A pun, or paronomasia, is a type of word play in which one word is used to suggest a homophone — a word with a similar sound but different meaning. Puns are sometimes considered a "low" form of humor, which may inspire a grin or a groan, but have little potential for exploring the deeper meanings in language. In reality, however, puns in poetry have a variety of uses, and can be quite profound. Puns in poetry may be used for purely comedic effect, but may also convey a sense of dark irony.
Many 17th century English poets explored the use of puns for wry effect. John Donne, for instance, often played with the meaning of his own last name, which is pronounced the same as the English word "done," and his wife Anne's maiden name, which was More. This one-line poem conveys the difficulty of the early years of his marriage: "John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone." Although there is some wryness in the repetition of sound, the overall effect is one of despair rather than humor.
William Shakespeare is perhaps the most famous punster in English literature, employing puns in poetry ranging from bawdy to silly to serious — often all in the same work. His manic, pun-loving character Hamlet, for example, tells Ophelia in one scene, "Get thee to a nunnery!" The word "nunnery" in this sentence may mean either "convent," or a now-obsolete meaning for "brothel." Although a modern audience might miss this pun, Shakespeare's original audience would have heard all the biting irony of a line that succinctly captures Hamlet's anger and thinly veiled desire to wound Ophelia. The same play also uses puns to explore themes of death and sexuality, contradicting the idea that puns cannot have meaning beyond the depth of basic word play.
In modern writings, however, puns in poetry are more often used as a form of comedy, especially in the poetic form of the limerick, a five-line poem written in a sing-song meter. The early 20th century poet Carolyn Wells wrote one limerick that closes with the line, "To tutor two tooters to toot," which uses sound work to play on the homophone pair "tutor" — to teach, and "tooter" — someone playing a musical instrument. Frequently, however, the puns in a limerick are not quite so innocent, playing on the many English euphemisms for body parts and sexual acts. A bawdy limerick poem might, for instance, use the word "come" to refer both to someone literally arriving somewhere as well as to sexual climax.