The Punster and the Poet


A PUNSTER is an incipient poet; a poet may well be a perfected punster. Charles Lamb was the one, William Shakespeare was the other ; and yet the man who makes a pun is relegated to the ranks of those “ who would not scruple to pick a pocket.” Scorners of the pun have no right to self-congratulation ; rather should they lament their lack of appreciation of a very telling order of genius. If the potential power of the pun-maker were directed along artistic lines he would very soon achieve distinction by reason of a gift desired by all poets, and one that only a poet can properly appreciate.

The link that unites the punster and the poet is neither wit nor worth, but words. These two do not meet in the high realms of imaginative fervor, but on a material, linguistic plane. The poet loves to win from human speech its fullest beauty and significance, he delights in delicate discriminations, he lingers over melodious and expressive turns of phrase. So, also, does the punster; is not he, too, punctilious in the use of language ?

What is a pun ? It is a perversion of words, a willful interference with the sober meaning of a word or phrase. Lamb said of a certain man, “ From his gravity Newton might have deduced the theory of gravitation.” In this species of pun we can see the whole relation of poet and punster. The latter has a sensitive ear, he is quick to notice resemblances between sounds, and on the rapidity of his associative powers depends his success. The more exact and close the purely external association of words, the mere skeleton of sound, and the more remote the intellectual content and signification, the greater the incongruity, the more ludicrous the pun.

Was not the instinct for puns, which gives spirit to so much of the literature of the Age of Elizabeth, simply a manifestation of the poetic impulse of the time ? Does it not represent for us one side of the vigorous love of language, that excessive pleasure in music and in harmonious adjustment of letters ? Shakespeare was an inveterate pun-maker, brilliant, euphuistic, delighting in chance allusions and incongruous resemblances. His full and rounded genius did not shrink from verbal nonsense. In King Henry IV. how he carries it to extremes.

Falstaff. . . . And, I prithee, sweet wag, when thou art king, as, God save thy grace,— majesty I should say, for grace thou wilt have none,—
Prince. What, none ?
Falstaff. No, by my troth, not so much as will serve to be prologue to an egg and butter.

But the poets who make no puns, who have none of that sensitive affection for pure sound ! Are not our poorest makers of rimes those who pun not ? They have no ear for the softer correspondences, the subtle cadence of the syllable. Cannot the taste for well-sustained rimes be learned from the punster who would censure such lines as these : —

“ I saw her upon nearer view
A spirit, yet a Woman too !
A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food.”

Let us withdraw the opprobrium we have been pleased to attach to the punster. Indeed, let us establish a new school of criticism of poetry, and have rightfully associated with the serene lover of wisdom the lover of puns, who has devoted his best and worst service to a muse.