Kaushik Chatterjee, you made my day*! The good words you wrote about my post "What do you want to be when you grow up?" cheered me no end. A good turn deserves another and I dedicate this post on limericks, with great affection, to Kaushik.
Bland or bawdy, clean or raunchy, prim or rib tickling, ditties and doggerels are great fun. Anyone can recite one. Don't believe me? Hickory, dickory, dock. Little Jack Horner sat in a corner.
A limerick is a couplet (the third and fourth lines) sandwiched within a triplet (the first, second and the fifth lines). The lines in the couplet rhyme and have six beats; so do those in the triplet which have nine beats. The anapaestic rhythm – two short and one long beat – is what gives it the swing.
Classical poetry in Sanskrit and most Indian languages is all about cadences and rhythms, the long and short; so I feel comfortable with verse forms that demand strict adherence to meter.
The best limericks should rhyme (and delight the reader by innovative rhyming solutions, if somewhat contrived) and like the O’Henry stories, have a surprise ending. If the punch comes too early of the climax can be anticipated before it is reached, half the fun is lost. Verbal felicity, metrical perfection and a quick turn of wit – and you’re done!
I always enjoyed limericks. A limerick is a simple narration of events in five lines of verse. Often, the first line sets the scene and gives us the main character. The rest are narration, and the fifth line is the punchline. There is something about the meter that begs for irreverence and wordplay. It is almost as if irreverence is a prerequisite. It seems indeed impossible to write a limerick without approaching the indelicate. Why, it may be asked, should anyone want to write such an indecorous form of verse as the limerick?
The word ‘limerick’ is supposed to have entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1898, defined as a 'form of indecent nonsense verse' and seems to have nothing to do with the small town Limerick in Ireland or its doppelganger in Pennsylvania.
We’ll start with some limericks about limericks.
An anonymous writer describes limericks thus:
The limerick packs jokes 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.
Conrad Aitken describes a limerick thus:
The limerick’s, admitted, a verse form:
A terse form: a curse form: a hearse form.
It may not be lyric
And at best it’s satyric
And a whale of a tail in perverse form.
There’s a warning in this one by Morris Bishop, that great master of contemporary limerick:
The limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promptly becomes
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.
Just one more:
The limerick’s an art form complex
Whose contents run chiefly to sex;
It’s famous for virgins
And masculine urgin’s
And vulgar erotic effects.
Limericks aren't just funny or bawdy. They reflect times and mores. They reflect the social climate and point to changes that are crying out for attention; they comment on issues. Limericks are insidious. You always have an apposite limerick to quote. But there are always prudes, and limericks take potshots at them. Predictably, several of the bawdy limericks are about women and therefore it should not come as a surprise that most women loathe limericks. Gershon Legman attributed it to ‘the same reason that calves hate cookbooks’.
Yet, this normally frivolous and often immoral form of verse can be amazingly highbrow at times. Like this one composed by Prof Harvey L Carter:
’Tis a favourite project of mine
A new value of π to assign.
I would fix it at 3
For, it’s simpler, you see,
Than 3 point 14159.
Or very clever, like this one:
. She frowned and called him Mr.
Because in sport he kr.
And so in spite
That very night
This Mr. kr. sr.
Innovative people have devised variations like the six-line limerick, for instance:
There was a young fellow named Skinner
Who took a young lady to dinner;
At half past nine
They sat down to dine,
And by quarter to ten it was in her.
What? Dinner? No, Skinner!
And those whom the Muse did not quite oblige and could not compose the aabba did not give up without a fight.
There was a fat lady from Eye
Who felt she was likely to die
But for fear that once dead
She would not be well-fed,
She gulped down a pig, a cow, a sheep, twelve buns, a seven-layer cake, four cups coffee and a green apple pie.
Everyone, of course, could not make such a valiant effort at rhyming and succeed. Their memory in enshrined in:
The limerick, peculiar to English,
Is a verse form that’s hard to extinguish.
Once the Congress in session
Decreed its suppression
But people got around it by writing the last line without any rhyme or meter.
A less-known fact is that P G Wodehouse wrote a limerick, one of my favourites, but it was in prose: it was about the 'young man called Grover, who bowled twenty-two wides in an over; (which had never been done, by a clergyman's son), on a Thursday in August in Dover.'
PS: Murphy's Limerick Law I define:
You've decided your limerick's divine...
Since it can't be improved
To your web site it's moved —
Then you think of a much better line!
* I started writing this some time in March 2010 but finished it only today!