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Thomastic Limericks

A collection of contributions to The Pentatette, the newsletter of the Limerick Special Interest Group, May-October 1985.

by A. N. Wilkins

Among those identified by the ingenious as authors of prelimericks are Aristophanes, Robert Herrick, and Shakespeare. Surely, though, the person whom one would least expect to find in this brotherhood is St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, the Universal Doctor, the official philosopher of the Catholic Church. His contribution occurs, of all places, in the Roman Catholic Breviary, which Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines as "an ecclesiastical book containing the daily public or canonical prayers for the canonical hours." Since the particular item is a prayer of thanksgiving to be recited by a priest after mass, it is not surprising that the fan of the limerick who identified it was Msgr. Ronald A. Knox. He called attention to it in a review of Langford Reed’s The Complete Limerick Book published in English Life, February 1925.

Both Jean Harrowven (The Limerick Makers [London, 1976], p. 13) and Cyril Bibby (The Art of the Limerick [London, 1978], p. 180) include the Latin text, although neither one gives Knox credit for having discovered it. Bibby notes that in the Breviary the piece is not set out in five lines, limerick fashion, as it is here.

Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio
Concupiscentae et libidinis exterminatio,
Caritatis et patientiae,
Humilitatis et obedientiae,
Omniumque virtutum augmentatio.

Seeing such lurid words as concupiscentiae and libidinis, one longs for a translation, bur either Bibby and Harrowven do not know enough Latin to translate it or they have no pity on the less fortunate who did not get beyond Caesar. My knowledge of Latin is not up to the task, but fortunately I am acquainted with a scholar who, at the age of 90, can still construe a mean Latin verb. She is Ms. Irene Blase (A.B. and A.M., University of Chicago), who taught Latin at the high school I attended more than 40 years ago. She provides the following translation:

Let it be for the elimination for my sins,
For the expulsion of desire and lust,
  [And] for the increase of charity and patience,
  Humility and obedience,
As well as all the virtues.

Thus, even if St. Thomas wrote what six or seven centuries later would be called a limerick and though he used words like desire and lust, he didn’t tarnish his halo.

Some Thoughts on Saint Thomas Aquinas
by R. J. Winkler

Considering the amount of the Angelic Doctor’s writings, I wonder what the odds are that he stumbled into the quasi limerick quoted — quasi, that is, if the real limerick is supposed to comply with the rules in re iambs, anapests etc.

To a limerick fan, the quotation may be an example of a serendipitous experience, partly objective and partly subjective, resulting in a limerick-like form being discovered where none was intended. Perhaps computers could calculate the chances of such an occurrence in various works of literature. Surely, if any "limericks" are found, we should not be asked to believe that the author(s) set out to write limericks before limericks were invented, discovered, contrived or whatever. This would stretch our imaginations beyond the bounds of credibility, and far beyond the mysteries of faith that Thomas dealt with elsewhere.

Is it not possible that the limerick-like lilt intrigued an unwitting author before the actual rhythms of a limerick (or near limerick) were confined to present form? It is not too difficult to imagine a limerick lover finding a limerick (real or quasi) where none was intended.

The prayer may have been composed with a particular experience in mind in May of 1244, when Thomas was 19, he was abducted as part of an attempt to dissuade him from his religious intentions. They "...introduced a ravishing girl, seductively attired, into his cell to seduce him and thereby break his will." (Weisheipel, Friar Thomas D’Aquino, Doubleday, 1974. p. 30) and the same author states that the attempt was not successful. Weisheipel also quotes Vives’ Opera Omnia (Paris, Vives 1871-82), stating that the whole prayer, "Gratias tibi ago... (I give thanks to you...)" is "traditionally attributed to Thomas."

As it is, it smacks of the limerick form and style, but purists may not accept it as a legitimate member of the limerick family. Perhaps that is appropriate for membership in what is a motley crew.

Primary stresses exemplified:

_ _ _ ‘ _ _ ‘ _ _ _ _ ‘ _ _
_ _ _ ‘ _ _ _ _ ‘ _ _ _ _ _ ‘ _ _
_ _ ‘ _ _ _ _ ‘ _ _
_ _ _ ‘ _ _ _ _ ‘ _ _
_ _ ‘ _ _ ‘ _ _ _ ‘ _ _

If Thomas aimed, it would not seem unjust to credit him with a near miss in the limerick area.

Are Procrustean efforts now find-
ing a limerick where none was in mind?
Though Aquinas once wrote
All the lines that you quote,
Supplication was FIRST in his mind.

Possible Versions of His Prayer

Extinguish concupiscent fires,
Eliminate lustful desires;
Give patience and love,
A plentitude of
What humble obeying requires.

O strengthen my efforts to rule
My passions and help me to cool
Attractions to sin,
Then help me begin
Considering virtue a jewel.

Oh LORD, I can prove intellectual,
A. Doctor, profoundly effectual,
Whose teachings are sure
If YOU keep me pure
With thoughts that are wholly asexual.

Another Version
by Robin Kay Willoughby

This limerick’s for purging my sin,
Ousting lust and desire from within,
Which leaves oodles of space
For agape and grace,
Plus humility, virtue, and gin.

Thomastic Limericks
by The Reverend William D. Loring

SinceMascall [Eric P. Mascall. Pi in the Sky. London: Faith Press and New York: Morehouse Barlow, 1959] the religious limerick writer is commonly known as "the greatest living thirteenth century theologian" in tribute to his thoroughgoing Thomism it is especially appropriate that both should be practitioners of the art.

Incidentally, I consider it most unfair to impose the rhythmic rules of the English language on those in other languages and would therefore give St. Thomas full credit while recognizing that the limerick form was probably serendipitous, at least top the extent that it was probably not the deliberate creation of a new poetic form. Other forms (though I have never spotted any other limericks — but then I never noticed that one either even though I have often prayed that particular prayer in heaven’s own native Latin) but the rest of that prayer itself includes a number of rhymed lines and another almost complete limerick in the following section with a rhymed tie back to the one quoted.

I have set out the prayer in lines with some marginalia:

Gratias tibi ago,
Domine, sancte Pater, omnitens aeterne Deus,
qui me peccatorem, indignum famulum Deus,
nullis meis meritis,
sed sola dignatione misericordiae tuae
satiare dignatus es
pretioso Corpore et Sanguine Filii tui,
Domini nostri Jesu Christi.
Et precor, ut haec sancta communio
non sit mihi reatus ad poenam,
sed intercessio salutaris ad veniam.
Sit mihi armatura fidei
et scutum bonae voluntatis.
Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio
concupiscentae et libidinis exterminatio,
caritatis et patientiae,
humilitas et obedientiae,
omniumque virtutum augmentatio:
contra insidias inimicorum omnium,
tam visibilium quam invisibilium,
firma defensio:
motum meorum,
tam carnalium quam spiritualium,
perfecta quietatio:
in te uno ac vere Deo firma adbaesio;
atque finis mei felix consummatio.
Et precor te, ut ad illud ineffabile convivium
me peccatorem perducere digneris,
ubi te, cu, Filio tuo et Spiritu Sancto
Sanctus tuis es lux vera,
satietas plena, gaudium sempiternum,
incunditas consummata et felicitas perfecta.
Per eundem Christum Dominum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

The opening is taken from the Preface to the Canon of the Mass

This section is essentially prose
The rhyme here may well be just coincidental
This is the limerick noted by Knox
And this the ‘near’ limerick
NB: Ambrose often treated ‘-o’ and ‘-um’ as rhymes (like Blake’s ‘eye/symmetry’) making it very near a 2nd limerick
And this ties back to the 1st, as well as beginning a new triplet

Prose again — an expanded variant of the standard prayer ending

The obvious conclusion would seem to be that St. Thomas, no mean poet in any case, did (probably intentionally) incorporate poetic forms into this prayer (and others but I’m not going to go hunting tonight) including this instance of a precursor of the limerick.

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