( Originally Published 1879 )
GeNUINe wit may be compared to a kaleidoscope; every time it is shaken, it presents new and beautiful figures. The latter pleases the eye, and enables carpet and calico manufacturers to obtain new designs for their work; the former pleases us all over, without really benefiting us any where. Like lightning in a dark night, its illuminations are momentary in most cases. Sheridans and Hopkinsons are very rare. They were as highly charged with wit, as a cloud sometimes is with the electric fluid, emitting flashes in such quick succession, that darkness is scarcely visible.
Wit, like a coquette, is pleasing company for the time being; but no man, knowing her character, courts her with the intention, of marriage, and no sensible man is long edified with her company.
He who endeavors to oblige the company by his good-nature never fails of being beloved; he who strives to entertain it by his good sense never fails of being esteemed; but he who is continually aiming to be witty, generally miscarries of his aim; his aim and intention is to be admired, but it is his misfortune either to be despised or detested—to be despised for want of judgment, or detested for want of humanity. For we seldom admire the wit when we dislike the man. There are a great many to whom the world would be so charitable as to allow them to have a tolerable share of common sense; if they did not set up for something more than common, something very uncommon, bright, and witty. If we would trace the faults of conversation up to their original source, most of them might, I believe, be resolved into this, that men had rather appear shining than be agreeable in company. They' are endeavoring to raise admiration instead of gaining love and good-will, whereas the latter is in everybody's power, the former in that of very few.
There is as much difference between wit and wisdom, as between the talent of a buffoon and a statesman. Wit is brushwood, judgment is timber. The one gives the greatest flame, the other yields the most durable heat; and both meeting makes the best fire.
Wit and wisdom may be found in the same person, but when the former is flashing, its glare hides the latter. It serves to amuse and exhilarate, but rarely produces profitable reflection, or elevates sound common sense. It is emphatically a plume, and exposes the head it ornaments, to many an arrow from the bow of revenge. Some wits had rather lose a friend than a keen, cutting remark upon him. This has often occurred, and is exchanging treasure for trash. Wit may obtain many conquests, but no willing subjects. It is like echo, it always has the last word. It is more difficult to manage than steam, and often wounds by its explosions. It produces many bon mots, and but few wise sayings. It is like some heartless sportsmen, who shoot every bird indiscriminately, and kill more innocent ones, unfit for food, than hawks, that prey upon our poultry.
Wit loses its respect `with the good when seen in company with malice; and to smile at the jest which plants a thorn in another's breast, is to become a principal in the mischief.
Finally, flashing WIt is an undefined and undefinable propensity—more to be admired than coveted; more ornamental than useful; more volatile than solid; a dangerous, sharp-edged tool, often cutting its most skillful master; rarely imparting substantial benefits to mankind; but often serious injury.
Let your wit rather serve you for a buckler to defend yourself, by a handsome reply, than the sword to wound others, though with never so facetious a reproach, remembering that a word cuts deeper than a sharper weapon, and the wound it makes is longer curing. Let those who have it, endeavor to control it, and those who have it not, can make better use of the sense they have.