A limerick is a humorous poem that follows a fixed structure of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines are rhymed and the third and fourth are rhymed. In the same divisions, the first set of lines is longer and is written in anapestic trimeter while the second set of lines is in anapestic dimeter. There are instances in which poets take light liberties with the format and use a pattern of unstressed, stressed, unstressed syllables rather than unstressed, unstressed, stressed.
The rhyme scheme is better understood as AABBA and is often composed in order to make the reader laugh. These poems are entertaining and notoriously suggestive and rude. The first lines of a limerick usually introduce a person or place and the following describes what the person did or what happened there. For example, “There once was a man from Nantucket…” In traditional limericks, the last line was often a repetition of the first.
History of the Limerick
Limericks date back to the eighteenth century are most commonly associated with Edward Lear. They appeared in his 1846 volume, A Book of Nonsense. Lear wrote a total of 212 limericks over his life, most of which belong in the category of nonsense verse. The form was popularized by poets like Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot, and Lewis Carroll.
Purpose of the Limerick
These poems are most commonly used to create funny imagery. They are often outrageous and connect together phrases and thoughts that are unusual and when juxtaposed, humorous. The last lines of these poems are usually he punchline, coming after the longer set up.
Examples of Limericks in Poetry
Example #1 Bump by Spike Milligan
‘Bump’ is a humorous limerick that speaks on the things that go “bump” in the night. Through the short lines of this verse, Milligan explores the nature of these “things” and explains for the young reader or listener that they are contained entirely within one’s imagination. The poem starts:
Things that go ‘bump’ in the night
Should not really give one a fright.
The word “light” rhymes with “night” and “fright” in the final line while the third and fourth lines rhyme with “ear” and “fear”.
Example #2 There Was an Old Man in a Tree by Edward Lear
One of the many limericks included in Lear’s volume Book of Nonsense, this limerick conforms to the regular rhyme scheme of AABBA. The lines depict an “old man” in a tree who is “horribly bored by a bee”. Take a look at the last three lines below:
When they said “Does it buzz?”
He replied “Yes, it does!
It’s a regular brute of a bee!”
The use of a rhyme scheme and other poetic techniques such as alliteration and call and response make this poem a pleasure to read.
Example #3 There was a Young Belle of Old Natchez by Ogden Nash
One of several poems that Ogden Nash wrote in the form a limerick, ‘There was a Young Belle of Old Natchez’ begins as many of the best limericks do, with the introduction of a person and place. For lovers of limericks, this is a sure set up for something amusing or even rude. In this case, Nash went for a joke that makes use of a play on words and pronunciation.
He creates humour by reusing the unusual ending “chez”. The poet desires “patchez” and “itchez” and “scratchez” in the following lines.
Example #4 There was an Old Man of the Cape by Robert Louis Stevenson
Another poem that uses the transitional pattern of a limerick, ‘There was an Old Man of the Cape,’ is also an example of a nonsense poem. The form of a limerick lends itself to strange people, places, and actions due to the shortness of its lines and the necessity of creating perfect rhymes. In this case, Stevenson rhymes “crepe” with “cape” and describes the old man with the following lines:
Who made himself garments of crepe.
When asked, “Do they tear?”
He replied, “Here and there,
But they’re perfectly splendid for shape!”
This poem is also an example, as are others on this list, that uses dialogue to get the reader to the punch line at the end.