Poetry Guide: Limerick Poetry
A limerick is a short, often humorous and ribald poem developed to a very specific structure.
The rhyme scheme is usually aabba, with a rather rigid meter. The first, second, and fifth lines are three metrical feet; the third and fourth two metrical feet. The foot used is usually the amphibrach, a stressed syllable between two unstressed ones. However it can be considered an anapestic foot, two short syllables and then a long, the reverse of dactyl rhythm. However, many substitutions are common.
The first line traditionally introduces a person and a location, and usually ends with the name of the location, though sometimes with that of the person. A true limerick is supposed to have a kind of twist to it. This may lie in the final line, or it may lie in the way the rhymes are often intentionally tortured, or in both. Though not a strict requirement, the best limericks are usually those that additionally show some form of internal rhyme, often alliteration, sometimes assonance or another form of rhyme.
Origin of the name
The origin of the actual word limerick is obscure. The first known occurrence is from May 1896; the OED first reports it in 1898. The name is often linked to an earlier form of nonsense verse which was traditionally followed by the refrain that ended "...come all the way up to Limerick?", Limerick being an Irish city. That the older refrain does not match the meter of the limerick has been used to attack this theory. A point in favour, however, is the fact that in other languages, limericks are indeed sung, with wordless (la-la) refrains between them that match a version of this text.
Sections in poems following the limerick form can be found throughout known history, from the work of Greek classic poets to the first known English popular song, Sumer is icumen in (c. 1300) and the works of Shakespeare. Othello, King Lear, The Tempest and Hamlet all contain limericks within longer segments. This example is from Othello, Act II Scene III:
IAGO Some wine, ho!
- And let me the canakin clink, clink;
- And let me the canakin clink
- A soldier's a man;
- A life's but a span;
- Why, then, let a soldier drink.
The first deliberate creation to match limerick form is usually considered Tom o' Bedlam (c. 1600):
- From the hag and hungry goblin
- That into rags would rend thee
- And the spirit that stands
- by the naked man,
- In the book of the moons defend yee.
Other examples can be discovered from the 19th century. The first book of limericks, though they were not yet named thus, is The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women (1820), followed by the Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen (1822). But the form was popularised by Edward Lear, who has been grandiloquently dubbed "The Poet Laureate of the Limerick", in his A Book of Nonsense (1845) and a later work (1872) on the same theme. In all Lear wrote 212 limericks, mostly aimed towards nonsense. In his time limericks accompanied an illustration on the same subject, and the final line of the limerick was a kind of conclusion, which usually was a variant of the first, ending in the same word. This is different from the punchline or twist of the modern limerick, that usually has a proper rhyme. Since Lear's limericks are the best-known examples of the classical limerick, and since these poems were not yet called "Limericks", some have retroactively named them Learics, as they are not true limericks in the modern sense of the word. An example:
- There was a Young Person of Smyrna
- Whose grandmother threatened to burn her;
- But she seized on the cat, and said, 'Granny, burn that!
- You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!'
(Lear's limericks were often typeset in three lines or four lines.)
Ogden Nash is renowned for humorous short poetry, and often used the limerick form:
- There once was a miser named Clarence
- Who simonized both of his parents;
- "The initial expense,"
- he remarked, "is immense,
- But it saves on the wearance and tearance."
For reasons of decency, many collections consist entirely of innocent examples. Amongst the exceptions are several collections by the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote Lecherous Limericks (1975), More Lecherous Limericks (1976) and Still More Lecherous Limericks (1977); he wrote two later volumes in collaboration with poet John Ciardi: Limericks Too Gross (1978) and A Grossery of Limericks (1981).
In 1970, New York's Brandywine Press published The Limerick, a canonical work of bawdy limericks compiled by folklore scholar Gershon Legman, which had previously been printed only in Europe. This was followed by The New Limerick in 1977 (later re-released under the title More Limericks.) The former volume contained more than 1700 verses, the latter about 2700.
Definitely a recurring theme is the indecent subjects of many limericks. It is often considered that the less innocent limericks are amongst the best, and the most common:
- The limerick packs laughs anatomical
- Into space that is quite economical.
- But the good ones I've seen
- So seldom are clean
- And the clean ones so seldom are comical.
- -- Vyvyan Holland
Two volumes of Lecherous Limericks were written by Isaac Asimov, the well known science fiction author.
The mythopoeic "man from Nantucket", typically portrayed as a sexually perverse and hypersexual persona, is also a recurring theme in limericks. For example:
- There once was a man from Nantucket
- Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
- But his daughter, named Nan,
- Ran away with a man
- And as for the bucket, Nantucket.
This literary trope can be attributed to the many whalers who once lived on Nantucket and the popularity of the limerick genre in whaling culture. It has also been suggested that the popularity of Nantucket in limericks stems from the possibility to rhyme it with a number of obscenities.
Uttoxeter and Exeter
Similarly Uttoxeter and Exeter have been used as the inspiration for hundreds of limericks:
- There was a fair maiden of Exeter,
- So pretty that guys craned their necks at her.
- One was even so brave
- as to take out and wave
- The distinguishing mark of his sex at her.
The limerick is often spelled to make the ending match in orthography as well as pronunciation, especially when the spelling of one of the words is bizarre:
- There was a young curate of Salisbury
- Whose manners were quite Halisbury-Scalisbury
- He wandered round Hampshire
- Without any pampshire
- Till the Vicar compelled him to Warisbury
Note: Salisbury was once known to locals as Sarum, Hampshire as Hants, giving:
- There was a young curate of Sarum
- Whose manners were quite harem-scarem (Halisbury-Scalisbury)
- He wandered round Hants (Hampshire)
- Without any pants (pampshire)
- Till the Vicar compelled him to Wear'em (Warisbury)
By further contortion, this can even be extended to the beginning:
- A bdellium bdiamond of beauty
- Was bdisplayed in a shop in Bdjibouti.
- I bought it, then came
- A bdelicate bdame
- I'm her suitor now, and she my suitee.
There is a sub-genre of poems that take the twist of the Limerick and apply it to the Limerick itself. These are sometimes called anti-limericks.
Some lead the listener into expectation of a rhyme, often indecent, which actually is not used.
- There was a young lady from Bude
- Who went for a swim in the lake
- A man in a punt
- Stuck an oar in her ear
- And said "You can't swim here, it's private."
- There once was an athlete of Venice
- Who liked to play matches of tennis
- When a ball hit him hard
- He went to a ward
- Where a doctor did cut off his foot.
Another limerick, attributed to composer Arthur Sullivan, replaces the rhyme with association:
- There was a young man of St Bees
- Who was stung in the arm by a wasp
- They asked, "Does it hurt?"
- He replied, "No it doesn't"
- I'm glad that it wasn't a hornet
Others subvert the structure of the true limerick.
- There was a young bard from Japan
- Whose limericks never would scan.
- When asked why this was,
- He said 'It's because
- I always try to get as many words into the last line as I possibly can.'
- A decrepit old gas man named Peter,
- While hunting around for the meter,
- Touched a leak with his light.
- He arose out of sight,
- And, as anyone can see by reading this, he also destroyed the meter.
- A limerick fan from Australia
- Regarded his work as a failure:
- His verses were fine
- Until the fourth line.
This is taken a stage further by this pair of verses:
- There was a young man of Arnoux
- Whose limericks stopped at line two
...and by extension...
- There was a young man of Verdun
...which if completed would be a self-contradiction.
The third member of this pair would be the limerick about the young man from Saint Paul, which would be self-contradictory if it were told at all.
Limericks in other languages than English
Although limericks have been written in a great number of different languages, many of these suffer from the fact that the meter of the limerick does not adapt well to such languages as, for example, French or Latin. Good limericks can be written in languages that have a similar natural rhythm to English.
The following example is in Icelandic:
- Þegar líkið er glaseygt, svo glampar í,
- og í görnum er eitthvað, sem skvampar í,
- enda nefbroddur rauður
- -- þá er dóninn ei dauður --
- heldur drekkur hann of mikið Campari.
A French example, from 1715:
- On s'étonne ici que Caliste
- Ait pris l'habit de Moliniste
- Puisque cette jeune beauté
- Ote à chacun sa liberté
- N'est-ce pas une Janseniste?
And another French example:
- Y avait un jeune homme de Dijon
- Qui se foutait de toute religion.
- Il a dit, "Quant à moi,
- Je déteste les trois:
- Le Père, et le Fils, et le Pigeon."
An example in Swedish, attributed to Hans Alfredson:
- Det var en ung dam ifrån Gränna
- som stjärten så hårt kunde spänna
- att hon i detta hål
- kunde strypa en ål
- och till och med vässa en penna
(There was a young lady from Gränna / who her butt so hard could strain / that she in this hole / could strangle an eel / and even sharpen a pen)
An example in Esperanto from Raymond Schwartz:
- Jen estis fraŭlin' en Parizo;
- ŝi dormis sen noktoĉemizo,
- feliĉe ŝi havis
- - Kaj tio min ravis -
- piĵamon en mia valizo.
(There was a miss in Paris/she slept without a nightshirt/happily she has/and that delighted me/ pyjamas in my valise)
The dodoitsu is a short sometimes comic Japanese poem known as a Japanese limerick.
John O'Mill wrote several well-known limericks in Dutch, or in an intentional garble of Dutch and English, such as:
- A terrible infant called Peter
- Sprinkled his bed with a gheter gieter = watering can
- His father got woost woest = angry
- Took hold of a knoost knoest = tree branch
- And gave him a pack on his meter Dutch saying meaning 'to spank'
- The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form (OEDILF)
- Limerick Savant Limerick news summaries
- Limericks by famous people
- Limericks by Richard Long
- Lear's Limericks retold A curious attempt to "provide some of Mr Lear's limericks with a little more punch in their final lines."
- Limericks for no particular occasion
- The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women
- Jarmo's TOAD (Topical Odes Almost Daily) Satirical limericks on the headlines of the day (UK-based)
- Jarmo's FROG (Fairly Random Odes Generally) Original limericks both crude and cerebral
- Limerick-Queen (in German and partly in English) Huge amount of limericks in good quality
- Violent Limericks
- God of Limericks Free Daily Limericks
Books available from Gutenberg: