G. K. Chesterton

A PIECE of peculiarly bad advice is constantly given to modern writers, especially to modern theologians: that they should adapt themselves to the spirit of the age. If there is one thing that has made shipwreck of mankind from the beginning it has been the spirit of the age, which always means exaggerating still further something that is grossly exaggerated already. The spirit of the age always means taking the crinolines that are already inconvenient and widening them till they become impossible. But if anyone wants a good minor example he could hardly find a better one than the ancient and often barbaric kind of humour that goes by the name of the pun.

For the pun has two distinct functions; a rare function, which is eternal, and a fashionable function, which is dead. If we take first the last and least of the two we must put ourselves for a moment into an ancestral atmosphere now utterly forgotten. In the Bohemian half of the Early Victorian world wit reigned as a kind of institution. Wit was to these intellectual people something like what sport is to simpler people; it was a permanent open competition, free but yet formal lists in which young men could win their spurs.

Wit, which is in this sense warlike (as compared with humour, which may be accidental or even partly unconscious), must of necessity tend to fixed and perhaps even pedantic forms of flippancy. Capping verses, retorting in rhymed couplets, making anagrams or acrostics on any chance word or phrase, fill all the social chronicles of that time. Two eminent lawyers exchange rhymed epigrams instantaneously at a dinner table; Lamb is proud of having written impromptu a preposterous conceit about pink stockings; Douglas Jerrold goes about like some notorious duellist, always ready to impale somebody on a point. In this atmosphere it is not surprising that one of the most popular entertainments should have been the fantastic yet precise one of punning.

But though the wit was formal the fellowship was frank and uproarious. Many such men, from Lamb to Dickens, or from Sydney Smith to Leigh Hunt, were men whose ingenuity had in it a certain poetry and elemental humour. Hence followed what must always follow when high spirited people are playing a game with rules. The limitations are enjoyed, but the limitations are strained to their utmost, each player is proud of getting a preposterous exception just inside the rule. The laughter was highest when the shot was wildest; and in this atmosphere arose the cardinal maxim of Charles Lamb, "that the worst pun is the best". It was the aim of the ideal punster that people should admire his ingenuity but in the same breath somewhat damn his impudence. This first sort of punning in pure high spirits was indeed a fashion, like singing at the dinner table. We may be permitted a partial fear that in ceasing to sing at the dinner table too many people have ceased to sing altogether, and we may be disposed to warn ourselves and each other against losing the good spirits as well as the bad puns of our fathers.

In a primary sense puns are a perfect type of literary art. That is, they briefly embody the chief essence of art; that completeness of form should confirm completeness of idea. But while all art aims at this forcing form and meaning to go on all fours, there are three special and sharp forms of the thing which do it most clearly and defiantly. One is rhyme; another is what is called simile and metaphor, and the third is the pun. Let us take, for the sake of argument, the simile first.

Suppose a man criticising the current journalistic system wrote as follows: "When we speak of the freedom of the Press we should remember that the individual Pressman writes under considerable restrictions in the form of his work, and still more in the bias he is bound to assume." That expresses a very vivid fact, but it does not, perhaps, express it very vividly. Mr. Zangwill has expressed the same thing thus: "A public question is like a piece of paper. Much may be written on both sides; but a journalist must only write on one side." Then anyone can feel how the pungency of the intellectual protest is perfected and emphasised by a pungency in the mere verbal form. The same sense of hitting the right nail on the head can be conveyed by the coincidence called rhyme. A man writing prose in a passion of righteous indignation might perhaps say, "One can at least get rid of such a human insect, a creature who is malodorous and poisonous at once." But it would not have the special sort of ringing energy and emphasis of a couplet to the same effect:

Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings.

This is in one way a specially good example, because it shows the proximity of assonance to other verbal tricks. If wings and stings is only a rhyme, stinks and stings is something very like a pun. And when we come to the great puns of Hood or of any other writer, we note first of all this use of the pun in sharpening and clinching a thought. Suppose (to adopt the same method) that Hood, writing a journalistic report of one of the last duels, had written: "Both principals fired in the air; and we cannot too strongly express our hope that those who think it incumbent on them to use this old form of self-vindication, may imitate such a sensible and humane interpretation of it." That is sound enough; but it is a little laborious, and does not express either the detachment or the decision of such a critic of duelling. Hood, as a fact, did write:

So each one upwards in the air
His shot he did expend.
And may all other duels have
That upshot at the end.

Here the verbal jest, falling so ridiculously right, does express, not merely the humanity of the critic, but also his humorous impartiality and unruffled readiness of intellect. Or again, on the proposal to shut the Zoological Gardens on Sunday, Hood might well have written in some newspaper: "It is difficult to see where our Puritan legislators draw the line in natural pleasures; they forbid the sight of God's works when they are animal, yet they cannot forbid them when they are vegetable or mineral." That is rational but it has the note of plea. What is wanted for such fanatacisms is the note of scorn; and you get it with the double ring of a real argument and a verbal gibe:

Once let the sect triumphant to their text
Shut Nero up from Saturday till Monday;
And sure as fate they will deny us next
To see the dandelions on a Sunday.

That is the literary use of the trick, and is poetic as well as pointed: a landscape as well as a trap.

(from The Daily News, 1911 reprinted in Lunacy and Letters.)

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Last modified: 20th May, 1998
Martin Ward, Software Technology Research Lab, De Montfort University, Leicester.