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ÓN FALSÉ Wit. No. 59. There is nothing more certain than that every man would be a wit if he could; and notwithstanding pedants of a pretended depth and solidity are apt to decry the writings of a polite author, as flash and froth, they all of them show upon occasion that they would spare no pains to arrive at the character of those whom they seem to despise. For this reason we often find them endeavouring at works of fancy, which cost them infinite pangs in the production. The truth of it is, a man had better be a galley-slave than a wit, were one to gain that title by those elaborate trifles which have been the inventions of such authors as were often masters of great learning, but no genius.
In my last Paper I mentioned some of these false wits among the antients, and in this shall give the reader two or three other species of them, that flourished in the same early ages of the world. The first I shall produce are the Lipogrammatists or Letter-droppers of antiquity, that would take an exception without any reason against some particular letter in the alphabet, so as not to admit it once into a whole poem. One Tryphiodorus was a great master in this kind of writing. He composed an Odyssey or epic poem on the adventures of Ulysses, consisting of four-and-twenty books, having entirely banished the letter A from his first book, which was called Alpha (as lucus à non lucendo) because there was not an Alpha in it. His second book was inscribed Beta for the same reason. In short, the poet excluded the whole four-and-twenty letters in their turns, and showed them, one after another, that he could do his business without them.
It imust have been very pleasant to have seen this poet avoiding the reprobate letter, as much as another would a false quantity, and making his escape from it through the several Greek dialects, when he was pressed with it in any particular syllable. For the most apt and elegant word in the whole language was rejected, like a diamond with a flaw in it, if it appeared blemished with a wrong letter. I shall only observe upon this head, that if the work I have here mentioned had been now extant, the Odyssey of Tryphiodorus, in all probability, would have been oftener quoted by our learned pedants than the Odyssey of Homer. What & perpetual fund would it have been of obsolete words and phrases, unusual barbarisms and rusticities, absurd spellings and complicated dialects! I make no question but it would have been looked upon as one of the most valuable treasuries of the Greek tongue.
I find likewise among the antients that ingenious kind of conceit, which the moderns distinguish by the name of a Rebus, that does not sink a letter, but a whole word, by substituting a picture in its place. When Cæsar was one of the masters of the Roman mint, he placed the figure of an elephant upon the reverse of the public money; the word Cesar signifying an elephant in the Punic language. This was artificially contrived by Cæsar, because it was not lawful for a private man to stamp his own figurę upon the coin of the commonwealth. Cicero, who was so called from the founder of his family, that was marked on the nose with a little wen like a vetch (which is Cicer in Latin), instead of Marcus Tullius Cicero, ordered the words Marcus Tullius, with a figure of a vetch at the end of them, to be inscribed on a public monument. This was done probably to show that he was neither ashamed of his name or family, notwithstanding the envy of his competitors had often reproached him with both. In the same manner we read of a famous building that was marked in several parts of it with the figures of a frog and a lizard; those words in Greek having been the names of the architects, who by the laws of their country were never permitted to inscribe their own names upon their works.
For the same reason it is thought that the forelock of the horse, in the antique equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, represents at a distance the shape of an owl, to intimate the country of the statuary, who in all probability was an Athenian. This kind of wit was very much in vogue among our own countrymen about an age or two ago, who did not practise it for any oblique reason, as the antients above mentioned, but purely for the sake of being witty. Among innumerable instances that may be given of this nature, I shall produce the device of one Mr. Newberry, as I find it mentioned by our learned Camden in his Remains. Mr. Newberry, to represent his name by a picture, hung up at his door the sign of a yew-tree, that had several berries upon it, and in the midst of them a great golden N hung upon a bough of the tree, which by the help of a little false spelling made up the word N-ew-berry.
I shall conclude this topic with a rebus, which has been lately hewn out in free-stone, and erected over two of the portals of Blenheim House, being the figure of a monstrous lion tearing to pieces a little cock. For the better understanding of which device, I must acquaint my English reader, that a cock has the misfortune to be called in Latin by the same word that signifies a Frenchman, as a lion is the emblem of the English nation. Such a device in so noble a pile of build
ing looks like a pun in a heroic poem; and I am very sorry the truly ingenious architect would suffer the statuary to blemish his excellent plan with so poor a conceit. But I hope what I have said will gain quarter for the cock, and deliver him out of the lion's paw.
I find likewise in antient times the conceit of making an echo talk sensibly, and give rational answers. If this could be excusable in any writer, it would be in Ovid, where he introduces the echo as a nymph, before she was worn away into nothing but a voice. The learned Erasmus, though a man of wit and genius, has composed a dialogue upon this silly kind of device, and made use of an echo who seems to have been a very extraordinary linguist, for she answers the person she talks with in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, according as she found the syllables which she was to repeat in any of those learned languages. Hudibras, in ridicule of this false kind of wit, has described Bruin bewailing the loss of his bear to a solitary Echo, who is of great use to the poet in several distichs, as she does not only repeat after him, but helps out his verse, and furnishes him with rhymes,
Quoth he, O whither, wicked Bruin,
Think'st thou 't will not be laid i'th' dish,
SEVERAL kinds of false wit that vanished in the res fined ages of the world, discovered themselves again ia the times of monkish ignorance.
As the monks were the masters of all that little learning which was then extant, and had their whole lives entirely disengaged from business, it is no wonder that several of them, who wanted genius for higher performances, employed many hours in the composition of such tricks in writing as required much time and little capacity. I have seen half the Æneid turned into Latin rhymes by one of the beaux esprits of that dark age; who says in his preface to it, that the Eneid wanted nothing but the sweets of rhyme to make it the most perfect work in its kind. I have likewise seen a hymn in hexameters to the Virgin Mary, which filled a whole book, though it consisted but of the eight following words.
Tot tibi sunt, Virgo, dotes quot sidera cæla. Thou hast as many virtues, O. Virgin, as there are stars in
heaven. The poet rung the changes upon these eight several words, and by that means made his rerses almost as numerous as the virtues and the stars which they cele7.