Charles Clark: UK Pun Champion, 1852

For the past 8 years, there has been an award for the funniest joke at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This year, the prize went to Darren Walsh for his one liner “I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It’s Hans free.” The joke was delivered as part of Walsh’s show, entitled “Punderbolt” which runs at the Pleasance Theatre in Edinburgh until 31st August. Walsh has published a book of over 1000 jokes, and won the 2014 UK Pun Championship, narrowly missing out on this year’s award which went to Leo Kearse, in part for his effort: ” Marvin Gaye kept a sheep in my vineyard. He’d herd it through the grapevine”.

The reaction to Walsh’s best joke award has been mixed. The award itself is, of course, light hearted, but some responses display a dislike of the humble pun. The great 18th century critic Samuel Johnson famously hated puns, calling them the lowest form of humour, and describing Shakespeare’s fondness for the technique as “malignant”. In a recent article for The Atlantic Julie Beck asks “Why do puns make people groan?”. If Ms Beck had ever read any of Charles Clark’s poetry, she would know.

As well as being a professed bibliomaniac, Clark was a confirmed paronomasiac: he was completely addicted to puns. In the hundreds of letters and poems of Clark’s that we have read, it is extremely rare to find one that either does not contain a pun, or make reference to the art of punning. Even when Clark does write a poem which is pun-less, he can’t help himself making a pun out of that fact – in a letter dated May 8 1841, Clark writes to John Russell Smith of “a little poem by C.C., entitled “Sylvan Shades”, wherein is not to be found one solitary pun! – this may be, perhaps, con-solitary!”. Clark’s described his literary hero, Thomas Hood, as ‘the Prince of Pun’ and in his own poetical efforts, strove to emulate him at every turn.

Clark was particularly fond of writing punning poems to commemorate events, or to celebrate his friends. In October 1838, George Wombwell brought his famous travelling menagerie to Maldon Fair. Clark rose to the occasion:

“I had been perpetrating a long string of puns addressed to a character that you and all the world knows, & [^who is] the “lion” of Bartholomew Fair – I mean that celebrated menagarist, Mr George Wombwell. He was at Maldon Fair on the 13th & 14th of Sept., where he regularly attends every two years. I introduced myself to him, & presented him with some copied of my Address, with which I afterwards found out he was very pleased. I asked him for his autograph, which he readily granted.” Letter to John Russell Smith, October 27 1838

Clark described himself as most at home” in the “punning style”, although he sometimes felt guilty at the volume of puns he was capable of producing. On 27 October 1838 he wrote to Russell Smith about his poem “John Noakes and Mary Styles”, claiming:

“There are two or three pieces of wit in it, but I beg to say that they came quite accidentally into my head – I did not at all aim at introducing those wicked things I am so guilty of perpetrating, id est, – puns – they would have been out of place.”

In July 1842 his love of punning may have led Clark may have found his dream woman, he wrote to Russell Smith of “the literary Miss Clarke, of Heybridge … She professes to be extremely fond of puns …” Sadly however, “she can have “no eye” towards the bard of Tiptree, as she is under the ‘tuition’ of a Mr Parke of Heybridge.” Letter to John Russell Smith, 27 July 1842.

To celebrate Clark’s love of puns, (homophonic puns were his favourite), and inspired by an exceptionally dreary Irish “Summer”, we have transcribed his poem “Dry Thoughts on the Wet.” We hope it makes our readers smile, not groan!

DRY THOUGHTS

DRY THOUGHTS ON THE WET!

 

Shall we ne’er see another fine day? – H.W. Challis

The rain it falleth every day. – T.Hood

OH! through the weather, now,

Where’s he who’s no deplorer?

Though each pooe man –

To comfort – can

See in all clouds a –pourer!

 

She so has won our hearts –

So chec’d cause for complaining,

Our peerless Queen,

Ah! would ‘twere seen

That she alone was – reigning!

 

The lasses, now, alas!

They must at home be stoppers;

Kept there to pine

Until ‘tis fine,

And eaves prove not – “eaves –droppers!

To “mud-dle” on through mire,

What with the fair can suit less?

And, such the rain,

Shoes now are vain, –

Yea, even boots are – bootless!

 

Each Sabbath, till of late,

Your shopman stroll’d that one day;

Now, such the gloom,

Smart from his room,

He “shines” not e’en on Sun-day!

Now to seek “heavy wet,”

Quite whets one’s powers of thinking;

Yet cellars waste

From buyers’ taste,

Who, to keep dry, are – drinking!

 

What will our farmers do?

Of floods their tales are thrilling:

Too wet to plough –

Nor can they sow, –

Though we’ve militia – drilling!

 

Ah! now “Protection’s” gone,

Can they still fight their battle?

And, through the rain,

They now complain –

To the dogs fast go their cat-tle!

Each Nimrod now despairs –

Sly Reynard’s brush none pluck it;

And “out of luck”

Men spare the buck,

While fields so need the buck-et!

A wet-nurse now, to find,

Proud sires need not go tripping,

Though Moll, the cook,

She scarce can brook

The present sort of – dripping!

 

But, Muse, our gloomy weather,

It may soon brighten – mayn’t it?

So now give o’er,

We cannot more

In water-colours paint it!

C.C.

Heybridge, November, 1852.

(See also an earlier post on “Persistent Punning“)

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