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Marco Graziosi
The Limerick

Form and Prehistory

Everybody seems to agree as to what makes a limerick: a regular limerick is today a short composition consisting of five lines -- though they can be arranged on the page as four or even as three -- rhyming aabba. The 'a' rhymes have three beats, the 'b' rhymes two, and the rhythm is predominantly anapestic, as in so much humorous poetry.

Meter, however, does not only include verse form and rhyme scheme; its associations to particular genres and poetical traditions must be taken into consideration, and here positions differ greatly. Nowadays, the most widely held view is probably the one derived from G. Legman's "Introduction" to his 1964 The Limerick, where he immediately states:

The limerick is, and was originally, an indecent verse-form. The 'clean' sort of limerick is an obvious palliation, its content insipid, its rhyming artificiality ingenious, its whole pervaded with a frustrated nonsense that vents itself typically in explosive and aggressive violence. There are, certainly, aggressive bawdy limericks too, but they are not in the majority. Except as the maidenly delight and the silly delectation of a few elderly gentlemen, such as the late Langford Reed, and several still living who might as well remain nameless, the clean limerick has never been of the slightest real interest to anyone, since the end of its brief fad in the 1860s.

(G. Legman, The Limerick, vol. 1, p. 7; I quote from the 1974 Granada edition in two volumes)

He then proceeds to outline the history of the limerick after the "fad" caused by "the reprinting in London, in 1863, of Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense, a book of very tepidly humorous limericks, illustrated by the author, that had first appeared nearly twenty years before, in 1846, without any extraordinary success". From the American imitations to Punch's geographical contest the pressure of the indecent limerick soon made any other subject go out of fashion; according to Legman this charge against the clean limerick was led by "a group of college wits and clubmen, notably the poet Swinburne; an army officer, Capt. Edward Sellon, and the war-correspondent, George Augustus Sala, all three of whom are known to have written much other sub-rosa poetry and erotic prose, mostly flagellational" (p. 9).

If the further history of the limerick does not pose great problems to Legman's thesis, some pop up as soon as he tries to demonstrate that the limerick had been "indecent" from the very beginning. To begin with, he has to admit that "the earliest limericks will be found in nursery rhymes, or something very much like them, as far back as the fourteenth century" (p. 12) though it is difficult to see how Sumer is icumen in and a rhyme from a more or less contemporary bestiary could be considered nursery rhymes, let alone indecent poems. The latter poem, from British Museum's Harleian Manuscript 7322 (cited from R. Swann and F. Sidgwick, The Making of Verse, 1934, p. 102) actually approximates the limerick meter, but, as almost all early examples Legman quotes, has three rhymes (abccb):

The lion is wondirliche strong,
& ful of wiles of wo;
& wether he pleye
other take his preye
he can not do bot slo.

The same form reappears after two hundred years "in the mad-songs of the half-naked wandering beggars, turned out to mump their livelihood after 1536, at the dissolution of the religious almonries under Henry VIII" (p. 14). In these instances, however, the limerick rhyme pattern (if the abccb can really be taken as a limerick form) appears in the context of a longer song as a stanza; here is the beginning of the "superb" (p. 14) Tom o' Bedlam in the modernized spelling adopted by C. Bibby (The Art of the Limerick, London, Research Publishing Co., 1978, p. 59):

From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
    All the spirits that stand
    By the naked man,
In the book of moons defend ye!

The moon's my constant mistress,
And the lovely owl my marrow;
    The flaming drake,
    And the night-crow, make
Me music, to my sorrow.

Legman, unable to find anything indecent in this poem, admits that this is "nonsense, too, but of a different kind from Lear's" (p. 14). Another stanzaic use of the pattern is in songs about tobacco; the rhyme scheme is in this case aabbc, again including an unrhymed line:

The Indian weed, withered quite,
Green at morn, cut down at night,
    Shows thy decay,
    All flesh is hay:
Thus think, then drink Tobacco.

(Robert Wisdome, d. 1568, first of four stanzas; Legman, p. 15; Bibby, p. 58)

In a 1606 madrigal we finally find something approximating a perfect limerick:

O metaphysical Tobacco,
Fetched as far as from Morocco,
    Thy searching fume
    Exhales the rheum,
O metaphysical Tobacco.

(A Book of Madrigales for Viols and Voices, 1606; Legman, p. 16; Bibby, p. 59)

This little poem actually possesses most of the features generally associated with the limerick: it is a single five-line composition with aabba rhymes -- though the Tobacco/Morocco rhyme is not perfect it looks forward to a long series of difficult ones -- and the last line repeats the first one; moreover, it also has a geographical reference (in the second line, not the first, probably in order to find a rhyme for "Tobacco"), and is based on an uncommon rhyme which forces a somewhat nonsensical effect (Morocco should be one of the nearest places from which to fetch tobacco). Interestingly, it is in this first epigrammatic instance that we find the true limerick rhyme pattern, which points to the fact that it is precisely the self-contained form which makes it necessary to 'close' the metrical scheme by rhyming the first line with the second and the fifth.

The pattern's association with tobacco is also prominent in a song appearing in Barten Holyday's play Technogamia, or The Marriage of the Arts (1618), II. iii:

Tobacco's a Musician
And in a Pipe delighteth:
    It descends in a Close
    Through the Organ of the nose
With a Relish that inviteth.

This makes me sing, So ho, hó --
              So ho hó, boyes!
Ho boyes, sound I loudly:
    Earth ne're did breed
    Such a Joviall weed
Whereof to boast so proudly.

(Legman, p. 16)

Here the first line of the stanza is unrhymed, as we should expect in a strophic composition, but in a parodic love song in III. v the limerick form is fully realized:

Come kisse, come kisse, my Corinna
And still that sport wee'l beginn-a
    That our soules may meet
    In our lippes, while they greet,
Come kisse, come kisse, my Corinna

(Legman, pp. 16-7)

Again, closure seems to drag with it some of the defining characteristics of the later nonsense limerick, in particular full repetition of the first line in the last one and the use of a forced rhyme. One other element which will chracterize the limerick appears in Holyday's poems: the preference for anapestic feet in the b-rhyming lines.

The same rhyming pattern was also used in strophic love songs, e.g. the famous The Night-piece: To Julia by Robert Herrick, though Herrick's own Upon Jone and Jane, with its two stanzas, each about one of the girls, seems to me to be much more in the line of development of the limerick:

Jone is a wench that's painted,
Jone is a Girle that's tainted;
    Yet Jone she goes
    Like one of those
Whom purity had Sainted.

Jane is a Girle that's prittie,
Jane is a wench that's wittie;
    Yet, who would think
    Her breath do's stinke,
And so it doth? that's pittie.

(Legman, p. 23; Bibby, p. 61)

Rather than a two-stanza poem this looks like the juxtaposition of two independent limericks each supplying the "portrait of a lady", the reader is obviously invited to make comparisons and draw conclusions which are far from nonsensical, still it is evident that in itself the form would lend itself to be continued with the description of other characters; nothing but the moral Herrick wants us to find forces him to stop there. Almost two centuries later, when Lear was a boy, the same two-stanza pattern was used by Robert Southey in a nursery rhyme:

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
    Frogs and snails
    And puppy-dog tails,
That's what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
    Sugar and spice
    And all that's nice,
That's what little girls are made of.

(Bibby, p. 51)

That the limerick form tends to form chains of juxaposed pieces rather than concatenated stanzas is further confirmed by what is perhaps the best anticipation of the Nineteenth-century limerick book, Mondayes Work from the pre-1640 Roxburgh Ballads:

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 stomacke doth wamble.


Gramarcy, neighbour Jinkin
I see thou lovest no shrinking,
    And I, for my part
    From thee will not start:
Come fill us a little more drinke in.

(Legman, p. 28; Bibby, p. 56)

Bibby's description of this poem perfectly captures the features connecting it to the later collections:

here, it is worth noting, there is not only the rhyme and rhythm of the limerick, but each stanza relates to a separate individual, whose name terminates the first line and sets the scheme of rhyming (Bibby, p. 56).

Having so far been unable to produce a single "indecent" composition in the limerick form Legman states that by the time of the English Revolution and Restoration the limerick had become a satirical medium and cites two near-limericks and some bawdy songs that "leave very little for modern limerick poets to invent" though they do not appear to have much in common with a limerick as he quotes only single lines. At this point the limerick "'fell' - probably still carried by the wandering bedlam beggars... - to the dialect songs of Scotland and Ireland" (p. 29) and, "finally, the limerick metre was abandoned altogether to the uses of nonsense and nursery rhymes - the classic decay and descent of much folklore, of which the last traces often survive only in children's rhymes and games. It is among the nursery rhymes, since the early eighteenth century at least, that the limerick form will mainly be found" (p. 30). A strange choice as, for the first time, he is finally able to cite a song in near-limerick stanzas (the first line does not rhyme) with scatological content:

On Jollity: An Ode, or Song, or both

There was a jovial butcher,
He liv'd at Northern-fall-gate.
    He kept a stall
    At Leadenhall,
And got drunk at the boy at Aldgate.

He ran down Houndsditch reeling,
At Bedlam he was frighted,
    He in Moorfields
    Besh-t his heels
And at Hoxton he was wipèd.

(The New Boghouse Miscellany, or A companion for the Close-Stool, 1761, p. 207; Legman, p. 30)

Of the "many" limerick nursery rhymes of the eighteenth century Bibby finds only the two Legman himself cites in passing. The first was a "lullaby in approximately limerick form", part of a Punch and Judy show in the 1780s:

Dance a baby, diddy,
What can mammy do wid'ee,
    But sit in her lap
    And give 'un some pap,
And dance a baby, diddy?

(Bibby, p. 51)

The second is the very famous Hickere, Dickere Dock which first appeared in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, vol. II (no copy remains of vol. I) published in London by Mary Cooper about 1744, which "is generally agreed to be the earliest known book of nursery rhymes" (W. and C. Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose, New York, Meridian, 1967, p. 24); this is the first instance of an illustrated limerick:


Hickere, Dickere Dock,
A Mouse ran up the Clock,
The Clock Struck One,
The Mouse fell down,
And Hickere Dickere Dock.

(W. and C. Baring-Gould, p. 31; see the French version)

After following Legman's path for about five hundred years I think it is safe to assume that the limerick form (probably still not even recognized as a distinct pattern) has very slight connections to "indecent" poetry; Legman himself states that its first instances "will be found in nursery rhymes, or something very much like them" and that "it is among the nursery rhymes, since the early eighteenth century at least, that the limerick form will mainly be found" and the examples he mentions seem rather to be associated with madness, satire or parody, themes or genres much more strictly related to nonsense than bawdy poems.

This overview has not been completely useless, however, since some of the structural inclinations of the form have emerged; first of all the tendency of the strict limerick form to closure and juxtaposition in pairs or chains of compositions only slightly connected

The Rise of the Limerick Book

Lear himself, in his introduction to More Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, etc. (1872), tells us where he got the limerick form from:

Long years ago, in the days when much of my time was spent in a country house, where children and mirth abounded, the lines beginning, 'There was an Old Man of Tobago', were suggested to me by a valued friend, as a form of verse lending itself to limitless variety for Rhymes and Pictures, and thenceforth the greater part of the original drawings and verses for the first Book of Nonsense were struck off.

(Cited in Bibby 1978, p. 18).

The limerick here mentioned by Lear had appeared in Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen, a chap book probably written by R.S. Sharpe and illustrated by Robert Cruikshank, issued in 1822 by John Marshall (Dickens refers to the same limerick in Our Mutual Friend, ch. 2).

It is interesting to note that Lear did not quote the first line correctly, the original limerick being about a 'sick' man:

There was a sick man of Tobago
Liv'd long on rice-gruel and sago;
But at last, to his bliss,
The physician said this -
"To a roast leg of mutton you may go."

As Langford Reed (The Complete Limerick Book: the Origin, History and Achievements of the Limerick, London, Jarrolds, 1934, p. xii) suggests, Lear might have remembered another version:

There was an old man of Tobago,
Long lived on rice, gruel and sago;
Till one day, to his bliss,
His physician said this,
"To a leg of roast mutton you may go."

The Anecdoes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen was not the first book of limericks to appear; The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, illustrated by as many engravings: exhibiting their principal Eccentricities and Amusements had been published in 1820 by Harris and Son. Lear very probably knew this book too, as is testified by the similarities between his picture for The Owl and the Pussycat and the one accompanying the limerick about the 'Old Woman named Towl':

(Bibby, p. 2)

Lear also wrote a new version of 'There was an Old Woman of Harrow', no. 5 in the earlier collection, though he never published it in his lifetime:


There was an Old Woman of Harrow,
Who visited in a Wheel barrow,
    And her servants before,
    Knock'd loud at each door;
To announce the Old Woman of Harrow


There was an Old Person of Harrow
Who bought a mahogany barrow,
    For he said to his wife
    'You're the joy of my life!
And I'll wheel you all day in this barrow!'

(Bibby, p. 45)

The wife in a wheelbarrow, however, seems to be a traditional theme; it also appears in a nursery rhyme in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book):

The Rats, and the Mice,
They made such a strife,
I was forc'd to go to
London, to buy me a Wife.

The Streets were so
Broad, and the Lanes
Were so narrow,
I was forc'd to bring
My Wife home,
In a Wheelbarrow.

The Wheelbarrow broke,
And give my Wife a fall,
The duce take
Wheelbarrow, Wife & all.

(W. and C. Baring-Gould, p. 30)

A third book of limericks, mentioned by V. Noakes in her "Introduction" to J.G. Schiller's Nonsensus (Stroud, Catalpa Press, 1988, p. v), A Peep at the Geography of Europe (London, E. Marshall, 1821-24), might have given Lear the idea of insisting on the geographical location of his characters.

These books already present all the features to be found in Lear's collections: each limerick has its own picture and each describes a different, peculiar character, usually identified by reference to a city; the rhymes do not form a sequence, they are simply juxtaposed.

Lear's contribution

Lear, then, contrary to what is generally supposed, was neither the inventor of the limerick nor the first to publish a book containing only limericks. What mainly distinguishes him from his 1820s predecessors is the size of his two collections (the 1846 and 1855 editions of A Book of Nonsense had 73 limericks, and the 1861 edition 112; More Nonsense..., 1872, contained 100 new limericks) and, especially, his drawing style, completely different from that of the typical prints of the time.

He also emphasized the structural closure of the form by drastically reducing variations. Most of his limericks follow a strict scheme which does not only prescribe an invariable rhyme pattern and a strong anapestic rhythm but also a series of verbal formulæ. The first and last lines, in particular, are almost wholly predetermined, except for the geographic place (X), which is sometimes replaced by a physical feature (e.g. " with a beard"):


There was a(n)



of   X

Moreover, "Old" is almost invariably associated with "Man" or "Person" when the protagonist is a man, "Young" with "Lady" or "Person" for limericks about women. "Person" is the bisyllabic variant for "Man" when X is a monosyllable or a bisyllable with stress on the first (the fact that there is no monosyllabic variant for "Lady" may explain the preponderance of male characters).

Of the 112 limericks in the final edition of A Book of Nonsense, 88 have a first line which follows this scheme; 84 out of 100 limericks in More Nonsense.

In more than half the limericks in the two books the last line (4, following the convention adopted by Jackson in his edition) conforms to one of the following patterns:






of   X

(38 times in Book of Nonsense, plus 3 in which "You" takes the place of "That" because the line is part of a dialogue; 32 plus 10 in More Nonsense.)



(past verb) that



of   X

(15 times in Book of Nonsense, plus 2 in which "And" takes the place of "Which"; 12 in More Nonsense.)

The two central lines are not as fixed as these two, but formulæ can be found in them too: for example line 2 begins with "Who" 63 times in the first collection and 58 in the second (and it is often followed by "said"); "Whose" recurs 29 and 31 times respectively, "Whom" only once in Book of Nonsense and twice in More Nonsense (but the semantic similarity of these two is remarkable:

There was a Young Lady of Troy
Whom several large flies did annoy...

There was an Old Person of Chester
Whom several small children did pester...)

The hemistichs of line 3 also very often conform to one of two patterns:




(verb phrase)



(verb phrase)




(verb phrase)



(verb phrase)

A variation of 3.2.,

When they said: "......" // he replied: "......",

appears 15 and 12 times respectively in the two books.

Connected with this formal patterning is the fact that each line has a fixed narrative function: the first line introduces the protagonist describing him in relation to a geographic location or, sometimes, a physical feature; the second qualifies him/her, usually introducing some peculiar habit; the third line is generally strictly narrative, often in dialogic form, and the final line either closes the story (4.2.) or further qualifies the character according to what has been told (4.1.).

Thanks to this strict organization Lear's limerick provides a "closed field", a conventional frame which allows for unlimited variation, what Susan Stewart (Nonsense. Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature, John Hopkins U.P., 1979, p. 171) defines "the final nonsense operation":

In this method for making nonsense, the boundaries of the event are given by convention while the space within these boundaries becomes a place of infinite substitution.

Each limerick is both a closed structure and an element in the larger unit of the collection which forms the "book of nonsense".

The Naming of the Limerick

Lear never used the word "limerick"; in the 1872 book, he called his poems "nonsense rhymes", or rather "nonsense pictures and rhymes" as the illustrations were probably for him at least as important as the verses themselves.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "limerick" first appeared in 1896 in two letters by A. Beardsley ("I have tried to amuse myself by writing limericks on my troubles", 1 May; "Your continuation of the limerick is superb", 2 May). By 1898 the origin of the word was already shrouded in mystery if M.H., in Notes & Queries of 19 November of that year asked: "When and why did the non-sense verse as written by Lear acquire the name of 'Limerick'?". J.H. Murray, less than a month later (10 December 1898) replied from the same pages: "Limerick. A nonsense verse such as was written by Lear is wrongfully so called... Who applied this name to the indecent nonsense verse first it is hard to say". By this time, then, "limerick" could be used to refer to the indecent verses Legman collected, but not necessarily to Lear's nonsense compositions. These, at about the same time (February 1898) were also called "learics", though the word appears to have had limited circulation and to have been invented by Matthew Russell:

A "learic"... is a name we have invented for a single-stanza poem modelled on the form of the Book of Nonsense.

(M. Russell in Irish Monthly, February 1898, cited by Bibby, p. 40.)

Citing this as evidence, Ernest Weekley, in his Concise Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1952), wrote that "the choice of the word 'limerick' may have been partly due to the somewhat earlier 'learic', coined, on 'lyric', by Father Matthew Russell". On this basis, Bibby 'reconstructs' the origin of the word as coming from the conflating of "learic" and "limmer", defined in the 1898 English Dialect Dictionary as "A scoundrel, rascal, rogue... A prostitute, strumpet, a loose, immoral, woman or girl" (Bibby, pp. 40-1).

Unfortunately, these reconstructions are made untenable by the Beardsley quotations in the OED: as these letters were first published in 1971, the quotations were probably inserted in the second edition of the OED and were not available to Bibby and the others. However, they demonstrate that the word "limerick" was already currently used in 1896 and could not be derived from the later "learic".

Unsatisfactory as it may be, we are therefore left with the traditional association of the term with the Irish city, according to the OED:

Said to be from a custom at convivial parties, according to which each member sang an extemporized 'nonsense-verse', which was followed by a chorus containing the words 'Will you come up to Limerick?'

While Bibby's criticism of this connection seems difficult to refute, the link between the stanza form and the Irish city remains the only clue on which to speculate. Arthur Deex's hypothesis that the name derived from the impossibility of rhyming a line like "There was an Old Man of Limerick" does not sound completely convincing to me and, as he himself admits, is completely speculative (The Pentatette, XIII.1, October 1993) while other proposals by Bill Backe-Hansen (in the Pentatette, VI.12, September 1987, XV.4 and 5, January and February 1996), referring to a possible connection with the Earldom of Limerick created in the Southeast of England in 1808, are not very promising.

Summing up, it seems then that not much is known about a poetic form which is still probably the most popular one, except that it had a limited circulation from the Middle Ages to the early Nineteenth century, when it became fully formalized in the 1820s and exploded after the publication of the third edition of Lear's Book of Nonsense. It soon abandoned the realm of nonsense and children's poetry and this 'indecent' sort of composition was mysteriously named after an Irish city which seems to have had very little to do with its creation.

As we have seen, Lear invented almost nothing, he simply refined and brought to perfection a form that had already had a brief fad in the 1820s; his limericks, based on a perfect balance of text and picture, remain the best-known and loved, a masterpiece of children's literature. After him, the limerick has become the typical epigrammatic stanza in English and the vehicle of much contemporary popular poetry. It has been put to several uses: Joyce's limericks, for instance, almost form an anecdotic autobiography, others have used the rhyme for political satire or for literary parody. Mostly, the limerick has provided a frame for mildly erotic poetry or harmless indecent material. Very little remains of Lear's subtle humour, but limericks, though often silly, are still often fun to read. The limerick is dead, long live the limerick!

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