Wit, Wisdom, and Language

Roger Ascham
Sir Roger Ascham

Previous page | Next page


The literary passages you have read so far give some idea of the nature of courtly love, from its early poetic origins to renaissance parody. You will have noticed that as well as having a common subject, all the passages in one way or another seek for elegance in language--and it is this consciousness of language which generates much of the humour in parody, as in the speech of Sir Tophas on the "beauties" of Dipsas, where Lyly is in effect parodying himself.

Wit and witty language can of course be misapplied; language can become stilted rather than elegant, smooth rather than sincere. In English in particular, as writers strove to give the language a respectability hitherto reserved for the language of scholarship, Latin, the search for elegance, as in the artificiality of Lyly, led to something at times near absurdity. Not surprisingly there was a reaction against such extremes, illustrated in different ways by the next three readings.

Reading 1. Roger Ascham: Toxophilus

Roger Ascham (1515-1568) was one of the most likeable of the early humanists--those who brought the revival of classical learning to England in the early renaissance. He was Queen Elizabeth's tutor, and is best known for his enlightened book on education, The Schoolmaster. In an early work on the love of archery, Toxophilus, Ascham has some wise comments on wit, of particular appropriateness both to Euphues and to the young aristocrats in Love's Labour's Lost.
Quick wits commonly be apt to take, unapt to keep; soon hot and desirous of this and that; as cold and soon weary of the same again; more quick to enter speedily than able to pierce far; even like oversharp tools, whose edges be very soon turned. Such wits delight themselves in easy and pleasant studies, and never pass far forward in high and hard sciences [knowledges, studies]. And therefore the quick wits commonly may prove the best poets but not the wisest orators; ready of tongue to speak boldly, not deep of judgment either for good counsel or wise writing. Also, for manners and life, quick wits commonly be, in desire, newfangle, [Note 1] in purpose, unconstant; light to promise anything, ready to forget everything, both benefit and injury; and thereby neither fast [faithful] to friend nor fearful of foe; inquisitive of every trifle, not secret [discreet] in greatest affairs; bold with any person; busy in every matter; soothing such as be present, nipping any that is absent; of nature also always flattering their betters, envying their equals, despising their inferiors; and, by quickness of wit, very quick and ready to like none so well as themselves. [Note 2]

[Return to top]

Reading 2. Sir John Cheke

Both Ascham and his friend, Sir John Cheke (1514-1557) were opposed to what Ascham called "inkhorn terms"--words coined from Latin or Greek to make English sound more impressive (the modern equivalent might be jargon, gobbledygook, or Watergate English). In a letter to another friend, Sir Thomas Hoby (who used it as a preface to The Courtier), Cheke wrote of his convictions concerning good writing in English. In this case I have left the original spelling, because it is clear that Cheke had strong ideas on the way to make English spelling more phonetic (though your pronunciation will be different from his), and more consistent. [Note 3]
I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges; wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt. For then doth our tung naturallie and praisablie utter her meaning when she boroweth no counterfeitness of other tunges to attire herself withall, but useth plainlie her own, with such shift as nature, craft, experiens and following of other excellent [writers] doth lead her unto, and if she want at ani tiim (as being unperfight [imperfect] she must) yet let her borow with such bashfulnes, that it mai appeer that if either the mould of our own tung could serve us to fascion [fashion] a woord of our own, or if the old denisoned [settled] wordes could content and ease this neede, we wold not boldlie venture of unknowen words. This I say not for reproof of you, who have scarcelie [sparsely] and necessarilie used whear occasion be sought for, but for miin own defense, who might be counted overstraight [too strictly] a deemer of things [prescriptive], if I gave not thys accoumpt to you, my freend and wiis, of mi marring this your handiwork.

[Return to top]

Reading 3. Sir Thomas Elyot

Finally, to show the way in which the language was effectively and genuinely enriched during this time of experimentation, here is a passage from The Book Named the Governor by Sir Thomas Elyot (c.1490-1548). [Note 4] Elyot was also a humanist, and his book very much a part of the humanist dream (not wholly dead as I write this course, though the ambitions of modern educators tend to be rather more modest); in it he attempted to show how those who rule should be educated so that they would rule wisely for the general good of the people. At one stage Elyot was at a loss for a word to try to describe one of the ultimate aims of education, and he chose to use (to "usurp," he says) a Latin word--you will see how right he was to introduce it to the language. At the same time you will notice that Elyot's vocabulary is much more latinate than Ascham's or Cheke's.
 . . . Wherefore I am constrained to usurp a Latin word, calling it "maturity": which word, though it be strange and dark, yet by declaring the virtue in a few more words, the name, once brought in custom, shall be facile to understand as other words late coming out of Italy and France, and made denizens among us. Maturity is a mean between two extremities, wherein nothing lacketh or exceedeth, and is in such estate that it may neither increase nor minish [diminish] without losing the denomination of maturity. The Greeks in a proverb do express it properly in two words, which I can none otherwise interpret in English, but "speed thee slowly." Also of his word maturity sprang a noble and precious sentence [saying], recited by Salust in the battle against Cataline, which is in this manner or like, "Consult before thou enterprise anything, and after thou hast taken counsel, it is expedient to do it maturely." Maturum in Latin may be interpreted "ripe" or "ready," as fruit when it is ripe, it is at the very point to be gathered and eaten. And every other thing, when it is ready, it is at the instant after to be occupied [employed]. Therefore that word maturity is translated to the acts of man, that when they be done with such moderation that nothing in the doing may be seen superfluous or indigent [skimpy], we may say that they be "maturely" done, reserving the words "ripe" and "ready" to fruit and other things separate from affairs, as we have now in usage. And this do I now remember for the necessary augmentation of our language.

[Return to top]


  1. Interested in new or fashionable ideas for their own sake rather than for any value they may or may not have. [Back]
  2. To whom would you apply this description in Love's Labour's Lost? or Romeo and Juliet? [Back]
  3. The letter is published in the Everyman edition of The Courtier (London: Dent, 1928). Cheke's other works have not recently been reprinted. [Back]
  4. The Governor is available in an Everyman Library edition. [Back]

[Return to top]

Previous page | Next page

Table of Contents | Study Plan | Self-Test | Background Reading | Commentary | Study Questions
This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best, mbest1@uvic.ca.
© Michael Best, The University of Victoria, and the Open University of B.C.