Celebrating the Irish Limerick

Irish flag, map of Ireland, limerickNo one really knows exactly where or how limericks got their start, but it’s estimated that this form of poetry has been around since the eleventh century. In the 1800s, an explosion of limerick writing occurred in England and Ireland, in large part thanks to the nonsensical English writer Edward Lear, who published a book of limericks called A Book of Nonsense in 1846.

While the most famous writer of limericks was English, we associate limericks with Ireland because the name for these poems came from a word game played in pubs in Limerick, Ireland. The game always included the phrase “Will (or won’t) you come up to Limerick?”

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a crash course in limericks.

How is a limerick different from other poems?

Even people who generally can’t stand poetry find limericks pretty amusing. They’re short, the format is easy to follow, and they’re almost always funny (and sometimes naughty!). Once you get the hang of the composition, you can pretty easily make up your own limericks. Let’s see how a limerick is structured.

Rhyme

Limericks consist of five lines with an AABBA rhyming pattern, meaning that the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth rhyme with each other. Let’s use one of Edward Lear’s limericks as an example:

There was an old man of West Dumpet,
Who possessed a large nose like a trumpet;
When he blew it aloud,

it astonished the crowd,
And was heard through the whole of West Dumpet.

Syllable stress

Another distinguishing characteristic of limericks is their distinct rhythm. They’re very often written using anapest, which is two short, unstressed syllables followed by a long, stressed one. Look at the limerick again, and then pay attention to the stressed syllables. (Note that it’s common to be missing the first unstressed syllable.)

There was an old man of West Dumpet,
Who possessed a large nose like a trumpet;
When he blew it aloud,

it astonished the crowd,
And was heard through the whole of West Dumpet.

Humor in limericks

And since limericks are nonsensical and meant to be humorous, poets often bend or invent words to fit the structure, as in this one by Dixon Lanier Merritt:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

Pretty fun, right? See if you can write your own limerick and leave it in the comments!

 

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