Definition of Limerick
A limerick is a poetic form comprised of one stanza with five lines and a rhyme scheme of AABBA that usually is humorous. The humor can be clean, though it often verges on the obscene. The first, second, and fifth lines of limerick examples often contain three anapestic feet while the third and fourth lines are shorter, with just two anapestic feet. However, there is a great deal of variation in the exact meter of limericks; the main feature is a rolling sound produced by the pattern of two unstressed syllables between every stressed syllable.
The origin of the word limerick is debated, though it is generally understood to be a reference to the city of Limerick in Ireland. There was an 18th century nonsense verse game that predated the limerick form that included the line, “Won’t you come to Limerick?” The definition of limerick was popularized by Edward Lear in the 19th century.
Common Examples of Limerick
There are a few famous limerick examples that have entered the public consciousness. The first one is a well-known children’s rhyme:
Hickory dickory dock.
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
And down he run.
Hickory dickory dock.
The next poem is the first known example of a limerick starting with the line “There once was a man from Nantucket.” It was published in 1902 in a humor magazine at Princeton University. There are countless copycat poems, many of them containing dirty jokes, that use this line:
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.
Significance of Limerick in Literature
The following poem was published in a newspaper in New Brunswick, Canada in 1880 that was noted to be to the tune of “Won’t you come to Limerick?” This was the first example of the word limerick being connected to this particular poetic form:
There was a young rustic named Mallory,
who drew but a very small salary.
When he went to the show,
his purse made him go
to a seat in the uppermost gallery.
Though the limerick form has been popular among poets for the purpose of humor and wit, it has never been considered a form worthy of serious or profound poetic insights. Many literary theorists and writers look down on limerick as a relatively mediocre pursuit. However, there are examples of limericks even in William Shakespeare plays, and some famous limericks have very clever turns of phrase. Thus, though it is not a serious form, some limericks display excellent word play and utilize literary devices such as assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme to create more aural unity.
Examples of Limerick in Literature
IAGO: Some wine, ho!
[Sings] 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.
Some wine, boys!
(Othello by William Shakespeare)
Though the popularity of the limerick form did not begin until a few hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, there are still examples of short poems in his plays which have all the key aspects of a limerick. When we find examples of limericks in Shakespeare plays, it’s a sign that the character has either gone mad (like Ophelia in Hamlet) or is a bit drunk, like in the case of Iago above.
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!”
(By Edward Lear)
Edward Lear is the most noted writer of limericks, and is credited with the rise of their popularity in the 19th century. As expected, the material discussed in this limerick is light-hearted and follows the rhyme scheme and rolling meter of the form.
There was an old man with a beard,
A funny old man with a beard
He had a big beard
A great big old beard
That amusing old man with a beard.
(By John Clarke)
After Edward Lear wrote so many well-known limerick examples, many people used the form to parody Lear’s verse. In this example, John Clarke repeats the same first line as in Lear’s poem in Example #2, but makes his own limerick even more ridiculous by simply repeating the word “beard” at the end of each line to mimic the expected rhyme scheme.
A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “let us flee!”
“Let us fly!” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
(By Ogden Nash)
The humorist Ogden Nash is also known for a number of famous limericks. In the above example, Nash combines alliteration of the “fl” sound and homophone examples such as “flee” and “flea” and “flue” and “flew” to make his poem comical.
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold 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!
(By Dixon Lanier Merritt)
Often attributed to Ogden Nash, the above example is one of the most beloved limericks of all time. Dixon Lanier Merritt’s limerick uses all the important features of rhyme scheme and meter, as well as word play with the neologisms “belican” (belly can) and “helican” (hell he can).
A dozen, a gross, and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Is nine squared and not a bit more.
(By Leigh Mercer)
The above limerick example is an amazing combination of word play and mathematics. Leigh Mercer was famous for his skill with word play and is best known for the palindrome he created, “A man, a plan, a canal — Panama!” The above limerick is equally impressive, however. Mercer created a mathematical equation that is not only true but also able to be written out in perfect limerick form.
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.
(By Zach Weiner)
Zach Weiner is a well-known comic artist who composed the above limerick that can be read both forwards and backwards. At first glance it seems like an “anti-limerick” because it distorts and plays on the limerick form. However, when read from bottom to top the limerick has all the correct features of the form.
Test Your Knowledge of Limerick
1. Which of the following statements is the best limerick definition?
A. A poem with five lines originating in Japan with a pattern of “on” (similar to syllables) of 5-7-5-7-7.
B. A poem with three lines originating in Japan with a pattern of “on” of 5-7-5.
C. A poem with five lines originating in England with a rhyme scheme of AABBA with humorous content.
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2. Which of the following statements is not true of limericks?
A. Limericks generally have three metric feet in the first, second, and fifth lines, and two metric feet in the third and fourth lines.
B. Limericks often natural imagery and a transition midway through after which there is a profound commentary on the the meaning of life.
C. Limericks often involve bawdy humor and display word play and wit.
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3. Which of the following quotes from Shakespeare plays is not an example of limerick?
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.
Swithold footed thrice the old;
He met the night-mare, and her nine-fold;
Bid her alight,
And her troth plight,
And, aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha’ done,
by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.
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