"There Once Was a Man From Nantucket": The Limerick

The limerick, bawdy and obnoxious, is not unlike a freak-show curiosity in the carnival of literary forms. It has refused--and still refuses--to die, despite its curious role as the "vehicle of cultivated, if unrepressed, sexual humor in the English language" (Legman vii).

The simplicity of the limerick quite possibly accounts for its extreme longevity. It consists of five anapestic lines with the rhyme scheme aabba. The first, second, and fifth lines are trimeter, while the third and fourth are dimeter. Often the third and fourth lines are printed as a single line with internal rhyme (Beckson 144). The following example fairly represents the genre in both style and tone:

There once was a lady named Cager,
Who as the result of a wager,
Consented to fart
The entire oboe part
Of Mozart's quartet in F-major.

Variants of this form dating as far back as the fourteenth century are found in English nursery rhymes and animal-warning poems such as "The lion is wondirliche strong" (Legman xiv) . Since then, the form has appeared sporadically throughout the history of the English language, from the bellowing songs of half-naked street beggars during the sixteenth century to the drinking songs of inebriated pub-crawlers in the seventeenth century (Legman xv-xix). The term limerick itself has its apocryphal origins in the refrain "Will you come up to Limerick," a now-forgotten tavern chorus from the Irish town of the same name (Legman xix). Despite its popularity in pubs and taverns, formal poets were familiar with the limerick; Shakespeare employed the form in several of his plays, King Lear and Othello (Legman xxii).

Given its dubious scholarly or aristocratic beginnings, the somewhat indecent and obscene nature of the limerick is understandable. Don Marquis defines three distinct types of limericks: "Limericks to be told when ladies are present; limericks to be told when ladies are absent but clergymen are present--and LIMERICKS" (Legman xi). The limerick, has been and probably always will be "an indecent verse-form" (Legman vii). Its indecency can be explained by its sheer simplicity; one does not need the talent of Shakespeare to compose a limerick, but merely a sense of humor. This sense of fun that pervades the limerick has made it the perfect outlet for humorous and folk poetry, especially drinking songs. Most are about "the unconscious or unwilling humor of the sexual impulse: its organ-inferiorities, its attitudes, and misadventures" (Legman xxxix). Often the joke is on the poet himself; the limerick is a method, sometimes hostile, of laughing away "sexual fears and impotencies--real and imaginary--in short satirical efforts of elaborate rhyme, in which, be it said once and for all, woman is the usual butt of the satire" (Legman xl).

Surprisingly, a volume of clean--not bawdy--limericks was responsible for the form's current popularity. The reprinting of Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense in 1863 inadvertently created the English limerick fad. Here is an example of Lear's work:

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.

The English humor magazine Punch, inspired by Lear's book, began to publicize the "new" form within its pages, and thus began the limerick craze. Throughout the 1860's, Punch continued to publish clean limericks until the inevitable "bawdy and sacrilegious" (Legman x) entries were submitted by anonymous pranksters. Punch promptly shut down the contest, the fad died out, but the limerick lived on forever (Legman viii-x).


Beckson, Karl. Literary Terms: A Dictionary. New York: Noonday Press.

Legman, G. The Limerick. New York: Brandywine Press, 1970.

[Robert Lo]