cook, who by his exquisite Sauce gives to a plain Dish, a pleasant and unusual Relish”.