empson on wit


I have been trying to build a theory about the way complex meanings are fitted together in a single word, especially the “key word” of a long poem, in which one would expect to find some­thing worth examining. I thus approached the Essay on Criticism rather coolly, as a specimen likely to provide crude examples; but I now think that the analysis improves the poem a great deal, and lets us recover the way it was meant to be read. Critics may naturally object that the Augustans did not deal in profound complexities, and tried to make the words as clear-cut as possible. This is so, but it did not stop them from using double meanings intended as clear-cut jokes. The performance inside the word wit, I should maintain, was intended to be quite obvious and in the sunlight, and was so for the contemporary reader; that was why he thought the poem so brilliant; but most modern readers do not notice it at all, and that is why they think the poem so dull.

more from Empson’s 1950 essay at Hudson review here.