What is a Limerick?
The Limerick is a popular form of poetry, often with a humorous, cheeky sensibility.
The history of the Limerick is mysterious, though there are a few ideological threads that bind any origin theories. The name itself is obviously shared with a city and county in Ireland, which makes it tempting to claim the form has Irish roots.
County Limerick itself was home to a group known as the Maigue Poets, who were active around the 1700s and are often attributed as writing the first limerick poems. The story goes that Seán O Tuama was a local publican and poet who was friends with Aindrias Mac Craith, another local poet. One evening, O Tuama wrote a short verse about himself as an innkeeper. However, Mac Craith felt the poem was a slight on him and his growing bar tab. In response, he used the same meter and rhyme structure that O Tauma had implemented to critique the quality of O Tauma’s beverages.
We do not know how deep this grudge truly ran between the two but when O Tauama died in 1775 he was mourned by Mac Craith.
Alternatively, there exists a sailors’ song and parlour game in which one constructs nonsense poetry, with the refrain, “Will you come up to Limerick?” This may have evolved into the form we know today.
Others will instead claim the form actually comes from France. In this recounting, we find an 11th Century verse which demonstrates the cadence of the limerick, though its rhyme scheme is not exactly the same one that we use today.
Though we cannot say for certain where the limerick comes from, most are in agreement as to the man who popularised them, Edward Lear, in his Book of Nonsense (1846) and a later work, More Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, etc (1872). Lear wrote some 212 limericks, and probably originated many of the conventions we use today, such as the common opening, “There once was a (blank) from (blank),” Which Lear claimed to have taken from a nursery rhyme beginning, “There was an old man of Tobago.”
Towards the end of the 19th Century, the magazine Punch—noted for their political cartoons—ran limerick contests, and many noted writers used the form, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and WS Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan fame. The 1877 operetta, The Sorcerer, features a song written in perfect limerick form.
The limerick is an example of a fixed form poem, however it is one that is instantly recognisable to large swathes of readers.
Limericks follow a simple AABBA rhyme scheme, though there are many examples of the form being subverted. Comedian John Clarke offers a limerick in which every rhyme is the word ‘beard,’ while WS Gilbert wrote a limerick in which the A rhymes are instead ‘bees,’ ‘wasp’ and ‘hornet.’
The meter similarly follows. The A lines are composed of three feet of three syllables, while the B lines are comprised of two feet of three syllables.
This term ‘feet’ is worth expanding upon. Feet are the units of rhythm, similar to bars in musical theory. The iamb—used in sonnets notably—are an example of another, more formal foot. When describing rhythmic verse, we will label lines according to the feet used, such as pentameter or, in the case of limericks, nonameter and hexameter.
Many older limericks would repeat the first line as the last, however this has fallen out of fashion and instead the last line is used to more punchy effect.
As mentioned, the limerick is often bawdy and humorous. Its primary purpose should be to make the reader laugh, though it is also possible to offer philosophical insight. While many limericks feature toilet humour, one should not be limited by this suggestion. Early limericks often focused on drinking culture and irreverent zaniness.
Limericks are a way to get out of a dark place. It is a mistake of the neophyte poet to believe that one must be dark in order to be a good poet, and the limerick offers an easy first step in the exploration of humour in verse.
While many people are put off by poetry, the limerick enjoys a more mainstream appeal, possible owing to its humorous nature and simplicity.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.