The term wit has slipped into triviality; it now means smart word play, a quick rejoinder, an ingenious pun or comparison, in brief some verbal act that tells us more about the intellectual agility of the speaker or writer than about the wider world. But it was not always so. Wit in the 16th and 17th Centuries seems to have had the much stronger implication that some degree of epistemic quality was to be expected. Is it quite wrong to think that this has declined because we no longer, as good rationalists did, expect verbal ingenuity to be able on its own to deliver much understanding, however useful it may be in communicating the results of experiment and the collection and analysis of data? To term something witty is currently to imply that however impressive as mental athelticism it is low epistemic value. Such wit is only self-advertisement, or the aggressive degradation of the perceived quality of another.

That shift in meaning is not so much a change in sense as the erosion of one component, the epistemic, leaving behind only structural word play. The reason for this is subtle, but clearly important. We have gradually, and surely correctly, come to mistrust what one might call the geometric potential for patterning in the language. But at one time, almost everyone would have thought that the potentials for these patterns were in fact supernatural or divine clues to epistemic insight, and their realisation therefore successful expressions of deeper meaning. If words rhyme, perhaps they have some supernaturally sanctioned affinity and reveal something about the universe. (Even today, mathematicians often and physicists sometimes show signs of the same superstition.)

But there have always been those who mistrusted ingenious wit, and he devices of the poets have long been mistrusted, some thinking poetry vinum daemonum, as Bacon reported, and in English at least, there were several writers, Campion and Spenser amongst them, who thought that rhyme was a low and untrustworthy form, though they held this view more on the grounds that it was not authorised by the classics than because of any distorting effect that it might have had. Today, the situation is apparently reversed; the elaborate structures of the past, regular rhythms and rhymes are seen by the higher literates as unsuitable, not so much because they are known to be technically restrictive but because those restrictions are irrationally associated with limiting moral regulations and obsolete politics.

In the general culture the archaic, supernaturally loaded sense of wit lives on; popular singers rhyme and pattern with abandon, and are rewarded by their audience with devotion and the reputation of insight, sympathy and even wisdom.

Was Larkin frightened of death? He certainly wrote about it a great deal, and it is tempting to see his poems as, to use some of his own words from one of those pieces, "Weak Propitiatory Flowers". But the final impression that remains is not so much a fear of extinction, but a sense that he was intimidated by impending pointlessness. And this is entirely self-inflicted, since everywhere in his writings we find the suspiciously aggressive rejection of the uneducated but entirely correct belief that children – Dockery's dilution – are the only guard against inconsequentiality, though a hazardous one.

Philip Larkin was Big in Japan, in academic literary circles that is, and probably still has his scholars. Given his narrowly English presentation, that might be surprising, even if we allow for the view that Larkin was taken as a representative of a particular strand of English cultural development, in other words that he was valuable evidence. That is certainly true, but the interest amongst those professorial readers went well beyond mere intercultural research. The explanation is straightforward: Larkin writes about the doubts and frustrations of a highly educated, very busy but under-employed salaryman. Could he be more Japanese?

Popular ethics, the mainstream in the human record, leaves people in a perpetual state of confusion. The transcendent moral truth is intuitively obvious, we say, but in spite of this it is manifest that human behaviour fails to obey those rules. People claim that the moral law is transcendent, but they behave as if it were only weakly parochial at best. How can this be? One answer is that we are all very wicked, where wicked is defined simply as failing to obey the transcendent law, an account that does nothing more than restate the problem; if the law is obviously universal and over-riding why is it so widely disobeyed and treated as a practical or local, or instrumental matter. A simple, powerful and to me utterly convincing explanation is that our behaviour shows the transcendence of the moral law to be, as a matter of fact, very far from intuitively manifest to any of us.

Editing an author's works is a little like carving a beast. The best cuts are by and large the easiest to take. With the use of institutional library pressure hosing, and other methods of Mechanical Recovery, every last scrap can be scoured from the skeleton, but such Meat is rarely appetising or the resulting dish proportional to the effort.

Popular ethics, the mainstream for some thousands of years, leaves people in a perpetual state of confusion. The transcendent moral truth is obvious, people say, but in spite of this human behaviour fails to obey its rules. We claim that the moral law is transcendent, but we behave as if it were only weakly parochial at best. How can this be? One answer is that we are all very wicked, where wicked is defined simply as failing to obey the transcendent law, an account that does nothing more than restate the problem. A simpler, and more powerful explanation is that our behaviour shows the transcendence of the moral law to be, as a matter of fact, very far from manifest to any of us.

Music is like wallpaper; one would rather have good than bad, but as a matter of fact one doesn't need any at all.

A recent statistical study arguing for a Baconian contribution to Shakespeare's works has made me think about this again. The prudent and proper response is, "Is that so, any of the good bits?", for, after all, Shakespeare is uneven. Excellent in very many places, but quite ordinary in others.

But there are further questions arising. Why did the Baconian hypothesis generate such a head of steam in the 19th Century and fade in the 20th? One answer to this is that the Victorians read a lot of both Shakespeare and Bacon, and noticed some degree of similarity of thought and language. Whether that resemblance is significant of authorship or only the result of common sources is clearly arguable, and statistics may help here, though with relatively small samples one has doubts. But taken on its own, and without other empirical bracing, the nineteenth century readerly intuition of similarity is valuable evidence. It has been plausible to readers very familiar with both that Bacon was involved in the writing of some parts at least of the works of Shakespeare. That intuition faded in the 20th Century not, perhaps, because the hypothesis was discredited, but because even highly educated readers were not nearly as familiar with Bacon as they were in the previous century, and may not, though one hesitates to say this, be particularly careful readers of Shakespeare.

Those who dislike Mandeville, while at the same time feeling the force of his arguments, tend to suggest that he is more libertine than libertarian; a farceur, not l'homme serieux. But this attempt to parry his thrust, knocking the point into the harmless cul de sac of humour, inevitably fails. The guilty reader knows that Mandeville has successfully shown that there is no clear stopping point at which you can confidently draw a line in the scale of human wishes, declaring those on one side to be virtuous, while damning those beyond the line as vicious. One by one, in this circumstance or that, the virtues are found to be vices too. Ultimately, as it turns out, a defense of virtue proves to be the complete denial of human wishes, or it is unstable. Similarly, we cannot separate liberty of the type that we do not wholly dislike from that which we utterly detest. Liberty is complete liberty for all in every respect, and no other position can be defended for long.

But in both cases we find it absolutely necessary in the course of day-to-day living to draw such lines, however indefensible they may be in principle, frustrating one wish in order to satisfy another, curbing liberty there in order to facilitate it here.

The whole point of Mandeville's argument is to show that it is in our interests to understand that such lines are temporary, far from solid, simple reflections of our interests, and open to revision and redefinition as the need arises. Such a position can be held, and Mandeville's own position on religion seems to recommend this course of action, in conjunction with inflexible or absolutist views and without any practical contradiction. The conscientious religious mind must insist on virtue in its rigorist sense, denying all wishes, but must also recognise that the view can have no practical application other than abdication from the world. Those who wish to remain engaged must compromise their rigorism in order to deliver human well-being (or, to give its proper name, wealth). And in just the same way, the lover of freedom must be a libertine in theory, compromising that theory in order to prevent the societal system from rapid disintegration. Some, I am one and perhaps Mandeville was another, would add that the pure versions of virtue and liberty are strictly speaking irrelevant to our lives and can be safely ignored as having no practical consequences of any interest whatsoever.

When I took my first degree, in the early 1980s, conscientious and scholarly students were particularly keen to make sure that they read the right text of the poet, or even the novelist under consideration. Supervisors who didn't take this matter seriously had a rather cavalier aura about them, which, while not necessarily a bad thing, did at little undermine one's confidence in them. The prevailing standards of literary criticism placed so much emphasis on using the most accurate text available that the release of a new edition of a key work, Shakespeare's sonnets say, was an event worth noting, even outside the graduate circles. This scrupulously precisian attitude was entirely rational in a context where micro-criticism aimed to build elaborate arguments on the position of a comma, or the curious ambiguity resulting from a variant spelling. I recall very clearly a friend telling me that the two volume edition of D. H. Lawrence's poems that I had just bought second-hand for what I thought a bargain price was actually a rip off partly because the spine was a bit cracked, but mostly because it was the first and uncorrected impression. I was genuinely mortified. Perhaps we did more of this at Cambridge, but I hardly think we were alone.

In retrospect, at least for me, it is very hard to see what all the fuss was about. Very few academically re-edited texts make broadscale substantive changes, though they may be demonstrably superior and in many senses preferable to what went before, and the obsession, really not too strong a word, with the latest academic edition is harder still to recreate imaginatively. I was lucky enough to be taught by people who were both intensely scholarly and slightly dismissive of the textual fixation. I can recall, and in a sense can hear even more clearly because of the passage of years, them saying that Professor Zed's ten volume "Complete Works and Variorum" was of course excellent, but for their own part they preferred the editions, and not necessarily the first or any particular edition, that were printed in the poet's lifetime, easily available in the UL if I wanted to go and look.

I have been thinking this over again in the last few weeks because, for reasons connected to a line of thought connected to the determining roots of British socialism, I wanted to read William Blake. I still have the Oxford Paperbacks edition of the Complete Writings: with variant readings (Oxford UP: Oxford, 1969), edited by Geoffrey Keynes, that I read, or at least read in as an undergraduate, so began there. It's a large book, as you would expect, with something under a thousand pages and rather small type. It is also clearly dominated, as indeed has been much of the subsequent scholarship on Blake, by a tendency to take this author at his own evaluation. Namely, it is motivated by the view that Blake's work can and should be seen as an integrated whole. Perhaps so, but respect for that point need not result in these unwieldy and in fact rather offputting bulk publications. John Sampson, the late Victorian and Edwardian linguist, whose edition of Poetical Works (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1905) was the first to take a respectful and careful attitude to the early printings, well understood the consistency of Blake's work, but did not attempt to include the many prophetic and prose writings, and included no reproductions of the pictorial works originally accompanying many of the poems.

His edition, though historically important, is now simply obsolete, and considering its beauty and elegant typography is very cheap to buy. I recently obtained one, a very good copy, for about £10, excluding postage. Obviously there are some disadvantages to Sampson's volume, but is it really deficient for a serious reader? I cannot see that it is, for by extricating the shorter verse from the much wider literary and pictorial context of the Blake canon it is at least arguable that Sampson, who as noted was fully aware and appreciative of that context, has done his author an enormous favour. If you are curious about Blake, perhaps you would be best advised to start with Sampson's text. The earliest shorter and lyric poems show a remarkable mastery of verbal art even when the judgment determining their observations and narrative drive, is puerile (See "Fair Elenor"). From the very first Blake is a verse writer operating at an extremely high level, and it is no great surprise that the author of Poetical Sketches went on to write the Songs of Innocence and Experience. In the shorter pieces collected in Sampsom's edition this verse technique is deployed successfully, to an extreme, and consequently it interests and fascinates. That has never seemed to me true of the Prophetic Writings, which demand altogether too much intellectual submission to a questionable account of the natural world and its connection to the transcendent, an acount that is tedious precisely because it is unconcerned with evidence. Those proclaiming solipsistic and a-scientific revelation, open to others only by the act of agreement with their asserted but undemonstrated insight, cannot realistically expect many converts of robust mind. There will of course be some patient believers, patients almost, those willing to spend a lifetime revealing the rich co-ordination of symbol and meaning throughout this large and disparate lifework, both written and pictorial. But such an attempt itself is proof that discrimination has been put aside. This is particularly true of the pictorial works. Blake is a first-rate writer, but an amateur draughtsman and painter. Indeed because of this amateurism he is unable to control or finesse to insignificance, as he does in his shorter verse works and rather less successfuly in the prophetic works, the grimly repellent neurosis of a paranoid philosophy.

Sampsom would not, in all probability, agree with a word of this, but his narrow definition of the Poetical Works seems to me to liberate Blake's best from the miserable rubbish, verbal and pictorial, that Keynes, Erdman, Bentley and the editors and publishers of many other volumes have so carefully transcribed and reproduced as its obscuring context. The latest academic edition may be impeccable in a simple scholarly and historical sense, but it is not always better; and sometimes it is a positive nuisance.