It was recently brought to my attention that Poe was once a comedian.
I recall first hearing this statement claimed a few years ago-after all, he has written more satire and humorous stories combined than horror-but who would believe that this “miserable” and “melancholy” writer was once a comedian?
If you still remain skeptical, do not worry-so do I. Upon reading Poe’s satires, including “Lionizing” and “The Devil in the Belfry,” one can see jabs at humor here and there, especially jabs which mock the social life of nineteenth century America; unfortunately, it is just that point that leaves readers scratching their heads. Poe’s humor was catered to his time and is not catered to our contemporary readers. In fact, Poe still leaves me desperately searching for an annotated edition so that I may understand what his Latin sentences mean, what his made up words are equivalent to, and even what the statements that are assumedly supposed to be funny mean.
In fact, the editor of the Emporia Gazette in 1911 commented:
If there is anything in the world more gloomy and heartrending than Poe’s tragic tales, it is Poe’s humorous work. He hadn’t the first qualification of a humorist. There was nothing buoyant or effervescent in his make-up. His “humorous” stories are such labored things as to make the reader weep. The fact that he constantly uses italics to identify and emphasize his alleged jests is enough for any reasonable man (EAPoe).
Not only did Poe write satire and make an attempt to make his readers laugh, but he also liked to throw out the occasional pun. Let us not forget the gentleman whom Poe chastised for using a pun in the writer’s “Best Conundrum Yet”:
With this heading we find the following in the New York Signal: — “Why may Prince Albert be considered a saving and frugal personage?” [[“]]Answer — because he lays by a sovereign every night.” Mr. [Park?] Benjamin, we have a very high respect for you, but not for your opinion about your own puns. Do you seriously think that conundrum a good one — we don’t. To be good, a double entendre should be at least good English when viewed on either side. Now we may lay by a piece of money — but we lie by a wife (EAPoe). (Note, this was attributed to Poe in 1943 by Clarence Brigham.)
In short, Poe was a tad hypocritical when it came between his own writing and critiquing others works. But we digress.
The Poe enthusiast who spurred this post reached out to me with an article from EAPoe’s website. This article, full of Poe’s puns, is both a joy and also upsetting-what was Poe thinking when he wrote these jokes?
We will provide a few examples of our favorites below:
“I have a table needing repairs; why must the cabinet-maker who comes for it be in good circumstances?
Because he is comfortable. — come for table.” We think Poe should reflect on the previous criticism regarding Mr. Benjamin’s pun. Poe’s grammar is just as, if not more, poor here than Benjamin’s.
“Why is his last new novel sleep itself?
Because it’s so poor. — sopor.”
“Why is a chain like the feline race?
Because it’s a catenation. — a catty nation.”
“When you called the dock a wharf, why was it a deed of writing? Because it was a dock you meant. — a document.”
“Why does a lady in tight corsets never need comfort?”
“Because she’s already so laced. — solaced.”
Lastly, we cannot forget the pun where Poe mentions himself,
“Why ought the author of the ‘Grotesque and Arabesque’ to be a good writer of verses?
Because he’s a poet to a t. Add t to Poe makes it Poet.”
We will point out that these puns were so bad, Poe had to even write out the answers himself.
You can read more of Poe’s terrible puns by following this link.
Although we may snicker and sneer at Poe’s jokes, or lack thereof, it must be noted that he was aware of his bad humor. In fact, he made this statement in regard to justifying his bad puns,
“Why is a bad wife better than a good one? — Because bad is the best.” This somewhat ungallant old query, with its horrible answer, is an embodiment of the true genius of the whole race to which it belongs — the race of the conundrums. Bad is the best. There is nothing better settled in the minds of people who know any thing at all, than the plain truth that if a conundrum is decent it wo’nt do — that if it is fit for anything it is not worth twopence — in a word that its real value is in exact proportion to the extent of its demerit, and that it is only positively good when it is outrageously and scandalously absurd. In this clear view of the case we offer the annexed. They have at least the merit of originality — a merit apart from that of which we have just spoken. At all events if they are not ours, we have just made them, and they ought to be (EAPoe).
If Poe was self-aware, then why did he proceed to torture his readers?
Do you think you would go to Poe’s show if he were hosting at a comedy club? Would you cheer him on or jeer and throw tomatoes at the poor man? If we were able to give him advice during the time he wrote these puns, we would advise he not quit his day job.
However, to support and enlighten Edgar’s comedic voice, we will end this with another of his own:
“Why are these conundrums like a song for one voice?
“Because they’re so low.”[solo]-Just like Poe’s puns.