No, this is not a post about alliteration. Stop that. This post is about the limerick as a verse form.
A few weeks ago a friend and blog-subscriber (all of you, dear blog subscribers, are friends, whether I know you or not) offered me a book of limericks. He knows I like rhyme. He was helping an elderly woman clean out the scholarly library of her husband, who had recently died. The man who died had been a well-known religious scholar, and his personal library consisted of hundreds of religious texts and commentaries.
Oddly, among his books my friend found a 500 page volume entitled The Limerick. The book's subtitle claimed it was "The largest collection of limericks ever published, erotic or otherwise. Of the 1700 printed here, none are otherwise."
My friend, no minor scholar himself, said the introduction to the book describes them as "bawdy," but some (in his view) could be considered pornographic. Would I like the book sent to me in a plain brown wrapper, he asked?
I declined. But this did get me thinking about limericks. Are they always bawdy? When did they originate? Among the many verse forms, how did it come to be that limericks are low class, as opposed, let's say, to the high-class sonnet? Limericks are the people's verse, no artsy pretensions allowed (or even possible, really. The form itself virtually prohibits that).
You know it's true. No one would ever write elegant, delicate limericks to their lover (I dare you to try). Something about the bouncing rhythm of the limerick, the rhyme scheme itself, gets one smirking from the first line on, while enjoying the internal rhymes and anticipating the punch line that one knows is coming. The very dictionary definition of a limerick bears this out: "a humorous five-line poem with rhyme scheme aabba."
For a longer explanation: "A limerick is a humorous poem consisting of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines must have seven to ten syllables while rhyming and having the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines should only have five to seven syllables; they too must rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm."
Alright, then. Humorous, always. Bawdy? Sometimes yes, but very often not. Heretical, irreverent, weird and zany, one website says. An example by Dixon Lanier Merritt:
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak,
Enough food for a week,
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.
Why not a physics limerick? (author unknown)
There was a young lady named Bright
who could travel much faster than light.
She set out one day
in a relative way
and came back on the previous night.
Or a chemistry limerick (about DDT; author unknown):
A mosquito was crying in pain that a chemist had poisoned its brain. And the cause of his sorrow was para-dichloro- diphenyl-trichloroethane.
Humorists Edward Lear, Lewis Carrol and Ogden Nash each wrote dozens of limericks. There are limericks attributed to 'serious' writers, too: George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Aldous Huxley and Salman Rushdie, among others.
There are many limericks for children:
A circus performer named Brian
Once smiled as he rode on a lion.
They came back from the ride,
But with Brian inside,
And the smile on the face of the lion. (author unknown)
An ambitious young fellow named Matt Tried to parachute using his hat. Folks below looked so small As he started to fall, Then got bigger and bigger and SPLAT! (Graham Lester)
One can imagine the illustrations that would accompany these.
It is difficult to know for sure, but many people attribute the birth of the limerick to Sir Thomas Aquinas, who apparently wrote a Latin prayer in the 13th century in limerick form (neither bawdy nor humorous). Kudos to the person who first translated this prayer from Latin and then reworded it into English that follows the limerick rules:
To circumvent brimstone and fire Expelling unsav’ry desire I piously pray And devoutly obey As my soul soars progressively higher
This belies the iron-clad designation of 'humorous,' though I daresay limerick prayers are rare.
Shakespeare's limericks appear in King Lear, Othello and The Tempest. Early Mother Goose books, published in the early 18th century, contained many limericks.
Why are these little fellows called 'limericks?' Their popularity spread in England and especially in Ireland, a country with a strong historical tradition of storytelling. The bawdy versions were very popular in pubs and taverns. One version of how the limerick got its name says that residents of the Irish city of Limerick began to call them 'limericks' and the name stuck. Another version says that limericks were popularized by a group of poets in the Irish county of Limerick. There is no doubt about the Irish connection. There is a plaque on the wall of the White House pub in Limerick that reads:
The Limerick is furtive and mean;
you must keep her in close quarantine
or she sneaks up to the slums
and promptly becomes
disorderly, drunk and obscene.
I will leave you with a spontaneous limerick of my own.
When the blog readers asked for a sonnet
D. Court promised, "Readers, I'm on it!"
She bemoaned with a shout
When a limerick came out
Her inadequate thinking upon it.
Till next time.