The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Culture

As a reflection of a nation’s humour the limerick can hardly be bettered, ranging tongue-in-cheek as it does from whimsy to ribaldry.

Nobody remembers when the first limerick was composed, or why it took its name from the county of Limerick in Ireland. The best examples have always depended for their survival on oral tradition and few have had claims to copyright. But as a verse form it took firm root when, in 1846, Edward Lear published. his first “Book of Nonsense.’

The opening verse ran:

There was an Old Man with a beard,

Who said, ‘‘It is just as I feared! —

Two Owls and a Hen,

Four Larks anda Wren,

Have all built their nests in my beard!’’

Lear joked about physical deformities, his limericks abound with unfortunate folk possessed of grotesque features and outsize limbs:

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.

In contrast came the intellectual limerick, as various theories and -isms met a sceptical and amused public:

There was a young lady named Bright

Who travelled much faster than light.

She started one day

In a relative way

And returned on the previous night.

From the universities came limericks too ribald to be printable. Happily they have been passed down from mouth to mouth in the best tradition. As one limerick about the limerick ruefully puts it:

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.

While early limericks concluded with a fifth line that matched the first, more modern fashion favours a neat turn of phrase” so long as it keeps the rhyme andrhythm. An honourable exception to this rule is “The Young Man of Japan’’:

There was a young man of Japan

Whose limericks never would scan.

When they said it was so

He replied, ‘‘Yes I know,

But I always try to get as many words into the last line as ever I possibly can.’’

Students of English as a foreign language will appreciate the large group of verses mocking the eccentricities of English spelling and pronunciation:

A pretty young teacher named Beauchamp

Said, “Those awful boys! How shall I teauchamp?*

I try to look grave

But they will not behave

Though with tears in my eyes I beseauchamp.’’*

Many of the best limericks of this type emerged from competitions staged in the late nineteenth century by “Punch’’, the well-known British humorous magazine

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