Observations Life and Death

Wit and the lost lessons of history

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b1923 (Published 12 May 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1923
  1. Iona Heath, general practitioner, London
  1. aque22{at}dsl.pipex.com

    General practitioners seem in urgent need of the tough reasonableness of 17th century wit

    At the beginning of the 21st century we convince ourselves that we have learnt a lot about the way the world works and about how human beings function. But if we look back at the wisdom and skills of previous generations it becomes clear that we have forgotten almost as much as we have learnt. In East Coker, second of the Four Quartets, T S Eliot wrote: “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious.” With the heightened viral threat triggering all sorts of irrational behaviour, and the whole world precipitated into financial gloom and crisis by unfettered greed, conditions do indeed seem unpropitious, and it is perhaps time to fight again for what has been lost. Surprisingly, of all the multitude of possibilities Eliot himself would prioritise a revival of the 17th century notion of wit.

    In his 1921 essay on the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, Eliot …

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