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Main >> Library >> Articles

Beginner's Guide To Limericks
by P. Robertshaw

Brief History
It is unclear when the first limerick was written. Debate has raged among exponents of the form as to what was officially a limerick in the history of verse, using examples going back as far even as 448 BC to describe its origins, with the Greek poet Aristophanes. Shakespeare has also been cited as an early exponent, in Othello (1604):

And let the canikin clink, clink
And let the canakin clink
A soldier’s a man
O man’s life’s just a span
Why then let a soldier drink

However, the writer most linked with the popularisation of the limerick is Edward Lear (1812-88). He did not invent the limerick, or even use the word, but wrote 212 of them during his life. Frequently, the last line he used was the same as or similar to the first:

There was a young lady from Norway
Who casually sat in a doorway
When the door squashed her flat
She exclaimed “What of that?”
This courageous young lady from Norway

A rude version of this, as of many of Lear’s other limericks, also exists.

Another limerick by Lear was parodied either by George Bernard Shaw or by Sir William Schenck Gilbert (whom, it was believed, disliked Lear’s style). Some debate exists on this point. Lear had written:

There was an old man in a tree
Who was horribly bored by a bee
When they said “Does it buzz?”
He replied “Yes it does
It’s a regular brute of a bee”

The reply followed:

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”

As for the name ‘limerick’, there is no agreement. Some claimed it is named after the town of Limerick in Ireland, but others discount this on the basis that there is little or no evidence to support it. It is certain that the verse was popular there, but inconclusive as to whether the town gave its name to the verse.

Today, the limerick has a strong band of followers and enthusiasts who delight in its humorous potential. While it must be said that the overwhelming majority of well-known limericks are risqué or blatantly sexual, the clean limerick is still going strong and is an excellent test of its writer’s ingenuity.
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This article: © June 2001 P. Robertshaw. All rights reserved. All examples written by P. Robertshaw except where otherwise stated.

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