Nobody really knows how the limerick began. Some say that it was a form of popular song sung by a brigade of Irish soldiers who returned from France to Limerick, Ireland, early in the eighteenth century. Others have found that the form appears in a Greek play written sometime between 448 and 380 B.C. A limerick evens appears in Shakespeare’s Othello.
We do know that the first book of limericks was published in England as
The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women in 1812. The next year another book appeared in which a verse about a man of Tobago so inspired Edward Lear that, over fifty years later, he patterned his famous nonsense verses on the form. Lear has been called the Poet Laureate of the Limerick.
Today, the limerick is a light verse form which appeals to us through its ridiculous humor, its word-play, and it’s bouncing anapestic rhythm. Many of the limericks we know are anonymous. Here are a few that I think are humorous.

There was a young fellow who thought
Very little, but thought it a lot.
Then at long last he knew
What he wanted to do,
But before he could start, he forgot.

There was a young lady named Ruth,
Who had a great passion for truth.
She said she would die
Before she would lie,
And she died in the prime of her youth.

They tell of a hunter named Shepherd
Who was eaten for lunch by a leopard.
Said the leopard, “Egad!
You’d be tastier, lad,
If you had been salted and peppered.”

There was a young man from the city,
Who met what he thought was a kitty;
He gave it a pat,
And said, “Nice little cat!”
And they buried his clothes out of pity.

Writing a limerick is not that difficult. All you have to do is make the end of each line rhyme. With paper and pencil in hand I sat down the other day and came up with the following:

There was a man we all knew,
Who wrote in the Riverside Review.
But not everything
Was very interesting,
Well, maybe there were one or two.In the Poland Riverside Cemetery
Are people from the 19
th Century,
Whose lives I’ve found
Were rather profound,
And should be kept in our memory.

Edward Gorey
also wrote limericks. Two of his may be found in a book entitled “Lots of Limericks”. This book is located in the juvenile section (j827.08) of the Poland Library.

An impressionable lady in Wales From Number Nine, Penwiper Mews,
Had a passion for tragical tales; There is abominable news:
The torrents of tears They’ve discovered a head
That she wept through the years In the box for the bread
They came and collected in pails. But nobody seems to know whose.

During the latter half of 1907 the fad of the limerick was given tremendous impetus by contests conducted by English manufacturers of cigarettes to promote their products. The first four lines of a limerick were given, and the public was invited to write the tag line. The prizes were well worth winning, however, each entrant had to submit a coupon proving that he (women weren’t smokers) had purchased the product. One incomplete limerick contest sponsored by Traylee Cigarettes gave the following four lines:
That the Traylee’s the best cigarette,
Is a “tip” that we cannot forget.
And in buying, I’ll mention
There’s a three pound a week pension…..

The winner was from Cardiff, Wales, who submitted:

Two good “lines” – one you give, one you get.

Years later, in America, there were a long series of limerick contests in Liberty magazine. Then in 1965 the Promotion Director of Business Week conducted a different form of contest where those who entered were required to write the first four lines of a limerick ending: “It isn’t how many….it’s who.” The grand prize was a round trip for two to Limerick, Ireland, or a substitute of $2,500 in emerald-green bills. There were 4,200 limericks submitted and the first prize was won for:

If it’s management men you pursue
Don’t hunt every beast in the zoo,
Just look for the signs
That say: “Tigers and Lions.”
It isn’t how many….it’s

Carolyn Wells (1869-1942) wrote an entire book of limericks. She specialized in tongue-twisters, of which this is a celebrated example:

A canner, exceedingly canny,
One morning remarked to his granny:
“A canner can can
Anything that he can,
But a canner can’t can a can, can he?”

Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), the man who added such words as “blurb” and “bromide” to the English language, is perhaps best remembered today for his poem about the Purple Cow. (See Dec. 2002 issue of the Riverside Review) But Burgess was also a celebrated creator of “clean” limericks. Here is one of his best:

I’d rather have fingers than toes;
I’d rather have ears than a nose;
And as for my hair,
I’m glad that it’s there.

I’ll be awfully sad when it goes.