Friday 22 October 2010

What is’t with Puns and Graves?

“The dreary grave! – O, when I think
How close we stand upon its brink ....”
(Thomas Hood)

In Shakespeare’s well-known play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, the graveyard is the scene of a protracted bout of punning, as the gravedigger equivocates and Hamlet meditates on the skulls he unearths. It is enough to make one wonder what the link can be between puns and mortality ... John Donne famously chose a punning epitaph, and Thomas Hood carried the blazing baton into the nineteenth century with his poem “Death in the Kitchen”, in which the inevitability of the concealed puns mirrors the inevitability of the fate to come to all the household servants:

"The groom will die, like all his kind;
And even the stable boy will find
This life no stable thing."

Christian Morgenstern (that bright and secret star that burns forever above the house of Hawker’s Pot) makes the connection even more tangible in that incomparable collection of puns and corpses, ravens and skulls, The Gallows Songs. “It is exactly the inevitable/ that draws our special scorn,” the leader of the Gallows Gang proclaims, continuing (in Max Knight’s translation):

"Call it infantile vendetta
On life’s deeply serious aim --
You will know existence better
Once you understand our game."

In search of answers, Hawker’s Pot took a stroll around our local graveyard. We had observed the sexton to be a studious type, always with his nose in a book between digging out graves, and we hoped to find in him a man -- a philosopher, even -- who had delved deeply into the matter and could shed some light on our enquiries. So imagine our disappointment when we drew closer and saw that the book he read was merely a cheap paperback thriller. On being asked about his taste in thrillers, he said he liked them for the plots.

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