What were some meanings of the word "wit" in John Donne's day, and how are those meanings relevant to his poetry?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The word “wit,” in John Donne’s day, had many more connotations than it tends to have today.  Whereas we tend to think today of “wit” as mental or verbal cleverness, in the time of Donne and Shakespeare “wit” had far broader meanings.  For example, David Crystal and Ben Crystal, in their extremely valuable book Shakespeare’s Words (London: Penguin, 2002) list the following definitions of wit in Shakespeare’s time (and the Oxford English Dictionary would be even more thorough):

  • 1. Intelligence, wisdom, good sense.  Many of Donne’s poems would have seemed, at least to his contemporaries, to display this kind of wit.  Thus “The Good-Morrow” suggests that true love can last if the lovers remain committed to such an ideal:

If our two loves be one, or thou and I

Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die. (20-21)

In other words, if the two can remain truly committed to one another, their love will not perish.  But notice the “if”: Donne is a realist because he recognizes that the love the poem celebrates may not survive if the lovers give in to baser passions.

  • 2. Mental sharpness, acumen, quickness, ingenuity. This kind of “wit” is fully on display in Donne’s poem “The Flea,” especially in the last three lines, when the woman responds that she feels no weaker now than she did before killing the the flea:

'Tis true; then learn how false fears be:

Just so much honor, when thou yieldst to me,

Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee. (25-27)

  • In these lines, the lustful speaker continues to refuse to take “no” (actually, several “no’s”) for an answer; he continues to try to use his ingenuity to try to persuade the woman to have sex with him when she obviously isn’t interested.  In this sense, he displays wit in the second sense but not in the sense described in # 1 above.
  • 3. Reasoning, thinking, deliberation. This kind of deeply thoughtful wit is very much in evidence in such poems by Donne as “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (for instance, in the opening eight lines) or “Satire 3.” The speakers in these poems wrestle with serious issues. In “Satire 3,” for instance, the speaker memorably describes the difficulty of reaching truth:

. . . On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must, and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so . . . . (79-82)

  • 4. A cunning plan or ingenious design.  Again, “The Flea” displays this kind of wit, although the speaker in that poem isn’t nearly as clever or ingenious as he thinks he is. Donne, however, is cunning and ingenious in the way he designs the poem to mock the self-consciously “witty” speaker.

Insofar as “wit” suggests great intelligence, great inventiveness, and a marvelous ability to express such intelligence and inventiveness in highly skillful and appropriate language, then practically every poem Donne ever wrote might accurately be described as “witty.”

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