Edward Lear, like Charles Dickens, was born in 1812. Lear, author of The Owl and the Pussycat, is not considered a serious poet. Unlike such poets as Wordsworth, Yeats and Goethe, his fame rests on
humour and wit, both amply displayed in his many limericks.
The Dictionary of Literary Terms calls the limerick, “light verse,” explaining it as, “a jingling poem of three long and two short lines, the long lines rhyming with each other and the short lines rhyming with each other.”
Here’s one of Lear’s best-known limericks:
There was an old man with a beard,
Who said, “it is just as I feared! —
Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren
Have all built their nests in my beard.”
Because limericks are easy to create, they’ve become drinking songs, often bawdy, sometimes obscene.
Lear popularized but didn’t invent the limerick. Some think their popularity began in the pubs of Limerick, Ireland, a town noted for drinking. This idea has been discounted time and time again, although no alternative explanation is offered.
Limerick is the name of both an Irish town and a county. It means, “bare area of ground.” The Irish Gaelic spelling is Luimneach, which arises from the root lom (base; thin).
Many others have fooled around with limericks. As might be expected, American nonsense poet, Ogden Nash, wrote a few. Here’s one:
There was an old man of Calcutta,
Who coated his tonsils with butta,
Thus converting his snore
From a thunderous roar
To a soft oleaginous mutta.
Nash’s verse illustrates a characteristic of the limerick — misspelling to force rhyme. Also, there’s often distorted pronunciation as in this anonymously written example:
A painter who lived in Great Britain,
Interrupted two girls with their knitain.
He said with a sigh,
That park bench — well I
Just painted right where you are sitain.
In creating limericks, writers of nonsense verse are joined by serious writers. Here’s one by Rudyard Kipling:
There was a young man of Quebec
Who was buried in snow to his neck.
When asked, “Are you friz?”
He replied, “Yes. I iz.
“But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”
The following one is by Oliver Wendell Holmes:
The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher
Called a hen a most elegant creature.
The hen, pleased with that,
Laid an egg in his hat,
And thus did the hen reward Beecher.
The above two examples illustrate another recurring feature of limericks. The rhyming word ending the first line is often repeated in the final line. As well, there’s frequent punning and other clever wordplay. Let’s enjoy a couple of limericks by “Anonymous:”
A canny young fisher named Fisher
Once fished from the edge of a fissure.
A fish with a grin
Pulled the fisherman in —
Now they’re fishing the fissure for Fisher.
One day I went out to the Zoo,
For I wanted to see the old Gnu.
But the old Gnu was dead,
And the new Gnu they said,
Surely knew as a Gnu he was new.