Great minds think alike:
And Puns, then best when exquisitely bad;
(S.T. Coleridge, poem quoted in Letter to John Thelwall, 31 December 1796)
Good poets have a weakness for bad puns.
(W.H. Auden, ‘The Truest Poetry is the most Feigning’)
I’m tempted to call this 1-0 to Auden: he trumps Coleridge for pithiness, memorability and metrical zing. Compared to this, Coleridge’s line is awkward and gauche, a schoolboyish snigger in the back row with Thomas Poole. While Auden strolls confidently through the pentameter, Coleridge doesn’t quite manage to shoehorn the stress on ‘exquisitely’ from the second syllable (where it belongs) to the third (which the metre demands).
But it’s hardly fair to mark Coleridge down for this. Auden was writing in earnest, making a serious point (albeit slyly), while Coleridge was penning some off-the-record doggerel for a friend’s amusement. For Coleridge, puns would not be a fit subject for ‘real’ poetry.
Auden had a wider breadth of tone than Coleridge, capable of accommodating low comedy and the ‘language really used by men’ in a way Coleridge never managed. On the other hand, Auden never wrote anything as magical as ‘Kubla Khan’ or as devastating as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
You can’t do everything.