Edward Lear’s first influential limerick collection, A Book of Nonsense, hit bookstore shelves nearly 200 years ago. Lear didn’t invent the limerick, however; the snappy five-line poems probably sprang to life on the streets and in the taverns of 14th century Britain. Over time, people from all walks of life — children, scholars, drunks, beggars — have delighted in the witty limerick. Here’s a brief history of five of the world’s best-loved limericks.
Hickory Dickory Dock
Hickory Dickory Dock showed up in ”
“Hickory dickory dock.
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
And down he run.
Hickory dickory dock.”
The Man from Nantucket
The Man from Nantucket serves as inspiration for limericks both dirty and pure. Perhaps you’ve even heard a “Rated X” ending to this story-starter. However, the original Nantucket limerick was quite tame. It appeared in Princeton University’s humor magazine, the ”
“There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.”
Speaking of Geography . . .
Princeton wasn’t the only publisher of geographically themed limericks. Lear chose Peru as his muse at least once, as shown by the following:
“There was an Old Man of Peru
Who watched his wife making a stew.
But once, by mistake,
In a stove she did bake
That unfortunate Man of Peru.”
Lear’s story of the unlucky Peru gent blazed a path for hundreds of amateur Peru poems to come, many of which are less than chaste. Middle schoolers excel at crafting this kind of literature, from what we hear. Perhaps a Peru limerick or two lingers in your own adolescent memory.
Even William Shakespeare practiced what some would call the lowest form of poetry. The following limerick about imbibing spirits appeared in “Othello, Act II, Scene III”:
“And let me the canakin clink, clink.
And let me the canakin clink.
A soldier’s a man.
A life’s but a span.
Why, then, let a soldier drink.”
The Bard also used limericks in “King Lear” and “The Tempest.”
Poet Ogden Nash coined the phrase, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Some limerick fans insist he wrote the following limerick about a pelican:
“A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his beli-can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the heli-can.”
This clever verse has also been attributed to Dixon Lanier Merritt, a humorist who lived at the same time. Nash died in 1971 and Merritt in 1972.
Crafting a Limerick
Limericks are “closed form” poems that adhere to a strict template. Want to write your own? Follow these guidelines:
- The last word in lines 1, 2, and 5 must rhyme and contain 8-9 syllables each.
- The last word in lines 3 and 4 must rhyme and contain 5-6 syllables each.
Of course, what fun are rules unless they’re broken — or at least bent — every once in a while? Consider this limerick by Zach Weiner of the comic “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal,” which coherently flows both backward and forward:
“This limerick goes in reverse
Unless I’m remiss
The neat thing is this:
If you start from the bottom-most verse
This limerick’s not any worse.”
Now we challenge you to write your own limerick. It’s fast, easy, and incredibly satisfying. What will yours be about?