Limerick (poetry)

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A limerick displayed on a plaque in the city of Limerick, Ireland Limerick on the walls of Limerick.jpg
A limerick displayed on a plaque in the city of Limerick, Ireland

A limerick ( /ˈlɪmərɪk/ LIM-ər-ik) [1] is a form of verse, usually humorous and frequently rude, in five-line, predominantly anapestic [2] trimeter with a strict rhyme scheme of AABBA, in which the first, second and fifth line rhyme, while the third and fourth lines are shorter and share a different rhyme. [3] The following example is a limerick of unknown origin:


The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I've seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical. [4]

The form appeared in England in the early years of the 18th century. [5] It was popularized by Edward Lear in the 19th century, [6] although he did not use the term. Gershon Legman, who compiled the largest and most scholarly anthology, held that the true limerick as a folk form is always obscene, and cites similar opinions by Arnold Bennett and George Bernard Shaw, [7] describing the clean limerick as a "periodic fad and object of magazine contests, rarely rising above mediocrity". From a folkloric point of view, the form is essentially transgressive; violation of taboo is part of its function.


An illustration of the fable of Hercules and the Wagoner by Walter Crane in the limerick collection "Baby's Own Aesop" (1887) Hercules & Waggoner2.jpg
An illustration of the fable of Hercules and the Wagoner by Walter Crane in the limerick collection "Baby's Own Aesop" (1887)

The standard form of a limerick is a stanza of five lines, with the first, second and fifth rhyming with one another and having three feet of three syllables each; and the shorter third and fourth lines also rhyming with each other, but having only two feet of three syllables. The third and fourth lines are usually anapaestic, or one iamb followed by one anapaest. The first, second and fifth are usually either anapaests or amphibrachs. [8]

The first line traditionally introduces a person and a place, with the place appearing at the end of the first line and establishing the rhyme scheme for the second and fifth lines. In early limericks, the last line was often essentially a repeat of the first line, although this is no longer customary.

Within the genre, ordinary speech stress is often distorted in the first line, and may be regarded as a feature of the form: "There was a young man from the coast"; "There once was a girl from Detroit..." Legman takes this as a convention whereby prosody is violated simultaneously with propriety. [9] Exploitation of geographical names, especially exotic ones, is also common, and has been seen as invoking memories of geography lessons in order to subvert the decorum taught in the schoolroom; Legman finds that the exchange of limericks is almost exclusive to comparatively well-educated males, women figuring in limericks almost exclusively as "villains or victims". The most prized limericks incorporate a kind of twist, which may be revealed in the final line or lie in the way the rhymes are often intentionally tortured, or both. Many limericks show some form of internal rhyme, alliteration or assonance, or some element of word play. Verses in limerick form are sometimes combined with a refrain to form a limerick song, a traditional humorous drinking song often with obscene verses.

David Abercrombie, a phonetician, takes a different view of the limerick, and one which seems to accord better with the form. [10] It is this: Lines one, two, and five have three feet, that is to say three stressed syllables, while lines three and four have two stressed syllables. The number and placement of the unstressed syllables is rather flexible. There is at least one unstressed syllable between the stresses but there may be more – as long as there are not so many as to make it impossible to keep the equal spacing of the stresses.


The origin of the name limerick for this type of poem is debated. The name is generally taken to be a reference to the City or County of Limerick in Ireland [11] [12] sometimes particularly to the Maigue Poets, and may derive from an earlier form of nonsense verse parlour game that traditionally included a refrain that included "Will [or won't] you come (up) to Limerick?" [13]

Although the New English Dictionary records the first usage of the word limerick for this type of poem in England in 1898 and in the United States in 1902, in recent years several earlier examples have been documented, the earliest being an 1880 reference, in a Saint John, New Brunswick newspaper, to an apparently well-known tune, [14]

There was a young rustic named Mallory,
who drew but a very small salary.
When he went to the show,
his purse made him go
to a seat in the uppermost gallery.

Tune: Won't you come to Limerick. [15]

Edward Lear

A Book of Nonsense (ca. 1875 James Miller edition) by Edward Lear 1862ca-a-book-of-nonsense--edward-lear-001.jpg
A Book of Nonsense (ca. 1875 James Miller edition) by Edward Lear

The limerick form was popularized by Edward Lear in his first A Book of Nonsense (1846) and a later work, More Nonsense Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, etc. (1872). Lear wrote 212 limericks, mostly considered nonsense literature. It was customary at the time for limericks to accompany an absurd illustration of the same subject, and for the final line of the limerick to be a variant of the first line ending in the same word, but with slight differences that create a nonsensical, circular effect. The humour is not in the "punch line" ending but rather in the tension between meaning and its lack. [16]

The following is an example of one of Edward Lear's limericks.

There was a Young Person of Smyrna

There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
But she seized on the cat,
and said 'Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!'

Lear's limericks were often typeset in three or four lines, according to the space available under the accompanying picture.


The limerick form is so well known that it has been parodied in many ways. The following example is of unknown origin:

There was a young man from Japan
Whose limericks never would scan.
And when they asked why,
He said "I do try!
But when I get to the last line I try to fit in as many words as I can."

Other parodies deliberately break the rhyme scheme, like the following example, attributed to W.S. Gilbert:

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp,
When asked, "Does it hurt?"
He replied, "No, it doesn't,
I'm so glad it wasn't a hornet." [17] [18]

Comedian John Clarke also parodied Lear's style:

There was an old man with a beard,
A funny old man with a beard
He had a big beard
A great big old beard
That amusing old man with a beard. [19]

The American film reviewer Ezra Haber Glenn has blended the limerick form with reviews of popular films, creating so-called "filmericks". [20] For example, on Vittorio De Sica's Italian neorealist Bicycle Thieves :

De Sica shoots Rome neo-real,
The poor have been dealt a raw deal.
A bike is required
Or Ricci gets fired:
All men must eventually steal. [21]

The British wordplay and recreational mathematics expert Leigh Mercer (1893–1977) devised the following mathematical limerick:

12 + 144 + 20 + 34/7 + (5 × 11) = 92 + 0

A reading of the Limerick "A dozen, a gross, and a score"

This is read as follows:

A dozen, a gross, and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Is nine squared and not a bit more. [22]

See also

Related Research Articles

A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem of a type invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem's subject, usually a famous person, and the remainder puts the subject in an absurd light or reveals something unknown or spurious about the subject. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced. The line length and metre are irregular. Bentley invented the clerihew in school and then popularized it in books. One of his best known is this (1905):

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edward Lear</span> British artist, illustrator, author and poet

Edward Lear was an English artist, illustrator, musician, author and poet, who is known mostly for his literary nonsense in poetry and prose and especially his limericks, a form he popularised.

In poetry, metre or meter is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study and the actual use of metres and forms of versification are both known as prosody.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Poetry</span> Form of literature

Poetry, also called verse, is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and often rhythmic qualities of language − such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre − to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, a prosaic ostensible meaning. A poem is a literary composition, written by a poet, using this principle.

A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in the final stressed syllables and any following syllables of two or more words. Most often, this kind of perfect rhyming is consciously used for a musical or aesthetic effect in the final position of lines within poems or songs. More broadly, a rhyme may also variously refer to other types of similar sounds near the ends of two or more words. Furthermore, the word rhyme has come to be sometimes used as a shorthand term for any brief poem, such as a nursery rhyme or Balliol rhyme.

Light poetry or light verse is poetry that attempts to be humorous. Light poems are usually brief, can be on a frivolous or serious subject, and often feature word play including puns, adventurous rhyme, and heavy alliteration. Typically, light verse in English is formal verse, although a few free verse poets have excelled at light verse outside the formal verse tradition.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nonsense verse</span> Form of nonsense literature

Nonsense verse is a form of nonsense literature usually employing strong prosodic elements like rhythm and rhyme. It is often whimsical and humorous in tone and employs some of the techniques of nonsense literature.

Poetry analysis is the process of investigating a poem's form, content, structural semiotics and history in an informed way, with the aim of heightening one's own and others' understanding and appreciation of the work.

An anapaest is a metrical foot used in formal poetry. In classical quantitative meters it consists of two short syllables followed by a long one; in accentual stress meters it consists of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. It may be seen as a reversed dactyl. This word comes from the Greek ἀνάπαιστος, anápaistos, literally "struck back" and in a poetic context "a dactyl reversed".

An amphibrach is a metrical foot used in Latin and Greek prosody. It consists of a long syllable between two short syllables. The word comes from the Greek ἀμφίβραχυς, amphíbrakhys, "short on both sides".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alliterative verse</span> Form of verse

In prosody, alliterative verse is a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal ornamental device to help indicate the underlying metrical structure, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme. The most commonly studied traditions of alliterative verse are those found in the oldest literature of the Germanic languages, where scholars use the term 'alliterative poetry' rather broadly to indicate a tradition which not only shares alliteration as its primary ornament but also certain metrical characteristics. The Old English epic Beowulf, as well as most other Old English poetry, the Old High German Muspilli, the Old Saxon Heliand, the Old Norse Poetic Edda, and many Middle English poems such as Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Alliterative Morte Arthur all use alliterative verse.

The double dactyl is a verse form invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal in 1951.

Iambic pentameter is a type of metric line used in traditional English poetry and verse drama. The term describes the rhythm, or meter, established by the words in that line; rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables called "feet". "Iambic" refers to the type of foot used, here the iamb, which in English indicates an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. "Pentameter" indicates a line of five "feet".

This is a glossary of poetry.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Literary nonsense</span> Genre of literature

Literary nonsense is a broad categorization of literature that balances elements that make sense with some that do not, with the effect of subverting language conventions or logical reasoning. Even though the most well-known form of literary nonsense is nonsense verse, the genre is present in many forms of literature.

Resolution is the metrical phenomenon in poetry of replacing a normally long syllable in the meter with two short syllables. It is often found in iambic and trochaic meters, and also in anapestic, dochmiac and sometimes in cretic, bacchiac, and ionic meters. In iambic and trochaic meters, either the first or the second half of the metrical foot can be resolved, or sometimes both.

The "Limerick" is a traditional humorous drinking song with many obscene verses. The tune usually used for sung limericks is traditionally "Cielito Lindo," with the words arranged in the form of a limerick.

Fixed verse forms are a kind of template or formula that poetry can be composed in. The opposite of fixed verse is free verse poetry, which by design has little or no pre-established guidelines.

Masculine ending and feminine ending are terms used in prosody, the study of verse form. "Masculine ending" refers to a line ending in a stressed syllable. "Feminine ending" is its opposite, describing a line ending in a stressless syllable. This definition is applicable in most cases; see below, however, for a more refined characterization.

Poetic devices are a form of literary device used in poetry. Poems are created out of poetic devices composite of: structural, grammatical, rhythmic, metrical, verbal, and visual elements. They are essential tools that a poet uses to create rhythm, enhance a poem's meaning, or intensify a mood or feeling.


  1. "LIMERICK | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary". Retrieved 2019-12-12.
  2. Cuddon, J.A. (1999). The Penguin dictionary of literary terms and literary theory (4. ed.). London [u.a.]: Penguin Books. p.  458. ISBN   978-0140513639.
  3. Vaughn, Stanton (1904). Limerick Lyrics . Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  4. Feinberg, Leonard. The Secret of Humor. Rodopi, 1978. ISBN   9789062033706. p102
  5. An interesting and highly esoteric verse in limerick form is found in the diary of the Rev. John Thomlinson (1692–1761): 1717. Sept. 17th. One Dr. Bainbridge went from Cambridge to Oxon [Oxford] to be astronomy professor, and reading a lecture happened to say de Polis et Axis, instead of Axibus. Upon which one said, Dr. Bainbridge was sent from Cambridge,—to read lectures de Polis et Axis; but lett them that brought him hither, return him thither, and teach him his rules of syntaxis. From Six North Country Diaries, Publications of the Surtees Society, Vol. CXVIII for the year MCMX, p. 78. Andrews & Co., Durham, etc. 1910.
  6. Brandreth, page 108
  7. Legman 1988, pp. x-xi.
  8. "Limerick". Poetry Forms. 23 February 2013. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  9. Legman 1988, p. xliv.
  10. Abercrombie, David, Studies in Phonetics and Linguistics 1965 Oxford University Press: Chapter 3 A Phonetician's View of Verse Structure.
  11. Loomis 1963, pp. 153–157.
  12. "Siar sna 70idí 1973 Lios Tuathail - John B Keane, Limericks, Skinheads". YouTube. Archived from the original on 2013-02-20. Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  13. The phrase "come to Limerick" is known in American Slang since the Civil War, as documented in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang and subsequent posts on the American Dialect Society List. One meaning for the phrase, proposed by Stephen Goranson on ADS-list, would be a reference to the Treaty of Limerick, and mean surrender, settle, get to the point, get with the program.
  14. reported by Stephen Goranson on the ADS-list and in comments at the Oxford Etymologist blog
  15. Saint John Daily News, Saint John, New Brunswick Edward Willis, Proprietor Tuesday Nov 30, 1880 Vol. XLII, no. 281 page 4, column 5 [headline:] Wise and Otherwise
  16. Tigges, Wim. "The Limerick: The Sonnet of Nonsense?". Explorations in the Field of Nonsense. ed. Wim Tigges. 1987. page 117
  17. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. 1995. ISBN   9780877790426 . Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  18. Wells 1903, pp. xix-xxxiii.
  19. "Craig Brown: The Lost Diaries". The Guardian. October 2010. Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  20. "Filmericks from the City in Film". UrbanFilm. 26 February 2014. Retrieved 19 February 2021.
  21. "Bicycle Thieves: The Filmerick". UrbanFilm. 4 March 2014. Retrieved 19 February 2021.
  22. "Math Mayhem". Retrieved 2019-05-29.


Limerick bibliographies