is a short, often humorous and ribald poem
developed to a very specific structure.
The rhyme scheme is usually aabba, with a very rigid meter. The first, second, and fifth lines are three metrical feet; the third and fourth two metrical feet. The rhythm can be called an anapestic foot, two short syllables and then a long, the reverse of dactyl rhythm. The first line often ends with a person's name or a location (geographical limericks), and rhymes are often intentionally tortured. Iambs are often substituted for an initial anapestic foot.
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, Summer is i-cumen in (c. 1300) and the works of Shakespeare (Othello, King Lear, The Tempest and Hamlet all contain limericks within longer segments). 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 18th century. The first book of limericks 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. Lear wrote 212 limericks, but they were aimed more at nonsense than toward a punchline or twist in the final line, and often the last line is simply a variant or reversal of the first. The first and last lines usually end in the same word, rather than rhyming. This had led some to retroactively rename his works Learics
, as they are not true limericks. 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 typeset as four lines.)
The origins of the actual word limerick is obscure. The OED first reports it only 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 town. 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, there are non-sung (la-la) refrains that do to a degree match versions of this text.
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 edited Lecherous Limericks
(1975), More Lecherous Limericks
(1976), Still More Lecherous Limericks
(1977), Limericks Too Gross
(1978) and A Grossery of 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.
The island of Nantucket
has been an especially recurring theme in limericks:
- There once was a man from Nantucket
- Who kept all of his cash in a bucket.
- But his daughter, named Nan,
- Ran away with a man
- And as for the bucket, Nantucket.
have similarly 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.
There is a sub-genre of poems that subvert the structure of the true limerick. These are sometimes called anti-limericks. For example,
- 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 in the last line as I possibly can.'
- 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 limerick is often spelt 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 Halisbury-Scalisbury
- He wandered round Hampshire
- Without any pampshire
- Till the Vicar compelled him to Warisbury
Salisbury is known to locals as Sarum
, Hampshire as Hants
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.
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 as English. The following example is in Icelandic: ---
A French example, from 1715:
- Ůegar lÝki er glaseygt, svo glampar Ý,
- og Ý g÷rnum er eitthva, sem skvampar Ý,
- enda nefbroddur rauur
- -- ■ß er dˇninn ei dauur --
- heldur drekkur hann of miki Campari.
- On s'Útonne ici que Caliste
- Ait pris l'habit de Moliniste
- Puisque cette jeune beautÚ
- Ote Ó chacun sa libertÚ
- N'est ce pas une Janseniste?
Books available from Gutenberg: