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Otherwise known as poetry for the common man, limericks, named after the Irish town of the same name, were first published in 1820 in The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, Illustrated by As Many Engravings: Exhibiting Their Principal Eccentricities and Amusements1 by James Harris. They were popularised by Edward Lear (1812 - 1888) in his 1846 Book of Nonsense, a two-volume work featuring 73 illustrated limericks. Despite featuring examples of misogyny and racism, these books were intended for children, with mildly nonsensical verses such as these:

There was an old man of Nepal
From his horse had a terrible fall
But, though split in two,
By some very strong glue
They mended that man of Nepal.
There was an old man of the coast
Who placidly sat on a post
But when it was cold
He relinquished his hold
And called for some hot buttered toast.

Characteristic of Lear's limericks is the identical ending to the first and last lines (example 1) and the use of a place-name at the end of each. Given the intended audience, most of the limericks in his book closely resemble those reproduced above, seldom using a different word for the last line and seldom introducing the humorous twist until the third line.

Limerick Structure

Lear's book cemented the structure if not the the content of popular limericks. The content-independent school of limerickery holds that any five-line poem with the requisite structure is a limerick, as would be true for a sonnet or villanelle fitting their respective formulae.

Limericks are officially described as a form of 'anapestic trimeter'; the 'anapest' is a 'foot' of poetic verse consisting of three syllables, the third longer (or accentuated to a greater degree) than the first two. Lines one, two and five of a limerick should ideally consist of three anapests each, concluding with an identical or similar phoneme to create the rhyme. Lines three and four are shorter, constructed of two anapests each and again rhyming with each other. Thus, the overall rhyme structure of a, a, b, b, a, with the beat pattern

a: da-da-daah da-da-daah da-da-daah
b: da-da-daah da-da-daah

Often, lines three and four have an extra syllable at their start. Variations on this theme include the substitution of the final foot of a line to the iamb, a two-syllable foot with the accent on the second. Further substitution in this way can result in the maximum syllable count of

1. 9 syllables pause 31. da-da-daah da-da-daah da-da-daah
2. 9 syllables pause 32. da-da-daah da-da-daah da-da-daah
3. 6/7 syllables no pause3. (da) da-da-daah da-da-daah
4. 6/7 syllables no pause4. (da) da-da-daah da-da-daah
5. 9 syllables pause 35. da-da-daah da-da-daah da-da-daah

being reduced to a minimum of

1.7 syllables pause 51. da-dah da-da-dah da-daah
2. 7 syllables pause 52. da-dah da-da-dah da-daah
3. 4 syllables pause 23. da-da da-daah
4. 4 syllables pause 24. da-da da-daah
5. 7 syllables pause 55. da-dah da-da-dah da-daa

As the figures in italics indicate, curtailing the 'active' beats of any line results in a corresponding increase in the number of beats' pause between lines.

It is possible to construct a limerick with unmatching a or b lines; it is essential that the overall beat structure remains and that the flow of words allows the lines to be spoken as if they were identical.

Limerick Content

While the appreciation of a finely-structured limerick has a place in today's world, tradition dictates that the comic value of a limerick is greatly enhanced if the content involves that great stalwart of humorous verse - vulgarity. Since Lear's time, the habit of using the same word (usually a place) to end the first and final lines has been supplanted. Limericks today often comprise the following basic formula:

Introduce person - end line on place or nameA maiden, whose name was Felicity
Describe the characteristic(s) of the personTried living without electricity:
Detail their activities on this lineBy propane she cooks
And complete them on thisAnd by oil-lamp reads books
While saving the last line for the comic consequence and conclusionAnd forbids watching telly explicitly.

This is quite acceptable, but still slightly dull. The anonymous author of the following limerick succinctly describes the problem of style over content:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical;
The good ones I've seen
Are seldom so clean,
Whilst the clean ones are seldom so comical.

The writer Don Marquis made a statement in a similar vein, summing up the traditional content of limericks:

There are three kinds of limerick:

Those suitable for recount in the presence of ladies...

A limerick written in jest
Should be vulgar, to sit with the best;
Here, rudeness is banned,
You must understand,
Leaving rhythm the visible test.
In accordance with DNA's dreams
We sit here for hours at our screens;
We write about inns
And of cafés and things
And in forums sit venting our spleens.
I once met a man from the South
Whose manner was somewhat uncouth;
He'd constantly swear,
Driving decent folk spare
'Til some soap was applied to his mouth.
A being whose name was The Lord
Sought Harmony, Peace and Accord;
He sent down His Son
To placate Everyone
But it Seems that His Word was Ignored.

...those utterable in the absence of ladies but the presence of clergy...

There once was a girl from Nantucket
Who spent all her life in a bucket;
So scarce was her space
That she had a squashed face,
Though into her right ear she could tuck it.
A vicar, the Reverend Bowles
Took care to protect all our souls;
With a stern but fair grin
He would steer us from sin
And make godly living our goal

...and limericks.

A slavering pervert named Benny
Sought pleasure in Abergavenny;
His bestial urges
Led him to grass verges:
His girlfriends were woollen and many.
'Tis normal for boys adolescent
To be troubled by urges incessant;
In bed, every night
When they turn out the light
They do things that they find rather pleasant.
An elderly priest, Father Vaughan
Knew not what to do 'bout his horn;
Though he could not show it
He longed so to blow it
Along to the tune of soft porn
The Powers That Be of this site
have vast editorial might
If we wish to swear
We must take it elsewhere
As we can't even say **** or *****.

Of course, it is possible to be witty and clever without recourse to vulgarity and indecency2. Subtle use of euphemism can make a technically inoffensive limerick greater than one with overt smut...

There was a young plumber called Lee
Who plumbed a girl down by the sea;
She said: 'Stop your plumbing -
'There's somebody coming!
Said the plumber, still plumbing, 'It's me!'
A gentleman hailing from York
To his kitchen utensils would talk;
He'd lie on the floor
With his cutlery drawer
Where he'd ask his knives: 'Fancy a fork?'

While clever word-play relating to the structure itself can be employed when expletives and a salacious subject must be avoided.

Also, the long-established structure and rhyme pattern of limericks can be turned against them; the reader or listener knows what to expect after the first line, providing, of course, that they've heard a limerick before, and can thus be led to believe that an expletive is imminent. When the expletive or expected word is replaced, the results are often pleasing. The added advantage of printability goes without saying.

The limericks shown on this site
Cannot be as rude as they might
Instead of conceding,
You might try misleading,
By making them think you'll shout 'Excrement!'
I was feeling quite down on my luck
When I slipped over into some muck;
I went head-over-chest,
Got covered in dung
and shouted, quite loudly, 'Oh, bother!'
1It is interesting to note that this work also contained a poem concerning an owl and a cat, both of whom took to sea in a boat, coloured green in the illustration.2Honestly. No, really. My mother says so.

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