Like most kids, I suppose, I heard a few limericks when I was young, but I didn’t know they had a special name until I was lucky enough to have a great sophomore year high school English teacher named Frederick Shipp. In fact, Mister Shipp taught us so many things about English that I often say that after my sophomore high school year I never learned anything new about English; and that comment is not far from the truth.
In fact, as far as limericks are concerned, it is true in every way, except for the history of limericks — of which there really isn’t very much.
So what’s a limerick? It’s a poem written in this form:
There once was a lady from Natchez,
Whose clothing was always in patches,
When she was asked why,
She would always reply,
Friend, when ah itches ah scratches.
If you’re saying, “Oh, yeah; I’ve heard some of those,” you may remember that some of the ones you heard were downright raunchy. The limerick seems to fit that kind of humor quite well.
So where and when did the limerick begin?
The simple answer is: It appeared in the early 1700s, but how and where, no one knows for certain. However, we do know four things:
One: The first line traditionally introduces a person and place.
Two: Outrageous misspellings are often a part of them. Example:
A lady from the Amazon
Had nighties of her gramazon,
The reason that,
She was too fat,
To get her own pajamazon.
Three: In 1846, English author Edward Lear wrote a volume entitled “The Book of Nonsense,” which is given credit for making the limerick better known — and lending it a little respectability.
Four: A book titled “The Smile on the Face of the Tiger,” exists which is about limericks. It is “attributed to” Charles Knowles Bolton (1867-1950), but don’t waste your time trying to find out who Bolton was because he may or may not have written several books, but no one seems to have written anything about him — even today!
One exception: https://snaccooperative.org/ark:/99166/w6x63tt3
In any event, in the book I just mentioned, Bolton — or someone — says that in Ireland “many years ago” it was a custom during drinking parties to engage in verse contests. One drunk would sing out a line, followed by the rest of the drunks in a drunken chorus, singing:
Will you come up, come up, come up?
Will you come up to Limerick?
Then some other drunk would add a line that rhymed with the first one.
As you can imagine, since the lines were coined by drunks they tended to be a bit off-color. “This,” the author of the book says — be he Bolton or whoever — “they would have us understand, is the origin of the limerick.”
Maybe so. It certainly would explain why so many limericks are not intended for mixed company.
Anyway, here are some limericks taken from Bolton’s (?) book “The Smile on the Face of the Tiger”:
There was a young lady of Niegur,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride,
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
There was a young fellow named Hall,
Who fell in the spring in the fall;
T’wouId have been a sad thing,
If he’d died in the spring,
But he didn’t — he died in the fall.
However, all great poetry needn’t be limericks. Example:
Spring has sprung,
The flowers is riz.
I wonder where,
The boidies iz.