History of Limericks

If you say to a literate guy, "History of Limericks!" comes a gleam in his eye, And he quotes one or two; If he can't tell a few, Then, beware; what you heard is a lie.

As one literary genre after another has, in our media-drenched civilization, gone sterile, the limerick has retained its pristine, antiquated elegance and its caustic wit, as this generous collection of limericks happily demonstrates.

Limericks are the precious heirlooms of our talented ancestors who, often by oral tradition and in defiance of recurring periods of censorship, have bequeathed them to posterity, just as the ancient troubadours passed their poetry on to subsequent generations.

The best limericks have an aura of timelessness about them, and have for generations inspired delight in readers of and listeners receptive to the form's off-color charms. Limericks should be told with due reverence to all, whether old or young—for nobody is safe from skewering. And, come to think of it, the younger the audience, the better (to a point, of course, for the content of the classic limerick is undeniably blue): unfortunately, this truly magnificent form of literary expression is blatantly ignored in college curricula, even at the graduate level, despite the fact that it is headier than weed, punchier than liquor, more sensuous than secret vice, and only slightly inferior to the act of love itself (not to mention fertile training ground for outrageous exaggeration).

Sex Limerick

Some of these limericks have been composed by old hands, some by relative newcomers. Incidentally, a word of warning: So beguiling is the art of creating limericks that once it has been ventured, today's beginner speedily becomes tomorrow's expert. Let the fiendish practice get its grip, and then just try and stop after composing only one limerick. Go ahead—I dare you.

Indeed, it is the aspiration of every limerick-lover to compose, during a lifetime of indolence and folly, at least one perfect limerick that will survive him and become a classic, a part of the immortal canon. Several of the limericks in this collection bid fair to receive such an accolade, to the glory of the composers who, like so many authors of yore, must paradoxically remain anonymous. All hail to the success of their efforts!

A first-rate limerick features the humorous touch of a P.J. O'Rourke, the mordant wit of an Oscar Wilde, and the shock value of an X-rated film. So potent is the limerick's power, in fact, that many hosts and hostesses forbid their recital, for once the guests start telling limericks, it is goodbye to gossip, ecology, politics, and even to furtive dalliance in the kitchen or greenhouse—limericks truly are that enthralling, especially in mixed company.

The basic requirement for great limericks is that they be humorous. "But what is humor?" one may rightly ask. Many serious attempts have been made to explain it and to define it by categories or cases. One intriguing theory claims that all humor can be boiled down to three situations: 

  1. Witnessing another being cuckolded, or criticized in the midst of his lovemaking
  2. Witnessing another being robbed or caught up in his own machinations
  3. Witnessing another taking a pratfall or suffering an equally deflating experience

In each of these cases lies the basic mechanics of humor: the opportunity to laugh at what happens to another. Freud himself demonstrated how pleasant his subjects found it to witness unfortunate events happening to other people—events that the observers would certainly not wish to happen to themselves.

The cornerstone of a great limerick is its fifth line, which can fairly be called the banana peel of poetry. The first four lines serve to prepare the audience for the coming humiliation or pratfall, and then the glorious fifth line delivers the whammy. To wit: For an amorous swain, confident and cocky at his work, to be interrupted in his ardor by the woman's remark in the fifth line, "You’ve got it all in but the head," or "This won't be much of a sin," or "You mean it ain't your finger?" reveals there is always a banana peel lurking for the unwary.

Colonel Limerick

The origin of the word limerick is unknown, although there have been many theories regarding its etymology. It is generally acknowledged that the name does not have anything to do with County Limerick in Ireland or the town of Limerick or with the Earl of Limerick and his charming duchess (who is just a dear friend, by the way, no more). Traces of the form have been found in early literature, in folk ballads, in Shakespeare, and so on. Whatever its first origins may have been and what influence they have had on the modern limerick's form, it is commonly accepted that these little verses began to be called limericks around the middle of the 19th century.

In 1846, Edward Lear, the godfather of the limerick, published his A Book of Nonsense. In all, Lear composed more than 200 limericks. For him, the limerick was in the tradition of his light verse, gossamer and airy (and clean) bits of whimsy, faultlessly versified. Lear often coined his own words for the purposes of versification, and the puckish quality of "The Owl and the Pussycat" is everywhere in evidence. However, in almost all of Lear's limericks, the rhyme (last) word of the first line is repeated as the last word of the fifth line. But many have overlooked the fact that Lear on occasion did use three different rhyme words, as in the following:

There was a Young Lady whose eyes
Were unique as to color and size;
When she opened them wide,
People all turned aside,
And started away in surprise.

Admittedly, Lear's last line is not very humorous. But the use of three different rhyme words contains the germ of what was to come. It remained, near the turn of the century, for the fifth line to evolve into the coruscating gem it is today; At about the same time, the limerick turned obscene. And then how its popularity grew!

Ape Limerick

Early dissemination of the limerick, in no small measure due to the increasing obscenity, was largely oral, as it so often still is today. Consequently, many of the older limericks have numerous variants. The man who "put it in double" may come from Ghent or from Kent. Variants are especially common in the fifth line. The young man from Racine, who invented that remarkable machine (for which, it seems, he never got a patent), has a number of fifth lines, to wit:

...Entertaining itself in between.
...And guaranteed used by the queen.
...With a drip-pot to catch all the cream.
...And jerked itself off in between.
...The God-damndest thing ever seen.
...With attachments for those in between.
And so on and so forth....

Who is to say which of these is the best? And anyway, why spoil the delight of the experts who, after the limerick has been told in one version, then proceed to recite, at carefully timed intervals, alternate fifth lines, to the increasing hilarity of the audience? Frequently, as every reciter of limericks knows, it is the cumulative effect of several ribald ditties, delivered one hard upon the other, that gets the most enthusiastic response from the audience.

There have been many attempts, and not always commendable ones, to improve upon the classics. This is another cause of variant versions. The Racine limerick is among the most widely known and recited ones, so it is not surprising that it has such a wealth of fifth lines. One should not be too hard on those who tinker with the classics. Have you never felt the urge to add some ad hoc obscenity to a current pop song or classic rock chestnut?

Variants also may arise because the reciter forgets the exact rhyme word and coins an equivalent (Kent for Ghent, for example). It is even easier to forget the exact words of lines three and four, and an impromptu version is thereby frequently created out of necessity—and sometimes it is superior to the original. But one man's favorite may not be another's. Do not interrupt the laughter at the end of a limerick with a pedantic, "No, no! It goes like this..." It is far better, as the laughter dies down, to add your version as an afterthought. Play your cards in this spirit of cooperation and you may get the bigger laugh and even reap the pleasure of seeing the original teller of the limerick furtively jot down your line.

Elephant Limerick

The purpose of the limerick, as already mentioned, is to amuse and entertain. In the attempt to find challenging and novel rhyme words, astute limerick researchers have used most of the countries and cities of the world. It would require a geographical expert to locate every such place correctly on the map. Newcomers to the field are sometimes surprised to discover that the most popular limerick country is Peru. What is the fatal attraction of this innocent little country? The answer lies in the number of common words that rhyme with it: canoe, do, coo, woo, Jew, pew, new, knew, threw, through, blew, blue, spew, stew, gnu, flu, flew, sou, few, cockatoo, zoo, true, glue, two, to; All these have been used, as has screw you, too! For similar reasons, limericks about Bombay, France, Khartoum, Madras, Madrid (and Spain as a whole), and Siam abound.

If the limerick has nearly exhausted the countries and cities of the world, what about the dramatis personae of the limerick? As might be expected, there is almost no profession that has not been honored, almost no job, be it ever so humble, that has not been touched upon. The army, navy, air force, and marines; The medical profession (doctors, dentists, surgeons, morticians, obstetricians, even Dr. Freud); Musicians ranging from the aloof maestro to a simple flautist, plus a goodly company of famous composers; artists, painters, writers; World-famous figures from Gandhi and Napoleon to De Gaulle. From less exalted ranks come athletes and bums, cowboys and gauchos, bakers and barbers, plumbers, tailors, jewelers, gardeners, teachers and students, seamstresses, male chauvinists, feminists, a cabby's wife, even a Hindu mahout. Oddly, the one profession seldom glorified in the limerick is the legal one (as opposed its popularity as a subject in your garden-variety one-liner or shaggy dog).

Far and away the most popular target for limericks is the clergy. There are hundreds upon hundreds of limericks that deal with the men and women of the church, many of which are included in this volume. Very few are complimentary. According to the majority of limericks, the practitioners of organized religion are men and women of considerable appetites (but then again, sin is in the eye of the beholder, is it not?).

Loans Limerick

The majority of clerical limericks are concerned with the lowly: the curate, the monk, the parson, the preacher, and the vicar appear with some frequency, and the misunderstood priest more than that. The overall picture of the religious professional they foster is a pretty shabby and scandalous one. Only on rare occasions does a limerick treat the man or woman of God gently or even with grudging respect. Most of the participants are meek about their sins and accept their condemnation humbly, but this monotony is relieved by an occasional rakish and defiant servant of the Church with a true flair for disreputable behavior.

The curate is criticized, mostly by women, for his lack of ardor. The monk is often pictured as licentious, as are the nuns. The parson is an object of scorn; The preacher suffers from constipation and flatulence and preaches at such length his faithful flock threatens to stuff him with firecrackers. The vicar gets more sympathetic treatment, although he is occasionally warned of strangulation if he insists upon singing at services.

The poor priest is the common butt for all dissatisfaction with religious practices. He is the link between the people and the Church. Again and again he is pictured as committing various acts of depravity, being immoral in the confessional, afflicted with venereal disease, and, on top of all that, stingy and critical to excess.

So much for the lower ranks. Limericks mention all those high in the clerical establishment, too, but these exemplars are generally treated with some measure of respect. The pope, the cardinal, and the archbishop are all mentioned (although this latter worthy, as we will see, is cited for acts of fornication). But the main culprit among the higher orders is the bishop. Here we are now far enough down the hierarchical line to find the scapegoat for the establishment, as the priest was for the lesser clergy. There exist dozens of limericks devoted to bishops in which these worthies get their comeuppance. He commits frequent intercourse (and, unlike others, is very adept at it, managing thirteen with the wife of the dean, for instance), practices incest, and even keeps young owls for immoral purposes. As a price for his sins, he is sometimes known to suffer from elephantiasis.

So much for the clergy. Where there is smoke there is often a friar. But it must be pointed out that most of the accusations against the clergy could probably have been made against Napoleon, Henry James, or Toulouse-Lautrec. And about many other people we know!

The limerick encompasses the whole universe in microcosm. Future sociologists and psychologists will study it as a fascinating aspect of social psychology. It is a veritable who's who of social, artistic, and political fame. It immortalizes scandalous gossip. The name of Magda Lupescu, for example, is on more tongues than that of the king she was under. And the limerick about Elizabeth Barrett might just possibly be better known than most of her poetry. Rose madder is as well known as Titian, and that famous statue of Phidias is familiar to thousands who have never seen it. And Gloria has made the long-defunct house band at the Waldorf Astoria forever immortal.

Gloria's Limerick

Many people aspire to compose limericks of their own, despite the fact that the art is more devilishly difficult than it looks. It is not easy to compose a limerick, and even great poets had their difficulties. Those who do not possess a well-developed sense of rhythm and meter should devote their energies to declaiming limericks, letting them flow forth like veritable geysers of wit for an enchanted throng. But if one has the rhyming ability and a modicum of waggery, have at it (and with our blessings)!

Here are some general bits of advice that may be helpful to the determined beginner. In the first place, try starting with the fifth line. This line is the crux of a good limerick. If you do not have a great one at the start, you are likely to waste your talents on four good lines, only to find that the limerick goes down the drain for lack of the fifth line, like a drama with two good acts and a wretched third. The fifth line may be almost anything; The punch line of a story, or an outrageous pun, or a switch on some current slogan or famous name, or just some little line of your own that scans perfectly and scintillates with wit.

The first and second lines usually work in tandem to set the scene, geographically and physically. They should build up an aura of suspense, impending excitement, or doom (don't neglect to throw down that banana peel!). It is sometimes necessary to invent a proper name or a place to provide a sufficient number of rhyme words. If someone challenges your geography, just say it is a town in Uttar Pradesh or a village due north of Ulan Bator. The classic structure of "There was a young lady [or fellow] from..." has given way to various opening lines, such as "Said a civil rights worker named Dot," or "A worried young man from Stamboul."

The third and fourth lines are generally used to further the plot, whetting the appetite for the denouement. These two lines often determine the final elegance of the limerick. They should be a pyrotechnical display of the composer's power of language and poetical instinct. How charming to find lines like "While in her interstices/Lurked a far worse disease" and "The weather's too sultry/To commit adultery." Summa cum laude!

AT&T Limerick

Frequently, limericks must be worked over and over. Often they must be put aside to await a blessing from the Muse, and sometimes even thrown away entirely in favor of a new start. Nothing does more harm to a limerick than a line that limps. It can never be excused. But if the main idea for the limerick is sparkling, witty, and novel and the rhymes good, it will eventually work out and the thrill of the completed gem is one of life's signal pleasures. As a toiler in the vineyard once wrote:

You labor from midnight to morn,
Consuming a gallon of corn.
The last line comes neatly,
You pass out completely,
And thus is a limerick born.

Endless variations of the standard five-line limerick have been perpetrated: two-liners, three-liners, six-liners; limericks with extra long fifth lines and extra short ones; with rhymes such as St. Bees, wasp, and hornet; with surprise endings; with endless repetition, such as the young lady from Spain (or from Maine) who did it "again and again and again and again.” There is a limerick composed entirely of the syllable "da" scanning perfectly for four lines and all of the fifth fine except the last syllable, which is any four letter word desired. There is a limerick beginning "There was a young man from Racine/Birmingham, Wheeling, Moline," continuing to the end with places made famous by limericks. There are also a few limericks in Latin, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and even Swahili. As far as we're concerned, though, all of them prove conclusively that English is the mother tongue of the limerick.

Olympics Limerick

These little tricks aside, there has been little change in the limerick form since the 19th century. This may very well be for the best, but one variation of note has appeared in that time. It consists of a number of third and fourth lines within the classical body of the limerick. There may be two sets or several. It permits detailed background, intense character development and delineation, and the evolution of a complicated story, while at the same time taxing the composer's poetic talents. Since these added sequences are all in the middle of the limerick, they are referred to as "the inner limerick." The following is one of the longest, and even if it does not become popular it may triple the number of people traveling by air.

A voluptuous maiden named Wright
Took a 747 one night.
The salesman beside her
Was first to bestride her.
He found her too ample,
But left a small sample,
Though he nearly was trapped
When his seat belt unsnapped.

Up front, a musician
Used finger coition,
And while she was coming
From Wagner kept humming;
Then put in his wienie
To strains of Rossini,
And came to his glory
With Il Trovatore.

A young priest on her right
Sodomized her all night.
He came like a rabbit
And deplored his habit.

A judge seated in back
Took a leisurely whack,
And when done, said drolly,
“This'll hurt your parole.”

A Frenchman 'cross the aisle
Watched it all with a smile,
And when each one was done,
Exclaimed, “Vive le fun!”

A young lad from first class
Stole a pinch of her ass.
He'll remember for weeks
Those soft velvety cheeks,
And forever, perchance,
How he came in his pants.

The stewardess rushed through,
“Coffee, tea, milk...or screw!”
But when she looked over
Those white breasts of Dover,
She gave out a loud scream
And containers of cream.

When the Captain came by
There was nought left to try.
He grumbled, “No joking,
There's been too much poking;
I'll turn off NO SMOKING,
And light up NO FOKING”
Now Wright knows what it means: maiden flight.

Will this meet the rigid standards of traditional limericists? Is it simply too frilly? It certainly might be good fun if sung with piano or guitar accompaniment, the first set of inner lines sung as a solo, the second set as a duet, the third as a trio, the fourth as a quartet, and so on. Then everyone could join in for the "fifth" line. The accompanist should add a soupçon of Wagner, Rossini, and the "Anvil Chorus" at the appropriate moment and feel free to embellish any of the sets as his genius sees fit. As far as we're concerned, this is a worthy challenge and we encourage dabblers to try their hands at the extended remix of the traditional limerick.

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History of Limericks