Limerick (poetry)

Limerick (poetry)

A limerick is a five-line poem with a strict form, originally popularized in English by Edward Lear. Limericks are frequently witty or humorous, and sometimes obscene with humorous intent.

The following example of a limerick is of anonymous origin.:The limerick packs laughs anatomical:In space that is quite economical,::But the good ones I've seen::So seldom are clean,:And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

Gershon Legman, who compiled the largest and most scholarly anthology, held that the true limerick, as a folk form, is always obscene, and cites (x-xi) similar opinions by Arnold Bennett and George Bernard Shaw, describing the clean limerick as a periodic fad and object of magazine contests, rarely rising above mediocrity. That is to say, from a folkloric point of view, the form is essentially transgressive; violation of taboo is part of its function.


The first line of a limerick traditionally introduces a person and a place, with the place appearing at the end of the first line and therefore establishing the rhyme scheme for the second and fifth lines. In early limericks, the last line was often essentially a repeat of the first line, although this is no longer customary.

Within the genre, ordinary speech stress is often distorted in the first line, and may be regarded as a feature of the form: "There "was" a young "man" from the "coast";" "There "once" was a "girl" from De"troit"…" Legman (xliv) takes this as a convention whereby prosody is violated simultaneously with propriety. Exploitation of geographical names, especially exotic ones, is also common, and has been seen as invoking memories of geography lessons in order to subvert the decorum taught in the schoolroom; Legman finds that the exchange of limericks is almost exclusive to comparatively well-educated males (women figuring in limericks almost exclusively as "villains or victims," according to Legman). The most prized limericks incorporate a kind of twist, which may be revealed in the final line, or may lie in the way the rhymes are often intentionally tortured, or both. Many limericks additionally show some form of internal rhyme, alliteration or assonance, or some element of wordplay.

Verses in limerick form are sometimes combined with a refrain to form a limerick song, a traditional humorous drinking song often with obscene verses.

Origin of the name

The origin of the actual name limerick for this type of poem is obscure. Its usage was first documented in England in 1898 ("New English Dictionary") and in America in 1902. [Loomis, C. Grant (1963) "Western Folklore", Vol. 22, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 153–157] It is generally taken to be a reference to the County of Limerick in Ireland (particularly the Maigue Poets), and may derive from an earlier form of nonsense verse parlour game which traditionally included a refrain that ended "Come all the way up to Limerick?" (referring to Limerick, Ireland).


The limerick form can be traced back several hundred years. The oldest recorded poem fitting the metrical patternClarifyme|date=August 2008 is from Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). :Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio:Concupiscentae et libidinis exterminatio,:Caritatis et patientiae,:Humilitatis et obedientiae,:Omniumque virtutum augmentatio.

Translated::Let my viciousness be emptied,:Desire and lust banished,:Charity and patience,:Humility and obedience,:And all the virtues increased.

Following this early example, the limerick has a long association with humour and satire. The poem "The doubt of future foes", composed by Elizabeth I of England, has a metrical structure which anticipates the limerick, although the rhyme scheme is incomplete, as the following couplet shows.:The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,:And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;

The verses of Tom o' Bedlam, a multi-stanza poem in limerick form dating from circa 1600, has developed the internal rhyme between lines three and four.

The following example in French is cited by Boswell in his Life of Johnson as having appeared in 1716 and referring to the 'fierce contentions' concerning the nature of free will by the followers of Molina and Jansen. It exhibits the full AABBA rhyme scheme of the modern limerick.:On s'étonne ici que Caliste:Ait pris l'habit de Moliniste::Puisque cette jeune beauté::Ôte à chacun sa liberté:N'est-ce pas une Janséniste?An approximate translation follows. Caliste, Boswell relates, was a young lady who appeared at a masquerade "habillée en Jésuite" (dressed as a Jesuit).:'Tis such a surprise that Caliste:Should dress up as a Molinist,::For her beauty still::Takes away our free will::Is she not thus a Jansenist?

In Mary Cooper's 1744 book, Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, the following poem in limerick form appears and is the first example in print of an illustrated limerick. [William Stuart Baring-Gould and Ceil Baring-Gould, "The Annotated Mother Goose", pp.24–31.] It remains well-known today, in various forms.:Hickere, Dickere Dock,:A Mouse ran up the Clock,::The Clock Struck One,::The Mouse fell down,:And Hickere Dickere Dock.

The limerick form first came to wider prominence in English in the early 19th century. The first book of limericks, though they were not yet named thus, was "The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, illustrated by as many engravings: exhibiting their Principal Eccentricities and Amusements" (1820, author unknown, published by John Harris and Son). This was soon followed by "Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen" and "Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies" (both published by John Marshall, illustrated by Robert Cruikshank, and probably authored by Richard Scrafton Sharpe [cite web |url= |title=Limerick Books of the 1820s |accessdate=2007-06-24] ).

Edward Lear

. It was customary at the time for limericks to accompany an absurd illustration of the same subject, and for the final line of the limerick to be a kind of conclusion, usually a variant of the first line ending in the same word.

The following is an example of one of Edward Lear's limericks.: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, according to the space available under the accompanying picture.)


Spelling and pronunciation

The idiosyncratic link between spelling and pronunciation in the English language is explored in this Scottish example. Bear in mind that the name 'Menzies' is pronounced "MING-iss" (IPAEng|ˈmɪŋɪs).:A lively young damsel named Menzies:Inquired: "Do you know what this thenzies?"::Her aunt, with a gasp,::Replied: "It's a wasp,:And you're holding the end where the stenzies." [cite news |title=Why is Menzies pronounced Mingis? |url=]


There is a sub-genre of poems that take the twist and apply it to the limerick itself. These are sometimes called anti-limericks.

The following example, of unknown origin, subverts the structure of the true limerick by changing the number of syllables in the lines.:There was a young man from Japan:Whose limericks never would scan.::When asked why this was,::He answered "because:I always try to fit as many syllables into the last line as ever possibly I can."

Some examples exploit the strict form of the limerick to lead the listener into expecting a particular conclusion (sometimes one that would be obscene or shocking), and then derive humour from cunningly avoiding the expected words. The following example, attributed to W.S. Gilbert, follows the meter of a limerick but deliberately breaks the rhyme scheme, in a parody of a limerick by Lear.:There was an old man of St. Bees,:Who was stung in the arm by a wasp;::When they asked, "Does it hurt?"::He replied, "No, it doesn't,:But I thought all the while 't was a Hornet." [As quoted in 'Introduction' in "A Nonsense Anthology" collected by Carolyn Wells, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903, pp. xix-xxxiii.]

ee also

*Chastushka (Russian form with similar traits)
*Dixon Lanier Merritt's famous limerick about pelicans
*There once was a man from Nantucket


* Cray, Ed. "The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Songs" (University of Illinois, 1992).
* "Jones, Dave E." "A Collection of Sea Songs and Ditties from the Stores of Dave E. Jones". No publisher. No date (1928). Unpaginated.
* Legman, Gershon. "The Limerick" NY: Bell, 1964;1969. Reissue Random House, 1988.
* Legman, Gershon. "The Horn Book". (New York: University Press, 1964).
* Reuss, Richard A. "An Annotated Field Collection of Songs From the American College Student Oral Tradition" (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Masters Thesis, 1965).

External links

Lists of Limericks:
* [ Modern Limericks on Today's News]
* [ Daily Limericks skewing politics and celebrity]
* [ The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form (OEDILF)]
* [ Limericks by famous people]
* [ DeepThought Limericks] A collection of limericks submitted and rated by the public
* [ Newsmericks] News & Views in limerick form
* [ David Morin's physics limericks] , from his mechanics textbook used for the advanced introductory Harvard physics course, Physics 16
* [ alt.jokes.limericks (AJL)] A bawdy Usenet Limerick group
* [ The Jim McWilliam Collection] Over 95,000 Limericks
* [ LimerickDB collection] submitted by the public

Website dedicated to "The Pearl": [ The Pearl online]

Books available from Project Gutenberg:
* " [ A Book of Nonsense] "

Limerick Bibliographies:
* Deex, Arthur. [ A link to Arthur Deex's comprehensive annotated Limerick Bibliography]
* Dilcher, Karl [ The Karl Dilcher bibliography of limerick books.]

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