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What Is the Role of Puns in Poetry?

Emily Daw
Emily Daw

A pun, or paronomasia, is a type of word play in which one word is used to suggest a homophone — a word with a similar sound but different meaning. Puns are sometimes considered a "low" form of humor, which may inspire a grin or a groan, but have little potential for exploring the deeper meanings in language. In reality, however, puns in poetry have a variety of uses, and can be quite profound. Puns in poetry may be used for purely comedic effect, but may also convey a sense of dark irony.

Many 17th century English poets explored the use of puns for wry effect. John Donne, for instance, often played with the meaning of his own last name, which is pronounced the same as the English word "done," and his wife Anne's maiden name, which was More. This one-line poem conveys the difficulty of the early years of his marriage: "John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone." Although there is some wryness in the repetition of sound, the overall effect is one of despair rather than humor.

Hamlet employs puns to show humor and mask despair.
Hamlet employs puns to show humor and mask despair.

William Shakespeare is perhaps the most famous punster in English literature, employing puns in poetry ranging from bawdy to silly to serious — often all in the same work. His manic, pun-loving character Hamlet, for example, tells Ophelia in one scene, "Get thee to a nunnery!" The word "nunnery" in this sentence may mean either "convent," or a now-obsolete meaning for "brothel." Although a modern audience might miss this pun, Shakespeare's original audience would have heard all the biting irony of a line that succinctly captures Hamlet's anger and thinly veiled desire to wound Ophelia. The same play also uses puns to explore themes of death and sexuality, contradicting the idea that puns cannot have meaning beyond the depth of basic word play.

William Shakespeare often used puns in his poetry.
William Shakespeare often used puns in his poetry.

In modern writings, however, puns in poetry are more often used as a form of comedy, especially in the poetic form of the limerick, a five-line poem written in a sing-song meter. The early 20th century poet Carolyn Wells wrote one limerick that closes with the line, "To tutor two tooters to toot," which uses sound work to play on the homophone pair "tutor" — to teach, and "tooter" — someone playing a musical instrument. Frequently, however, the puns in a limerick are not quite so innocent, playing on the many English euphemisms for body parts and sexual acts. A bawdy limerick poem might, for instance, use the word "come" to refer both to someone literally arriving somewhere as well as to sexual climax.

Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - I don't know, I think the best bits of humor involving puns are quite clever as well and have some kind of darker meaning.

George Carlin's "Atheism is a non-prophet institution" is a good example. You can take it at face value, and think of it as a clever play on words. But he's actually being relatively critical of religion with that statement.

So I don't think people are all that clueless that puns can be clever or meaningful. They just also realize that puns can be absolutely dreadful, so be careful when you use them in poetry.


@browncoat - That's a very good example of the "dark irony" that the article mentions and it's something that a lot of people don't realize that Wordsworth employed a lot in his poems (not the puns so much as the dark irony).

But puns get used so much in humor that they are usually considered to be only a joke most of the time. I don't think that takes from their power when they are used in poetry as a serious bit of writing.

I just think most people wouldn't actually think that that particular example was a poem. They'd mislabel it as a metaphor or something like that, recognizing what he had done but not associating it with what they just think of as a technique for childish jokes.


I've never thought of a pun as being a low form of poetry or humor, I suppose because I remember some examples of puns that were used in poems that we studied in class.

My absolute favorite one was from the Wordsworth poem in which he described a view of London at dawn, mentioning all the beautiful towers and bridges and buildings and how tranquil it all looks. The final line in the poem, which seems to be a simple descriptive poem is, "and all that mighty heart is lying still."

How's that for a powerful final line? It could be taken as a simple emphasis on the general mood of the poem, or it could be taken as completely turning the poem onto its head, depending on how you interpret the word "lying".

The fact that the entire poem hinged on that single pun was magic to me when I first understood it. So, I suppose I've never thought of puns as being anything but a powerful thing in poetry.

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    • Hamlet employs puns to show humor and mask despair.
      By: davehanlon
      Hamlet employs puns to show humor and mask despair.
    • William Shakespeare often used puns in his poetry.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      William Shakespeare often used puns in his poetry.
    • Puns are generally meant to be humorous.
      By: Antonioguillem
      Puns are generally meant to be humorous.