There is a well-known line, often attributed to Samuel Johnson, but preceded and followed by myriad others, that the pun is the lowest form of humor. If so, the limerick, a form of verse that depends on clever assonance and double entendre, is certainly the lowest form of poetry. In this post, we will shine a spotlight on the limerick, and see if the cockroaches scurry.
To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the limerick originated in England sometime before the fifteenth century. Early in the life of this form of poetry, limericks were created primarily for children.
Here’s an oldie, but goodie:
Hickory Dickory Dock
A mouse ran up the clock
The clock struck one
And down he run
Hickory Dickory Dock
Limericks began to gain widespread popularity in the mid-to-late eighteen-hundreds with the publication of Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense in 1845 and 1872. Lear’s verses centered on nonsensical themes, and he violated every law in the “poetic rulebook” by using a word to “rhyme” with itself and occasionally destroying the anapestic foot.
For this reader, seven hundred years of poetic tradition has trained my ears to flinch when I hear someone waste words within a rigid form. With the vantage of history, we moderns can rise up in our highfalutin’ indignation at offenses like this one:
There was an old person whose habits
Induced him to feed upon rabits
When he’d eaten eighteen he turned perfectly green
Upon which he relinquished those habits
Here, Lear rhymed “habits” with “habits,” and actually dropped the doubled “b” in “rabits.” Ouch.
Dictionary.com gives the origin of the term “limerick” as a reference in a popular drinking song, in which the refrain, “Will you come up to Limerick?” follows an extemporized verse. You can imagine the verses of the poem growing increasingly ribald as the beer flowed freely. In fact, given its tame domestic origins, the limerick has gained a unique reputation for bawdy subject matter and salty language.
The science-fiction icon, Isaac Asimov, along with John Ciardi, penned one of the seminal works in the study of the limerick. He captured the essence of the limerick with nuggets like these:
39. Fit for a Marathon
To the ancient Greek writer Herodotus,
Said a pretty young thing, “My, how hard it is!”
Said he, “Do you fear
I will hurt you, my dear?”
And she said, “Are you crazy? Thank God it is!”
Asimov and Ciardi do not source each of the limericks included their book. It is safe to say that many of these little gems had been passed down orally for generations until someone inscribed them for safekeeping. A more contemporary limerick demonstrates how the form is used in a more modern context:
126. Comic Strip
A well-known reporter, Clark Kent
Had a simpering, mild-mannered bent.
But he grabbed Lois Lane,
And he made it quite plain
What his cognomen Superman meant.
Poetic forms closely connected with the limerick can be found as early as fourteenth century England — quite a bit before the town of Limerick staked its claim. And while our language has evolved over the centuries, the English language, with its plethora of conjunctions and articles, provides humorists with a host of tools to fit the rhythm of the form.
Anyone can write a limerick. All you have to do is read some of the examples here, which will refresh your ear to the meter, and then give yourself a character (first line) and a situation (second line). Find a surprise ending, and away you go!
e.g. There once was a (person) from (place),
Who (action) to (something) his face,
When (something) (occurred),
(Inserting a word),
To (person) comes certain disgrace.
In honor of Limerick Day today, surprise us! Are you game? What is your favorite limerick – we’re waiting to smirk, chuckle, or ROFL at your responses.