Limericks - Britain's Short & Silly Poetry Tradition
Just about every single day of the year is a National Day of something - a day on which the small things, like gingerbread biscuits and popcorn, or the serious stuff, like cancer survivors, are highlighted and celebrated throughout the country. Thanks to social media, lots of these are celebrated in one way or another around the world.
So, for example, June 1st is National Say Something Nice Day, while August 3rd is National Watermelon Day and November 7th is National Stress Awareness Day. For more National Days, check out this link.
May 12th is National Limerick Day!
A limerick is a short and funny rhyming poem, so if you are studying English, this is a great chance to learn something new and try a new form of writing.
A Short History of Limericks
May 12th is the day on which, over 200 years ago (in 1812 to be exact), the master of limericks, Edward Lear, was born in London.
In 1846 he published the Book of Nonsense, an illustrated collection of his limericks which made these an extremely popular form of poetry. Edward Lear’s nonsense limericks are still widely recited, read, and laughed at by adults and children to this day.
Although Edward Lear popularised the art of limerick writing, he did not, in fact, invent the form. Limericks go back a long way, with roots in folk songs, nursery rhymes, and humorously obscene drinking songs and games. It's possible that they started as a game - someone would suggest the first line and challenge others to complete the limerick with the silliest or rudest rhyme possible. Written examples appear in the early 1700s, more than a century before Lear's famous book.
As far as anyone knows, limericks have nothing whatsoever to do with the town of Limerick in the Republic of Ireland, but some scholars believe that the name derives from a witty writer from there who is thought to have first popularised this form of poetry. But nobody quite knows – it’s a mystery!
So, what is a limerick?
As mentioned earlier, a limerick is a type of poem; it’s short, simple, funny, often silly and usually tells a mini story about a person or place.
However, be warned: limericks are often quite bawdy! They were mostly written and recited by men in this form and were not meant to be told when a lady might overhear. Edward Lear's limericks are unusual as most of them are not offensive - merely silly!
How can I write a limerick?
They’re quite straightforward to compose. You don’t have to be a great poet to write one. Anyone can do it! All you need is a sense of humour and some knowledge of rhyming.
A limerick has a particular rhythm and always contains just five lines. The word and syllable stress in limericks is a little strange - listen to them being read aloud to hear this pattern.
The first, second and fifth lines are around eight syllables long, and their last words have to rhyme with each other.
The third and fourth lines are shorter (around five syllables) and rhyme with each other - and DON'T rhyme with the first, second, and fifth lines.
In Lear's limericks, the final line is often a simple variation of the first line, but not all limericks use this technique. He also sometimes wrote his third and fourth lines like one line - I've changed this in this article to make it easier to read.
Let's look at some examples!
Physical Appearance Limericks
Limericks often focus on an aspect of a person’s appearance and poke fun at her or him. For example:
There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.
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.”
Most of these begin with a sentence like:
"There was an old/young man/woman/lady with ____" or "There was an old/young man/woman/lady whose ____".
Another option is to start by introducing person from a particular town or country, such as in these examples:
There was an Old Person of Anerley,
Whose conduct was strange and unmannerly;
He rushed down the Strand
With a Pig in each hand,
But returned in the evening to Anerley.
There was an Old Person of Burton, Whose answers were rather uncertain; When they said, "How d' ye do?"
He replied, "Who are you?" That distressing Old Person of Burton.
All the above limericks were written and illustrated by Edward Lear
Satirists have often used limericks as thinly disguised ways to criticise and lampoon political figures and people in the public eye or to make a political point, for example:
They’ll fight every inch to defend
The political message they send
They’ll vie for your vote
Then become quite remote
They’re the same only different my friend
by Leslie Wilson
So, why not have some fun and have a go at writing your own very British limerick to commemorate National Limerick Day?
Start with one of the two starting sentences:
There was a young/old man/lady of ____ (place name here - maybe use your country or hometown)
There was a young/old man/lady whose _____(body part here)
Send your limericks to us on social media!
Here's one from us:
There once was a student of English
Who felt that the language was hellish
He hired a tutor
Had class by computer
In words he no longer would languish!
To help you find words that rhyme, you can use this free rhyming dictionary.