Limerick

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The limerick is a comic verse form consisting of a single five-line stanza with the rhyme scheme AABBA, i.e., the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme, as do the third and fourth. The metre is anapaestic, i.e., the feet have the pattern ∪ ∪ — , with the first, second, and fifth lines having three feet, and the third and fourth two feet. So the entire limerick has the pattern;

∪ ∪ —| ∪ ∪ —| ∪ ∪ —|
∪ ∪ —| ∪ ∪ —| ∪ ∪ —|
∪ ∪ —| ∪ ∪ —|
∪ ∪ —| ∪ ∪ —|
∪ ∪ —| ∪ ∪ —| ∪ ∪ —|

However, this metrical scheme is not always strictly observed. Many variations are found, particularly in the first foot, where the two unstressed syllables are sometimes replaced by a single syllable, which may be stressed or unstressed, i.e., the foot is a spondee or an iambus.

Here, as an example, is a limerick on Predestination by Maurice E. Hare (1886-1967). (Hare wrote several versions of this limerick: this is the second, 1905, version.)

There was a young man who said “Damn!
I perceive with regret that I am
But a creature that moves
In predestinate grooves –
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram!”

Limericks were particularly popular in the second half of the nineteenth century, Edward Lear (1812-1888), the English humorist and painter, having done much to popularise the form in his book Nonsense Verse (1846). Lear wrote more than 200 limericks. Many of them are distinctive in having the final word of the final line the same as the final word of the first or second line, or even having the entire final line a repetition of the first or second line. Here is an example:

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.”

The word limerick as the name of a verse form clearly derives from the name of the city of Limerick in the west of Ireland, though in precisely what way is not certain. One suggestion is that the name comes from the song “Will you come up to Limerick?” which was often sung as a refrain between nonsense verses at a party.

Note: As this page shows, the word limerick (without an initial capital) may be used either for the verse form or for an instance of the form.]]