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ON PUNS AND PUNSTERS.
“ The gravest beast is an ass; the gravest bird is an owl ; the gravest fish is an oyster; and the gravest man a fool.”
GRAVITY, says Lord Bolingbroke, is the very essence of imposture. A quack or a pretender is generally a very grave and reverend signior; and though I would not venture to assert that the converse of this proposition is invariably true, I must confess, that as I am apt to doubt the virtue of an obtrusive Puritan and rigourist, so am I marvellously prone to suspect the wisdom of your serious and solemn Precisian. While the shallow pedant endeavours to impose upon the world by a serious and pompous deportment, minds of a superior order will be often found abandoning themselves to playfulness and puerility. Plato, after discoursing philosophy with his disciples upon the promontory of Sunium, frequently indulged the gaiety of his heart by relaxing into a vein of the most trivial jocoseness; but once seeing a grave formalist approach in the midst of their trifling, he exclaimed, “ Silence, my friends! let us be wise now; here is a fool coming." This man's race is not extinct. Reader ! hast thou not sometimes encountered a starched-looking quiz, who seemed to have steeped his countenance in vinegar to preserve it from the infection of laughter ?-a per
sonage of whom it might be pronounced, as Butler said of the Duke of Buckingham, that he endures pleasures with less patience than other men do their pains ?-a staid, important, dogged, square-rigged, mathematical-minded sort of an animal ? Question him, and I will lay my head to yours (for I like to take the odds), that whatever tolerance he may be brought to admit for other deviations from the right line of gravity, he will profess a truculent and implacable hatred of that most kind-hearted, sociable, and urbane witticism, termed-A PUN.
Oh the Anti-risible rogue! Oh the jesticide—the Hilarifuge ! the extinguisher of “ quips and cranks and wanton wiles ;" —the queller of quirks, quiddets, quibbles, equivocation, and quizzing ! the gagger of gigglers ! the Herod of witlings, and Procrustes of full-grown Punsters! Look at his atrabilarious complexion; it is the same that Cæsar feared in Brutus and Cassius: such a fellow is indeed fit for treasons, stratagems, and plots; he has no music in his soul, for he will not let us even play upon words. Will nothing but
pure wit serve thy turn, most sapient Sir ? Well, then, set us the example
Lay on, Macduff,
How,-dumb-founded? Not quite;-methinks I hear him quoting Dr. Johnson's stale hyperbole—“ Sir, the man that would commit a pun would pick a pocket;" to which I would oppose an equally valid
dictum of an illustrious quibbler—“Sir, no man ever condemned a good pun who was able to make one.' I know not a more aggrieved and unjustly proscribed character in the present day than the poor painstaking punster. He is the Paria of the dining-table; it is the fashion to run him down: and as every dull ass thinks that he may have a kick at the prostrate witling, may I be condemned to pass a whole week without punning, (a fearful adjuration !) if I do not show that the greatest sages, poets, and philosophers of all ages, have been enrolled upon this proscribed list!
Even in Holy Writ, whatever might have been the intention of the speaker, there is authority for a play upon words equivalent to a pun. When Simon BarJona, for his superior faith, received the name of Peter, (which in Greek signifies a stone or rock,) the divine bestower of that appellation exclaimed, " I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church,” &c. Homer has made the wily Ulysses save his life by means of a pun. In the ninth book of the Odyssey, that hero informs the Cyclops that his name is Noman; and when the monster, after having had his eye put out in his sleep, awakes in agony, he thus, roars to his companions for assist‘ance:
“ Friends ! No-man kills me. No-man in the hour
Of sleep oppresses me with fraudful power.-
a joke upon which Euripides dilates with huge delight in the drama of the Cyclops.* It will be observed that Pope has preserved the equivoque in his translation, which attests his respect for this most ancient jeu-de-mots ; while Ulysses is described as hurrying away in high glee, “ pleased with the effect of conduct and of art,” which is an evidence that Homer felicitated himself upon the happiness of the thought. This passage exhibits a very rude and primitive state of the art; for had any modern Cyclopes been invoked to aid their comrade under similar circumstances, they would have seen through so flimsy a trick only with one eye.
Later Greek writers were by no means slow in following so notable an example. Plutarch has preserved several of these Pteroenta, or flying words, particularly King Philip's celebrated pun to the physician who attended him when his collar-bone was broken ; and Diogenes the Cynic made so happy an equivoque upon a damsel's eye, which the profligate Didymus undertook to cure, that Scaliger said he would rather have been author of it than King of Navarre.From the comic authors a whole galaxy of similar jokes might be collected; but I reserve the specification for a new edition of Hierocles, the Joe Miller of
Cibber, in translating the Italian Opera of Polifemo, makes Ulysses answer—" I take no name;" whereby all that followed became unintelligible, and the Greek pun was most ingeniously
Alexandria, which I am preparing for the press in ten volumes quarto.
The Romans, who imitated the Greeks in every thing, were not likely to forget their puns, verbaque apta joco. Cicero informs us that Cæsar was a celebrated performer in this way. Horace, in his seventh Satire, giving an account of the quarrel between Persius and Rupilius Rex, before Brutus the Prætor, makes the former exclaim, “ Per magnos, Brute, Deos te oro, qui reges consuêris tollere, cur non hunc Regem jugulas ?” thus playing upon the names of both parties. Martial was an accomplished punster; and Ovid not only quibbled upon words, but metamorphosed them into a thousand phantasies and vagaries.
The same valuable privilege formed the staple commodity of the ancient Oracles ; for if the presiding deities had not been shrewd punsters, or able to inspire the Pythoness with ready equivoques, the whole establishment must speedily have been declared bankrupt. Sometimes, indeed, they only dabbled in accentuation, and accomplished their prophecies by the transposition of a stop, as in the well-known answer to a soldier inquiring his fate in the war for which he was about to embark. “ Ibis, redibis. Nunquam in bello peribis.” The warrior set off in high spirits upon the faith of this prediction, and fell in the first engagement, when his widow had the satisfaction of being informed that he should have put the full stop after the word “ nunquam,” which would probably have put a full stop to his enterprise and saved