Ben Battle was a soldier bold,
And used to war’s alarms:
A cannon-ball took off his legs,
So he laid down his arms!
This is the first verse of a rather silly poem which has a pun in almost every stanza (stanza is another word for verse, although stanzas don’t have to rhyme, whereas verse usually does).
Puns are plays on words. They usually depend on words having more than one meaning, or words which sound alike.
In the verse above, the pun is on arms. Arms – like legs – are limbs on the human body; but arms can also refer to weapons, such as the rifles that infantry soldiers use. (Infantry soldiers fought on foot originally, rather than on horseback; you’ll need to know this to appreciate another pun, later!)
A punster – a rather derogatory [insulting] term for someone who makes puns – might describe the unfortunate Ben Battle as ‘armless – making a pun on the fact that he has laid down his weapons and so can’t do any damage: he’s [h]armless. This is the second type of pun.
Puns can be “awful” – very contrived and possibly in bad taste! Most people appreciate them, however, even if they don’t want to hear them used too often.
The poem I’ve quoted, which is called Faithless Nelly Gray and was written by Thomas Hood, goes on to tell how army surgeons made Ben some wooden legs. When he goes to see his girlfriend, however, she dislikes them and says that he’s not the man she fell in love with – a handsome soldier in his (red) uniform. Ben suspects, though, that she has actually taken up with another man while he has been away in the wars. Distraught with grief, he takes his own life – but even this sad ending does not stop Thomas Hood filling his verses with puns!
I won’t reproduce the whole poem here, but see if you can explain the puns in each of the following stanzas:
Now as they bore him off the field,
Said he, “Let others shoot,
For here I leave my second leg,
And the Forty-second Foot!”
The army-surgeons made him limbs:
Said he, “They’re only pegs:
But there’s as wooden members quite,
As represent my legs!”
“O Nelly Gray! O Nelly Gray!
Is this your love so warm?
The love that loves a scarlet coat
Should be more uniform!”
“O false and fickle Nelly Gray!
I know why you refuse:
Though I’ve no feet – some other man
Is standing in my shoes!“