The influence of Edward Lear

It is usually assumed that the limerick was invented by Edward Lear (1812-88), the Victorian humorist and artist, well-known as the author of such poems as The Owl and the Pussycat and The Dong with the Luminous Nose. In fact examples of the form can be found from the early part of the nineteenth century, before Lear began writing. However, his ingenuity, wit and productivity helped to make the form popular, as in these examples:

There was an Old Man who said ‘Hush!
I perceive a young bird in this bush!'
  When they said: ‘Is it small?'
  He replied: ‘Not at all!
It is four times as a big as the bush.'

There was a Young Girl of Majorca,
Whose aunt was a very fast walker;
  She walked seventy miles,
  And leaped fifteen stiles,
Which astounded that Girl of Majorca.


The form of the limerick is very simple: it consists of five lines, two long, two short, one long, and is rhymed a a b b a. The Lear examples quoted show one of the limitations of the form in its early stages, which is that the repetition same rhyme word twice (‘bush' and ‘Majorca') tends to soften the impact of the final line and weaken the comic effect.

Both Lear himself and the limerick writers who followed him, soon began to use a different rhyme word in the fifth line, so that it functioned more like the ‘punch line' of a joke. Here is an example by the American writer Ogden Nash (1902-71):

A careless explorer named Blake
Fell into a tropical lake,
  Said a fat alligator,
  A few minutes later:
‘Very nice, but I still prefer cake.'


The limerick is invariably used for comic or satirical purposes and many of them are about pompous or hypocritical clergymen, university lecturers and politicians. They have also been used to summarise (in a humorous fashion) philosophical concepts, political ideologies and the plots of well-known novels.

Usually authors confine themselves to the standard five lines, which have the virtue of brevity and an immediate impact on the reader, but there are also longer poems in which each verse is a limerick. The relative simplicity of the form makes it accessible to a wide range of people, and many limericks are composed by people who never write any other kind of poetry. In many cases the author of a limerick is unknown and they have been passed on by word of mouth. This is especially true of obscene limericks, of which there are a large number.

Comic subversion

Authors also sometimes subvert the conventions of the genre, producing limericks that are unrhymed, ignore the rules or play games with words. The following examples give an idea of what can be done with this simple form:

There was an old man of St Bees
Who was horribly stung by a wasp.
  When they said: ‘Does it hurt?'
  He replied: No, it doesn't –
It's a good job it wasn't a hornet!'
(Sir William S. Gilbert, 1836-1911)

There was a young man of Japan,
Who wrote verses that never would scan.
  When folk told him so,
  He replied: ‘Yes, I know,
But I always try to get as many words into the last line   as I possibly can.'

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
  Said the fly: ‘Let us flee'
  Said the flea: ‘Let us fly!'
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.


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