True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed,
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the notion of the mind. — Alexander Pope, "An Essay On Criticism" [1711] part 2, lines 297-300

"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."

"And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody."

"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them." — Pride and Prejudice, p. 40

Among those writers most notable for their use of wit, Pope and Austen stand out as being particularly well qualified to define the term itself. The two views of wit expressed in the above quotations each in their own way address the question of its nature and appropriate use. Each provides a distinct theory, and both share distinct similarities. Though they arise in vastly different literary contexts, the passages may be seen within the setting of the changing scientific and religious views of the eighteenth century. In addition, the reader may observe a common delicacy of balance phrase and balance that connects the two excerpts. Both passages serve as well to represent the tradition of wit that runs through English Literature.

The excerpt taken from Pope's essay on criticism presents a highly academic conception of wit and its proper function in literature. Simply and clearly stated, Pope's wit is that which immediately captures the exact essence of a subject more precisely and cleverly than any have before. His very definition captures, in its directness of expression, the nature of the subject described. In combination with the even rhythm and masculine rhyme of the neoclassical couplets, the preference for perfect clarity of statement reflects the rational bent instigated to a large degree by such major and recent scientific advances as those represented by Newton's Principia (published 1687) and the invention of the microscope. Furthermore, the demystification of the natural world which lead to the spread of Deism can also be seen to contribute to Pope's explanation of that wit which he strives for as a poet. This factor is especially significant when one considers that he himself was a Deist, and partook of the belief that the relationship of man to God can be understood through reason.

In the quotation taken from Pride and Prejudice Austen's characterization of wit much remains the same. The clever remarks of Elizabeth and Darcy demonstrate much of that definitive quality and elegance of expression that Pope wrote of. Although she employs a prose style rather than neoclassical couplets, much of the attention to balance and symmetry remains and may be observed in the careful division of the clauses in the first sentence as well as the pleasing symmetry of the latter two lines of dialogue. The use of wit differs, however, in that its profoundly reflective tone has lightened to one of spontaneity. Moreover, Austen depicts an increased emphasis on humor which accompanies what is perhaps the most drastic discrepancy: the movement away from solemn philosophical contemplation into the realm of social interaction.

Traces linger also of scientific and rational influence, but they are clearly not so dominant as in Pope. In conjunction with the rather Christian slant of the "natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome" (certainly much more closely connected to the concept of original sin than the Deist faith in the power of reason) the reader can detect an intentional ambiguity of meaning not present in Pope's lines. The verbal irony of the speakers leaves this passage open to interpretation regarding the extent to which the speakers intend their words to be taken seriously. Implicit in this style is the suggestion that those scientific principals and ideas that inspired such a sense of order in Pope's universe perhaps no longer command the same authority in Jane Austen's time.

[Alexander Pope] Jane Austen

Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000