James Merrill’s Puns
Essays in Criticism
JAMES MERRILL’S FRIEND W. H. AUDEN wrote that ‘Good poets have a weakness for bad puns’. A punster himself, Auden needed it to be true. Most of his puns are of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind. At the end of ‘In Praise of Limestone’, he ironically sees ‘faultless love’ in a limestone landscape; in ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, he refers to the Romantic poet’s muse as ‘gay’.1 Byron, also a consummate punster, had no wish or need to pun subtly: aroused from sleep and looking lustfully at Haidee, Don Juan ‘gazed as one who is awoke / By a distant organ’.2 Shakespeare punned even more indiscriminately than Byron. When accused of a cloudy disposition by his uncle-turned-evil-stepfather,...