In this article, we will explore the history and form of the limerick, offer examples, and suggest writing prompts for creating your own limericks. Hopefully this may help those feeling a lack of creative inspiration to rediscover the joy of writing. Working in a different format can let your creativity run wild, helping you to feel reinvigorated, and maybe even finish that book you’ve been procrastinating on!
This is the first article in a series exploring various examples of short form writing. Short form writing, particularly ones with rigid structural and formulaic restraints often function as fun and useful exercises to escape writer’s block or reading fatigue. The reader knows what to expect and the author has a secure foundation within which to work, freeing up their energy to focus on theme and content.
- What is a Limerick?
- The History of the Limerick
- Structure and Form of the Limerick
- Try it Yourself
- Get in Touch
What is a Limerick?
A limerick is a very short poem with only five lines and a strict AABBA rhyme scheme and a predominantly anapestic meter that is usually humorous and quite crude. Working within a strict structure, and a limited length can offer great opportunity for creativity without too much time spent on each work. Furthermore, writing within a strict formula can be a great exercise to overcome writer’s block and force yourself to write by working with a different structure than you’re familiar with.
The History of the Limerick
The limerick is a particularly Anglophone, and relatively modern form of short poem. It only appeared in the early 18th Century. Edward Lear, a 19th Century English author, poet, artist and all-around creative, is known for popularizing them further via his extensive use of the form. His other literary works consisted in large part of nonsensical verse and prose, known for neologisms. Perhaps his most famous work is The Owl and the Pùssy-Cat. Similarly, his limericks tend toward the nonsensical rather than the bawdy tone with which they are now primarily associated. In this case, the humor arises more from the lack of sense, or a subversion of expectation rather than explicit content.
Consider this limerick of Lear’s, formatted in four lines rather than five, that lacks a true punch line:
There was an Old Man of Aôsta
Who possessed a large Cow, but he lost her;
But they said, “Don’t you see she has run up a tree,
You invidious Old Man of Aôsta?
The name Limerick is presumably a reference to the city or county of the same name in Ireland. The reason why the name Limerick has become associated with this form of poetry is unclear, but could have arisen from an association with an earlier nonsense verse form that had a refrain “Won’t you come to Limerick”, which seemingly had an accompanying tune.
Nowadays the limerick is often associated with crude jokes, especially with a reveal in the last line providing a raunchy punch line.
Structure and Form
An anapest is a metrical foot that consists of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed beat. Consider the line below in anapestic tetrameter (four anapests per line), where the underlined syllables are stressed.
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
By the notation AABBA to denote the rhyming scheme of a typical limerick, we mean that the last word of the first, second and last lines should rhyme, and the 4th and 5th lines should rhyme with each other (usually with a different rhyme from the other lines).
The meter of limericks isn’t always held to the strictest standards, and indeed, the rules of rhyme of rhythm are often broken for comic effect via the failure to meet expectations.
Consider this popualar example:
There was a young man from Japan
Whose limericks never would scan.
And when they asked why,
He said “I do try!
But when I get to the last line I try to fit in as many words as I can.
Or this example that deliberately avoids rhyme, attribured to W.S. Gilbert:
There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp,
When asked, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t,
I’m so glad it wasn’t a hornet.
Try it Yourself!
Try completing the following limericks:
There was a young girl from Uganda
Who one day befriended a Panda
An old man walked into a bar
He had a most terrible scar
When writing a limerick you should
Ensure that the end result is good
In order to make sure that’s so
Get in Touch with Bubok
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