puns and poetic style

My essay on wordplay in the Old English poem Exodus appears in Etymology and Wordplay in Medieval Literature: Poetry, Hypothesis, and Experience in the European Middle Ages, edited by Mikael Males. This collection, published in the Brepols Disputatio series, grew out of a 2013 conference at the University of Oslo. The essay, entitled “Puns and Poetic Style in Old English,” asks a historical question and uses poetic style to begin to answer the question. Here are the opening and closing paragraphs of the first section:

English poetry written in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries comes down to modern scholars with little secure information about date of composition, authorship, or place of composition. The Old English poetic corpus comprehends an array of genres and topics, from brief monologues to riddles to lengthy biblical narratives. Cutting across these categories is a single poetic metre and a highly conventionalized poetic style. Old English verse, characteristically sententious, utilizes paronomasia and wordplay to achieve particular literary effects. Yet writers from this period have left behind no ars poetica recording their perceptions of English metre or poetic style. Medieval English poets practiced literary form at a time when vernacular poetics had not yet become an academic subject or a sustained cultural discourse. As such, the best available evidence for the cultural status of vernacular poetry in this phase of English literary history may be the poetry itself. This essay identifies extensive wordplay in one Old English poem and reads this wordplay as an index of the tastes and aims of a long-lost interpretive community.

After surveying the evidence for the dating, circulation, authorship, and localization of Old English poetry, this essay assesses older and newer critical approaches in Old English studies, with special attention to work on wordplay and poetic style. In light of the scant evidence for traditional categories of contextualization afforded by most Old English verse, I argue that poetic style can sometimes provide more precise answers to pressing literary-historical questions. The second section identifies and discusses several puns on nautical terminology in the Old English Exodus, a 590-line narrative poem very loosely based on Exodus 13. 18—14. 31 and attested uniquely in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11 (late tenth c.). Junius 11 also contains Genesis and Daniel, longer and more straightforward versifications of those biblical books, and Christ and Satan, an imaginative dialogue in verse. I direct consideration of wordplay in Exodus toward an understanding of the genre and purpose of the poem, in order to begin to answer the question posed by Roberta Frank in 1988, ‘What kind of poetry is Exodus?’


Despite sustained attention to this topic within Old English studies, the meaning of paronomastic strategies remains incompletely understood. What, precisely, were puns thought to accomplish, and by what means did authors signal them or audiences apprehend them? The following investigation of nautical puns in Exodus will not answer these questions directly, but I hope to offer both a reorientation of the problem in terms of poetic style and an illustration of the ways in which the study of style, in a fragmentary corpus, can reveal the practices of otherwise unknowable literary communities. I read wordplay in Exodus as an indication of its author’s attitudes toward language and knowledge. At the same time, I seek to extrapolate from literary practice to textual interpretation and from interpretation back to practice, confirming the importance of wordplay for the interpretation of Old English poetry in general but also suggesting some ways in which a particular composition may be seen to reflect its (now lost) literary-cultural context. In the process, puns in Exodus will emerge as significant literary strategies and crucial historical evidence. In comparison with other Old English poems, wordplay in Exodus seems to me at once more insistent and less obviously derivative of Latin exegetical modes. For that reason it may repay the individual treatment it receives in the remainder of this essay.