By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The limerick is not the most ‘literary’ of forms, and unlike those other brief verse forms, the tanka and the haiku, it has never been welcomed into the hallowed halls of Great Poetry.
But it is a form enjoyed by many people, some of whom perhaps have no time for the more urbane or mannered types of verse. The limerick can also be hugely entertaining – as we hope the fifteen examples we’ve gathered below will demonstrate.
The limerick, unlike the sonnet or haiku, seems to be a peculiarly English form. It has even been described by Brander Matthews as perhaps the only original verse form in the whole of English literature.
For the examples of the limerick provided below, and for some of the background information, we are indebted to W. S. Baring-Gould’s brilliant book, The Lure of the Limerick, which we heartily recommend if the following titillating examples whet your appetite for more.
Anonymous, ‘There Was an Old Man of Nantucket’.
There was an old man of 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.
Perhaps this is the gold standard for limericks, at least in the popular imagination. Its author is unknown, but it was published in the Princeton Tiger in the early twentieth century, and has everything you could require from a (clean) limerick.
What’s more, although the last line reuses the same word as the first line for its ‘rhyme’, it is transformed into a clever pun when it resurfaces as the last word of the limerick. Not all well-known examples of limericks would manage this (see Edward Lear below), but the anonymous author of this limerick helped to popularise the ‘geographical limerick’, where the rhyming word at the end of the first line would be the name of a place.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘There Was a Young Lady of Norway’.
There was a young lady of Norway
Who hung by her toes in a doorway.
She said to her beau
‘Just look at me Joe,
I think I’ve discovered one more way.’
The English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was known for his mastery of many forms: sonnets, blank verse, ballads, rondeaus, and many more besides. He even mastered the limerick, as this witty example showcases.
Oliver Herford, ‘A Damsel, Seductive and Handsome’.
A damsel, seductive and handsome,
Got wedged in a sleeping-room transom.
When she offered much gold
For release, she was told
That the view was worth more than the ransom.
Herford (1863-1935) should be called the Laureate of the Limerick, for he was perhaps the master at producing clean but sharp limericks on all manner of themes. That’s why we’ve included two by him on this list …
Oliver Herford, ‘There Was a Young Lady of Twickenham’.
There was a young lady of Twickenham
Whose shoes were too tight to walk quick in ’em.
She came back from a walk
Looking whiter than chalk
And took ’em both off and was sick in ’em.
‘Twickenham’ is a gift for limerick-writers: it’s polysyllabic, it has the ‘-ick’ syllable in it which furnishes many possibilities for comic-sounding words (‘sick’ being among the cleaner offerings), and it provides the chance to use the ‘’em’ abbreviation which concludes the limerick on a nicely demotic note.
Anonymous, ‘Mondayes Work’.
Good morrow, neighbour Gamble,
Come let you and I goe ramble:
Last night I was shot
Through the braines with a pot
And now my stomach doth wamble …
This poem appeared in the Roxburghe Ballads in 1640! To ‘wamble’ means to be afflicted with nausea, so this is a piece of doggerel about suffering from a hangover as a result of indulging too hard at the weekend. And it’s also cast into what is recognisably the limerick form, making it one of the earliest examples of the limerick.
John O’Tuomy, ‘To the Tune of “The Growling Old Woman”’.
I sell the best brandy and sherry
To make good customers merry;
But at times their finances
Run short, as it chances,
And then I feel very sad, very.
O’Tuomy (1706-77) was an Irish poet, and also an innkeeper in – of all places – Limerick in Ireland. This is one of many verses he wrote to ply his wares and advertise his hostelry to anyone who read his Limerick limericks!
Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘God’s Plan’.
God’s plan made a hopeful beginning.
But man spoiled his chances by sinning.
We trust that the story
Will end in God’s glory,
But at present the other side’s winning.
This limerick was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior (1809-94), the American poet and polymath. It’s one of the most-anthologised examples of the limerick, and is rare in that it makes a broader social (theological? philosophical?) point, too.
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘There Was an Old Man of the Cape’.
There was an old man of the Cape
Who made himself garments of crepe.
When asked, ‘Do they tear?’
He replied, ‘Here and there;
But they’re perfectly splendid for shape.’
Stevenson (1850-94) may now be best-remembered for novels like Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but he published a book of poetry for children in 1885, and could turn out a decent limerick, too …
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘There Is a Young Artist Named Whistler’.
There is a young artist named Whistler
Who in every respect is a bristler;
A tube of white lead
Or a punch in the head
Come equally handy to Whistler.
The American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) himself composed a disparaging limerick about a rival artist named ‘Val’ (though nobody has been able to work out who ‘Val’ actually was), and Rossetti decided to give the young upstart a taste of his own poetic medicine in this limerick.
But what’s going on with that last line? Surely rhyming ‘Whistler’ with ‘Whistler’ is cheating? Well, this is how the limerick was written when Edward Lear popularised the form …
Edward Lear, ‘There Was an Old Man with a Beard’.
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!
Lear (1812-88) was one of the two masters of Victorian nonsense literature, and poems like ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ and ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’ transport younger readers to far-off, fantastical places populated by strange beings and wonderful creatures.
But his limericks, which first brought him to the attention of young readers in 1846 when Lear published A Book of Nonsense, are somewhat unusual to our modern eyes and ears. As you’ll see from the example quoted above – one of many limericks Lear wrote in this manner – the last line ends with the same word as the first line.
Not everyone was enamoured of this idea (the great British comedian Ronnie Barker later castigated Lear for writing such hopeless limericks), but the other doyen of Victorian nonsense, Lewis Carroll, offers us a more typical example …
Lewis Carroll, ‘There Was a Young Man of Oporta’.
There was a young man of Oporta,
Who daily got shorter and shorter.
The reason, he said,
Was the hod on his head,
Which was filled with the heaviest mortar.
That’s more like it!
Gelett Burgess, ‘I’d Rather Have Fingers Than Toes’.
I’d rather have fingers than toes;
I’d rather have ears than a nose;
And as for my hair,
I’m glad that it’s there,
I’ll be awfully sad when it goes.
If you don’t know the name Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), you’ll know some of the literary legacies he bequeathed the world. For Burgess not only coined the words ‘blurb’ and ‘bromide’: he also created the comic strip known as The Goops, and penned the famous quatrain ‘The Purple Cow’.
As if they weren’t achievements enough for one humorist, he also excelled at the limerick form, as the example quoted above demonstrates.
Norman Douglas, ‘The Frequenters of Our Picture Palaces’.
The frequenters of our picture palaces
Have no use for psychoanalysis;
And although Doctor Freud
Is distinctly annoyed
They cling to their old-fashioned fallacies.
Let’s have one by the British writer Norman Douglas (1868-1952), who is probably best-known for his 1917 novel South Wind.
Arnold Bennett, ‘There Was a Young Man of Montrose’.
There was a young man of Montrose
Who had pockets in none of his clothes.
When asked by his lass
Where he carried his brass,
He said, ‘Darling, I pay through the nose.’
Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a hugely popular novelist and journalist during his lifetime. His novels about the ‘Five Towns’ (based on Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire, England) are not as popular as they once were, and Virginia Woolf memorably dismissed Bennett’s approach to fiction in her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’.
But Bennett, who penned self-help books and even had an omelette named after him, was a considerable figure during his lifetime. He also left us this witty limerick.
Carolyn Wells, ‘A Canner, Exceedingly Canny’.
A canner, exceedingly canny,
One morning remarked to his granny:
‘A canner can can
Anything that he can,
But a canner can’t can a can, can he?’
Let us conclude this pick of the best examples of the limerick form with a rare example from a woman. Wells (1869-1942) compiled A Nonsense Anthology and knew a thing or two about limericks. She even composed her own, as the example above reveals. Her contribution to the form was to combine it with the tongue-twister, and the result is very pleasing to say aloud!