As a form or poetry, limericks have been around for a fairly long time. There are examples of the style going back to the 1700s. The form enjoyed a wide scope of influence, everything from nursery rhymes to lewd bar songs. The name limerick has been associated with the form for over one-hundred years and seems to come from a game played in pubs ending with the line “Wont you come to Limerick.”
Probably one of the most widely known limericks is Humpty Dumpty. It is commonly attributed to Mother Goose, though the actual poet remains unknown. Some even suggest it refers to King Richard III (1452 – 1485). It is suggested that King Richard suffered from a curved back or hunched back and is the source for the title. A derogatory nickname for him was “Old Crouchback.” If it truly does refer to Richard, the poetic form may go back much further than commonly thought. Here is the oldest known text of the limerick from Gammer Gurton’s Garland, Or, the Nursery Parnassus [i] first published in 1810:
Humpty Dumpty sate on a wall,
Humpti Dumpti had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before. [sic]
While the form is not the standard 5-line form of today, it does have the feel of a limerick. I am curious about the two spellings of Humpy Dumpty. If any linguist out there has an answer, I would love to hear from you.
Of course, limericks are best known today for the more lewd and downright obscene rhymes. Who can forget “There once was a man from Nantucket[ii]…” I will leave it to you, to look that one up if you really need to. I mean I am all for an off-color joke or rhyme but only to a point.
Over the years there have been many poets that stuck a toe into the limerick pool. When I was growing up, there was a comedian named Nipsey Russell, he was famous for his limericks, many of which he’d recite during his various stints on TV game shows. Here is one of his more famous quips:
I am a bachelor, and I will not marry
Until the right girl comes along
But while I’m waiting,
I don’t mind dating
Girls that I know are wrong.
Again, it is not exactly in standard limerick form but it defiantly qualifies. It holds the modern-day acceptance that a limerick needs to be somewhat titillating. I guess I like his limericks as they are pithy and show his genuine wit.
As for me, I was dared to enter a limerick contest one time several years ago. I had never really thought about writing one, still it was a challenge so I took a shot at it and won the contest. Here is my entry, Blind Date:
Yes, in life you’ll face disappointment
like after a date needing an appointment
so down to the corner you’ll run
and tell the Doc of your fun
to get a shot, some pills and an ointment.
I think it is just off-color enough to make you smile while not being so lewd to make your mother blush. In my mind, that is where the sweet-spot is for limericks. I like to call them “chuckle poems.”
Limericks can be political too. This cartoon[iii] I came up with a couple of years ago when I lived in South Carolina. Mark Sanford was Governor. He put forward a very morally conservative agenda but then was caught running off to spend a weekend with his Argentine mistress. The situation just screamed limerick to me. In case you cannot read it clearly, here is the text:
Our Gov had the world in his pocket
His career took off like a rocket
But when life’s morals got in his way
His wife and office he did betray
You see, he takes an oath, then mocks it
In this example, the message is more important than the style itself. The limerick form simply provides a good structure to deliver a political sting. In a large sense, the bathroom stall is the appropriate gallery for such a limerick in which the subject devolved into a sort of bathroom humor situation in the first place. Still, the limerick does give weight to political ridicule by its ability to add insulting humor to a situation. That is the very essence of political speech protected by our First Amendment.
In the end, writing limericks is fun for the poet. It allows us to tell a joke or make sport of a situation. It shows poetry can have its humorous moments, not to mention the form being a good way to expose children to poetry, though care of just which limericks to share is of utmost importance. Stick with the “Mother Goose” limericks for that.
Remember, April is National Poetry Month. Why not give writing a limerick a try? Given they can be somewhat silly in nature, you can write one without the heady reserve a lot of people attribute to poetry.
[i] “Part II.” Gammer Gurton’s Garland, Or, the Nursery Parnassus. London: Reprinted for Hugh Hopkins, 1866. Page 36. Print.
[ii] Mackay, Arthur. Immortalia; an Anthology of American Ballads, Sailor’s Songs, Cowboy Songs, College Songs, Parodies, Limericks, and Other Humorous Verses and Doggerel. [Calcutta, New York]: Karman Society, 1952. Print.
[iii] Benton, MH. “Gov. Sanford Limerick.” Michael H Benton Cartoon Page. MH Benton, 23 July 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2012. <http://mhbcartoons.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/gov-sanford-limerick/>.