Definition of Limerick
A limerick is a poem that consists of five lines in a single stanza with a rhyme scheme of AABBA. Most limericks are intended to be humorous, and many are considered bawdy, suggestive, or downright indecent. The subject of limericks is generally trivial or silly in nature. Most limericks are considered “amateur” poetry due to their short length and relatively simplistic structure. However, this does not take away from reader enjoyment of this literary device.
Perhaps the most famous example of limerick begins with the line: There once was a man from Nantucket. There are numerous limerick variations that begin this way, many of which are considered “dirty” or inappropriate. However, here is an example of an appropriate version from 1902 by Dayton Voorhees:
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.
Poetic Structure of Limerick
Though limericks are often humorous poems, their structure is straightforward with strict compositional elements. These poems consist of exactly five lines, arranged in a single stanza, with the rhyme scheme AABBA. Since limericks are composed with the same structure and pattern, this separates them from other forms of poetry and makes them easily recognizable.
With traditional limericks, the first, second, and fifth lines feature the same verbal rhythm, rhyme, and have seven to ten syllables. The third and fourth lines must rhyme (differently from the rhyme of lines one, two, and five), feature the same rhythm, and have five to seven syllables.
Limericks follow anapestic meter, which consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed, third syllable. Lines one, two, and five feature three anapests and lines three and four feature two anapests.
Examples of Limericks by Edward Lear
Edward Lear, a nineteenth century British poet, is perhaps the most well-known writer of limericks–though he did not originate this poetic form. As a nod to the genre “literary nonsense,” Lear published a collection of 117 limericks in 1846, entitled A Book of Nonsense. Lear intended his limerick poetry to be humorous and silly, while still adhering to the strict structure of this literary device. Here are some examples of limericks made popular by Edward Lear:
There was an Old Man in a tree,
Who was horribly bored by a Bee;
When they said, ‘Does it buzz?’
He replied, ‘Yes, it does!’
‘It’s a regular brute of a Bee!’
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared! —
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.”
There was a Young Lady of Ryde,
Whose shoe-strings were seldom untied.
She purchased some clogs,
And some small spotted dogs,
And frequently walked about Ryde.
There was an Old Man of Quebec,
A beetle ran over his neck;
But he cried, ‘With a needle,
I’ll slay you, O beetle!’
That angry Old Man of Quebec.
There was a Young Lady whose bonnet,
Came untied when the birds sat upon it;
But she said: ‘I don’t care!
All the birds in the air
Are welcome to sit on my bonnet!’
Famous Examples of Limerick
Many famous writers and poets have tried their hands at limerick. Here are some of those famous examples:
There was a young belle of old Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comments arose
On the state of her clothes,
She replied, “When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez.” (Ogden Nash)
There was a young lady of station,
“I love man” was her sole exclamation;
But when men cried, “You flatter”
She replied, “Oh! no matter!
Isle of man is the true explanation.” (Lewis Carroll)
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one;
The mouse did run.
hickory dickory dock (Mother Goose)
A demi-young author named Jong
Became famous for reasons quite wrong.
A poet at heart,
She won fame as a tart –
That mispronounced poet called Jong. (Erica Jong)
Our novels get longa and longa
Their language gets stronga and stronga
There’s much to be said
For a life that is led
In illiterate places like Bonga. (H. G. Wells)
Overall, as a literary device, limerick functions as poetic form that is specifically structured in terms of rhyme, rhythm, and meter. However, its intention to provide humor, levity, and entertainment for readers, both young and old, makes it an effective form of literary and creative expression. Limerick is often a starting point for amateur poets as a means of learning the craft of rhyme and meter, while using poetry as a vehicle for telling a brief story. Since limericks are generally intended to be nonsensical and even silly, poets can utilize this form to expand the impact and use of words to convey meaning while following stipulated patterns.
It’s important that writers follow the rhyme scheme of limerick and it’s anapestic rhythm/meter pattern. One way to ensure adherence to limerick structure and patterns is for writers to read their lines aloud. It’s also essential that writers consider the narrative aspect of limerick. Most limericks follow a story arc with a brief plot, primary character, and quick resolution.
Here are some ways that writers benefit from composing limericks:
Artistic Use of Language
Like all poetry, limericks allow for the artistic use of language. With the structure of this poetic form and its generally humorous and light-hearted nature, writers must be especially creative in their word choice for meeting the rhythm and rhyme scheme. This literary device can encourage writers to use words and phrases in an unusual and artistic way.
Limericks are also an excellent outlet for writers when it comes to creative expression. Many amateur poets begin their path by composing limericks, and numerous established writers and poets have used this poetic form as well to express their wit and creativity. Limericks are often utilized as parody and creative expression for subjects that are trivial, humorous, or even indelicate.
Examples of Limerick in Literature
Though limericks don’t often play a prominent role in literary works, there are examples of this poetic device in literature:
Example 1: Limerick (W. H. Auden)
T.S. Eliot is quite at a loss
When clubwomen bustle across
At literary teas,
Crying: “What, if you please,
Did you mean by “The Mill on the Floss”?
Auden, a well-known and significant British poet, demonstrates his poetic talent on many levels with this limerick. Apart from the subject matter, Auden’s composition fits the required structure and pattern of limerick as a literary form, and his use of language is creative and artistic.
In addition to composing a successful limerick, Auden manages to utilize this literary device as a means of acknowledging the literary works of two other writers. First, Auden mentions T.S. Eliot and alludes to his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by mentioning “clubwomen” at “literary teas.” This refers to the angst Eliot expresses in his poem, symbolized in part by the poet witnessing women passing through a room and “talking of Michelangelo.”
Auden then turns the limerick in a different direction by mentioning “The Mill on the Floss,” a novel written not by T.S. Eliot, but by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). This turnabout is well-suited to the limerick in that it is satirizing the “knowledge” and understanding that some people believe they possess regarding literature and authors. Auden’s use of limerick to acknowledge the literary works of others in this way is, perhaps, a slight “wink” to readers with regard to both the importance of literature as well as its nonsensical value.
Example 2: Lucy O’Finner (Lewis Carroll)
His sister, called Lucy O’Finner,
Grew constantly thinner and thinner;
The reason was plain,
She slept out in the rain,
And was never allowed any dinner.
Lewis Carroll, most famous for his work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is known for his clever word play and contributions to the genre of “literary nonsense.” His limerick “Lucy O’Finner” is an excellent example of this literary device in terms of its content, which is nonsense and not meant to be understood at all on a literal level. Carroll’s work showcases the uniqueness of limerick as a poetic form in that the enjoyment for the reader is much more about the patterns of rhyme and rhythm than the subject matter. Limericks, in general, are not meant to be interpreted for their literary meaning. Instead, as in “Lucy O’Finner,” they are pleasing to read and hear at an aesthetic level.
Example 3: Othello (William Shakespeare)
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.
In Act Two, Scene Three of “Othello,” Shakespeare incorporates a limerick within a drinking song that is sung by Iago as a means of getting Cassio to become inebriated. This is a clever use of limerick as a poetic form in the context of this play because it allows Iago’s character to appear relatively harmless to his enemies, while he is simultaneously influencing them to do what he wishes. This reflects and underscores the silly, nonsensical, and “harmless” nature of limericks. Yet Iago’s use of limerick as a drinking song also reveals the influence of this poetic form in terms of aesthetic enjoyment of artistic language and creative expression. Therefore, Shakespeare illustrates the duality of the nature of limerick as a literary device and form of poetry.