“Keats and Chapman once called to see a titled friend and after the host had hospitably produced a bottle of whiskey, the two visitors were called into consultation regarding the son of the house, who had been exhibiting a disquieting redness of face and boisterousness of manner at the age of twelve. The father was worried, suspecting some dread disease. The youngster was produced but the two visitors, glass in hand, declined to make any diagnosis. When leaving the big house, Chapman rubbed his hands briskly and remarked on the cold.
“`I think it must be freezing and I’m glad of that drink,’ he said. `By the way, did you think what I thought about that youngster?’
“`There’s a nip in the heir,’ Keats said.” [The Best of Myles, Walker and Company, 1968]
Only snobs scorn puns. Myles (aka Flann O’Brien, Brían Ó Nualáinn, Brian O’Nolan, et al.) produced hundreds of them with his poetic stand-ins Keats and Chapman, a regular feature of his An Cruiskeen Lawn (“The Little Full Jug”) column for the Irish Times. Puns are at once plebian and patrician, like those who savor them. Plebian, because they elicit a juicy snort of pleasure from the appreciative. Patrician, because it takes wit to recognize wit. A good pun ignites a pleasurable burst of cerebral energy. Myles, of course, took the names of his pun-gents from John Keats and the subject of one of his early sonnets, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” The poem itself is a sort of O’Brien-esque pun, with a premise not unlike At Swim-Two-Birds -- a poet is writing about a poet who translated another’s poet’s poem. Keats may have been “Responsive to sylphs, in the moon beamy air,” but he was hardly immune to the charms of punning. In the letter he wrote for ten days in September 1819 to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana (it runs to thirty-three pages in Vol. 2 of the Hyder E. Rollins edition of the letters), Keats says on Sept. 24:
“As for Pun-making I wish it was as good a trade as pin-making—there is very little business of that sort going on now. We struck for wage like the manchester wevers [sic]—but to no purpose--so we are all out of employ—I am more lucky than some you see by having an opportunity of exporting a few—getting into a little foreign trade—which is a comfortable this.”
Sub-Mylesian, perhaps, but respectable. Among Keats’ friends was the shameless punster Charles Lamb, who described puns as “a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.” In his letter, Keats goes on to mention Lamb, first writing:
“I wish one could get change for a pun in silver currency. I would give three and a half any night to get into Drury-pit—But they wont [sic] ring at all. No more will notes [,] you will say—but notes are differing things—though they make together a Pun mote [bon mot]—as the term goes.”
Keats was born on this date, Oct. 31, in 1795, in Moorgate, London, and died on Feb. 23, 1821, in Rome, at the age of twenty-five.