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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
- 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.
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.
A limerick has five lines, with three metrical feet in the first, second and fifth lines and two metrical feet in the third and fourth lines. A variety of types of metrical foot can be used, but the most typical are the amphibrach (a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables) and the anapaest (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable). The rhyme scheme is usually AABBA.
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 DeTROIT..." 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. Some examples exploit the strict form of the limerick to lead the listener into expecting a particular conclusion, particularly one that would be obscene or shocking, and then derive humour from cunningly avoiding the expected words --
- There once was a lady from Bude
- Who went swimming one day in the lake.
- A man in a punt
- Stuck his pole in the water
- And said "You can't swim here -- it's private."
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. It is generally taken to be a reference to the city of Limerick in Ireland, 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, and 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 Molinos and Jansenius. 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. 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).
The limerick form was popularized by Edward Lear in his first Book of Nonsense (1845) and a later work (1872) on the same theme. In all Lear wrote 212 limericks, mostly nonsense verse. 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.)
One instance of the use of the Limerick in popular culture is in the Limerick dungeon, on the free online MMORPG, The Kingdom of Loathing.
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 /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."
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 anonymous 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.'
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 does n't,
- But I thought all the while 't was a Hornet."