in verse # 28 : the pun is meatier than the surd

Sitting at home alone in bed when I was 13, and unable to go out because I was undergoing the aftermath of rheumatic fever, I entertained myself with old copies of Reader’s Digest.  One of the things I digested thoroughly in the humor columns was puns.  I believe it was in one of those columns[i] that I read an entry from a proud punster who told of a woman who had named her new ranch, which was operated by her sons in her behalf , “Focus.”  Asked why, she replied “It’s where the sons raise meat.”  The author was proud of the fact that this was the only triple pun he knew of.  Now it wasn’t that kind of punning that fed this reader’s disgust with the magazine — it was the right-wing politics and red-baiting, which I was old enough to recognize but too young to understand.  So now I only read the magazine to keep my contempt fresh.  Joseph McCarthy had just recently died, and I had heard him memorialized in an editorial on KSL radio by comparison with the Roman senator Cato, who argued that, for the good of Rome, “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” — (Moreover, I advise that Carthage must be destroyed.)[ii]  It was the era of the Birch John Society (promoting outhouses) and Walt Kelly’s Jack Acid Society black book, the first piece of political satire I ever bought.[iii]

But when John Pollack talks about puns, he invokes a bigger tent.  Talking about Jewish punning he notes that “[i]n the original Hebrew, the Old Testament itself is full of wordplay in general and puns specifically” [iv] and relates how

[i]n 1894 Immanuel Moses Casanowicz, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University, actually tabulated such wordplay page by page in a dissertation entitled Paronomasia In The Old Testament (Paronomasia is a classical term of rhetoric that encompasses punning.)

One biblical pun that Casanowicz identifies appears in the Book of Job, when the beleaguered, frustrated protagonist suggests to God that “perhaps thou has mistaken iyob (Job) for oyeb (enemy).”  It’s not a knee-slapper by any stretch, but at the time, puns weren’t expected to pull the cart of humor.[v]

That may be why Milton’s puns are so serious — and yes, Paradise Lost is full of puns, just as Shakespeare’s plays are.  It’s just that Milton’s are more like Job’s.  An example:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far                                                                        Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,                                                                                      Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand                                                                              Show’rs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,                                                                            Satan exalted sat, by merit rais’d                                                                                                      To that bad eminence; and from despair                                                                                          Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires                                                                                  Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue                                                                                           Vain War with Heav’n, and by success untaught                                                                          His proud imaginations thus display’d.[vi]

That stanza, that single sentence, turns on a single word, “merit,” and its prepositional phrase “by merit rais’d To that bad eminence.”  There are two meanings of “merit” which Milton is playing with — at least two.  My dictionary gives four meanings:

1. Value, excellence, or superior quality….  2. An aspect of a person’s character or behavior deserving approval or disapproval….  3. Theology. Spiritual credit granted for good works.  4. Plural. Law. a. A party’s strict legal rights, excluding jurisdictional or technical aspects. b. The factual substance of a case as distinguished from its form and procedural aspects. 5. The intrinsic right or wrong of any matter; the actual facts of a matter.[vii]

Well, five, but who am I to quibble?  Certainly not Will Shakespeare.  But Milton  — now, he uses most of these meanings, which when I squint my OED reassures me were all knownst unto Milton’s age.  Even in his blindness, he would not have forgotten that the word comes into English through French “from Latin meritum, recompense, desert, from merēre (past participle meritus), to earn, deserve.”[viii]

Satan thinks in his pride of himself as deserving his bad eminence; Milton, of him as earning it.  Satan thinks to argue his case on its merits (that’s what he “thus display’d”) in the next stanza, his primary argument urging his fiends, demons and cunning-men to pursue “Vain War” with heaven, and Milton uses both senses of “vain” too.  Pollack, the punster, identifies this as a higher form of punning, again rife in the Old Testament:  “so-called Janus Parallels.  This is a poetic device in which a punning word, through one of its meanings, echoes the content of the preceding line and, through its second meaning, previews the line to follow.”[ix]  In the next stanzas, Satan and his minions, Moloch, Belial and Mammon amongst them, argue how best to attack heaven — again.

Pollack goes on to report that “Gary Gossen, the anthropologist, argues that the more rigid a society becomes, the greater its reliance on subtexts, especially puns, to address sensitive or taboo topics.”[x]  Recall Milton’s situation:  He is old, blind, living in imminent fear because he has been something like the secretary of state for the Taliban, only to see his Puritan party defeated and the monarchy reinstated.  And this is where meaning number 3 of “merit” comes in: “Spiritual credit granted for good works.”  In Catholic theology, a saint has merit to bestow on others; in Calvinist theology, all the merit resides in Christ; none of us mere mortals can earn any of it — it is grace freely given.  So which merit does Satan apply to himself, and who is this Catholic saint meriting “spiritual credit granted for bad works,” raised to his bad eminence, high on a throne of royal state?  Charles II?  Perish the thought.

So this is where we stand:  the difference between pun and word-play is the difference between “pie in this guy” and “Focus: where the sun’s rays meet.”  But, in the case of Milton, the pun never sets on his Satanic majesty’s empire, and we would have to peep about his feet pecking up corns of wordplay for many years to even begin to understand the reach of his rays.  When one does not know the referent of wordplay, one is uncertain of what is being played.  A fine example of this is found in two of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s songs, “The Way of the Fallen” and “Crows,” and the contrast between the two couldn’t be stronger.[xi]  Here are the lyrics to “The Way of the  Fallen:”

down in corpus christi, always around midnight                                                                      you’ll find the devil limpin’ along cause his shoes is too tight                                                        his hair’s up in pigtails, his whiskers are in braids                                                                       he’s talking about the promises he says god forgot he made

oh the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                        the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                               the way of the fallen is hard

well the devil’s drinking whiskey he asked me for a match                                                          he lit up a salem and said my friends call me scratch.                                                                     you people act so high and mighty, thinking you’re god’s pride and joy —                            you’re just assembled from boxcars and put together like tinker toys

oh the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                        the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                               the way of the fallen is hard

well the devil’s got a billy goat and he feeds him marmalade                                                      he comes from the world of the born to the world of the made                                                     his eyes is always bloodshot, he says he don’t give a damn                                                           he’s mumbling that the world at large is just an elaborate scam.

oh the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                        the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                               the way of the fallen is hard

there’s tears in the devil’s eyes, I ask what’s the matter.                                                               he said these damn religions are spreading like pancake batter                                             then he took off his shoes and said perhaps I should mention                                                       I prefer to die with a bottle of wine without the comfort of religion

oh the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                        the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                               the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                               the way of the fallen is hard                                                                                                               the way of the fallen is hard

Most of you probably recognize that devil as a minor demon in Satan’s hell, or even as a poor devil deserving of your pity, and for most of you I would venture that the Buddhist undertones don’t even register until you read, or hear, “he comes from the world of the born to the world of the made,” if then (and you should all be so lucky as to have heard this song the first time you encountered it, rather than reading it here).  Here, in contrast, are the lyrics for “Crows:”

Some come to in grays and blues and they shake like a tambourine                                    Some wake up and spit on the fire and it acts like gasoline                                                         Yes sir, some drone on and drool doing nothin’ for heaven’s sake                                               Some of them act like crows when they find a dyin’ snake                                                           Even crows act like eagles when they find a dyin’ snake

Some been seen with a rusty knife a-walkin’ by the railroad tracks                                            Some been accused of laying down and workin’ on their back                                                   Yes sir, some drone on and drool, doing nothin’ for goodness sakes                                           Some of ‘em act like crows when they find a dying snake.                                                       Even crows act like eagles when they find a dyin’ snake.

Some wake up and look around and then they go back to sleep                                            Some come down and put on flesh and then they start playing for keeps                                 Yes sir, some drone on and drool, doing nothing for nobody’s sake                                       Some of ‘em act like crows when they find a dyin’ snake                                                          Even crows act like eagles when they find a dying snake

The liner notes to Crusades of the restless knights say that “One track is even described, accurately enough, as ‘a mythological bluegrass Buddhist Gnostic gospel hymn.’”  It could be this song, or it could be “Conversation with the devil.”  But of this particular lyric, Hubbard writes following the words to the song: “The phrase about crows either came from a talk by the Dalai Lama on compassion or I heard my grandfather mutter this under his breath when my grandmother found a pint of whiskey under the floorboard of his pickup truck when I was a child.”  I love Ray Wylie Hubbard’s songs just as I love John Milton’s epic lyricism.  I love the playful seriousness of the one, and the serious playfulness of the other.

But hold on, I hear you say, aren’t we going to get to the absurd War in Heaven bit in book VI when Raphael tells Adam and Eve how Satan fell?  How can you keep putting it off?

Your turn.


[i] Or one of the fillers at the butt-end of the article, which would then be filters for the drag of the article.

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cato_the_Elder, accessed 25 April 2013.  Wikipedia has an exhaustive article on the phrase “Carthage must be destroyed” itself, which reflects Joseph McCarthy’s bombast towards the Soviet Union.

[iii] Although not the first I ever recognized, being an avid reader of Pogo, Walt Kelly’s daily comic strip.

[iv] The pun also rises : how the humble pun revolutionized language, changed history, and made wordplay more than some antics / John Pollack.  New York : Gotham, 2011; p. 96.

[v] Ibid., pp. 96-97.

[vi] Paradise lost : a poem in twelve books / John Milton. – A new edition / edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. – New York : Odyssey, c1962.

[vii] The illustrated Heritage dictionary and information book. — Boston : Houghton Mifflin, c1977

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Pollack, op. cit., p. 97.

[x] Ibid., p. 140.

[xi] “The way of the fallen” is from Snake farm. — Sustain Records, c 2006; “Crows” is from his album Crusades of the restless knights.  —  Cambridge, Mass. : Rounder Records, c1999.  Philo CD 11671-1218-2.  Both lyrics are as printed in the booklets accompanying the CDs, with some punctuation added by me, and choruses added in full.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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4 Responses to in verse # 28 : the pun is meatier than the surd

  1. Th. says:

    .

    The pun deserves redemption in our discourse.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Yeah, and that’s what John Pollack is trying to do with _The pun also rises_; but if by “our discourse” you mean “discourse amongst we Mormons,” in my experience that happens most in hymn parodies, as in “High on a mountaintop, a badger killed a squirrel; Ye nations now come up, there’s food for all the world.” I would like to know more puns generated specifically by Mormons for a Mormon audience involving Mormon subject matter.

  2. Wm says:

    “the more rigid a society becomes, the greater its reliance on subtexts, especially puns, to address sensitive or taboo topics”

    In Romania under Ceausescu, poets would use what they called “lizards*” in their works. These were images that could be read as anti-capitalist/anti-West, but could also be read (between the lines) as a critique of the power structures at home, the hollowness of the system, etc. The trick was to knot your images up — to create a layer of density that could be unpacked by those who knew which layers to peel away and what to stick them to.

    *Because the attempt to slip such coded things past the censors was a “cat and lizard game”.

  3. Dennis Clark says:

    Well, that sometimes takes us by surprise, Wm. William Stafford told me once, speaking of his poem “The animal that drank up sound,” that, when he was on a tour sponsored by the State Department, he read that poem in Iran (back when the Shah ruled). An Iranian poet asked him how he could dare to write, let alone read aloud and publish, so brave a poem. If he had done that, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi would have not only understood the animal as being himself, but have sicced SAVAK on the poet, because in that society, poetry still has the power to kill.

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