There once was a writer called Lear . . .
As was pointed out in the TLS in 1924, in what I think is the paper's earliest review of an anthology of limericks, the essential ingredients of a good limerick are "a good last line, ingenuity of rhymes, and plot". And light as they are, they're a fair introduction to some of the elements of verse (if not Poetry with a hifalutin capital P). Even then, Arnold Bennett could tell the editor of that limerick anthology that "the best ones are entirely unprintable". That tendency is perhaps best exemplified by Isaac Asimov's Lecherous Limericks, Norman Douglas's often pirated collection Some Limericks and the fact that there's a Playboy's Book of Limericks of 1972. (Why no accompanying volume on heroic verse or the villanelle?) Let "On the bridge that spanned a ravine / Archibald was screwing Kathleen . . ." stand for all of that.
Still, it seems that anyone can write one and everyone does. There are plenty of game attempts amid this morning's 5,000-odd #NationalLimerickDay tweets, some weak, others amusing – off-the-cuff, either way, is often best. Many become popular that originated with that well-known and versatile author Anonymous. Philip Larkin found himself in a Westmorland village called Kaber and sent off this limerick to Charles Monteith, his editor at a certain London publisher:
There was an old fellow of Kaber,
Who published a volume with Faber:
When they said: "Join the club?"
He ran off to the pub –
But Charles called, "You must love your neighbour".
As Monteith recalled in the TLS in 1982, the third and fourth lines were fillers that could be replaced at a later date as occasion demanded. For example:
When they said "Meet Ted Hughes",
He replied, "I refuse" . . . .
Lear's limericks were about Old Men from Tobago or Hong Kong, and young ladies from Parma or Portugal. They are not all, however, simply jokes. There's a strange preponderance of people stuck on walls or pillars – "fraught with Freudian possibilities", Claude Rawson has observed. And there's the old man whose despair "Induced him to purchase a hare"; the outcome is not wholly comic:
Whereupon one fine day,
He rode wholly away,
Which partly assuaged his despair.
(Also, a fine point, but am I messing up Lear's preferred four-line arrangement of the limerick?)
Others have found ways to make the limerick topical, xenophobic, or topical. Clement Attlee managed an autobiographical one. The prolific Robert Conquest "has a first-rate limerick on Lenin", a TLS review once noted, although it should perhaps have pointed out that he was also a master of the bawdier variety. (Conquest gives a good example of the properly Byronic impudent rhyme in his one about Arnold Toynbee, incidentally: "So how would a kick in the groin be?") Here's another, of a later date, about Einstein's theory of relativity:
There was a young lady named Bright
Whose speed was faster than light;
She went out one day
In a relative way,
And returned the previous night.
As Anthony Burgess once pointed out in the TLS, however, the limerick boasts a grand history that stretches back beyond Lear to claim Ben Jonson as an ancestor (these lines appear in a masque of 1621 called The Gypsies Metamorphosed):
The wheel of fortune guide you,
The boy with bow beside you;
Run aye in the way
Till the bird of day
And the luckier lot betide you.
There's an even older instance in medieval Latin, beginning "Si vitiorum meorum evacuatio . . .", and apparently there are even Saxon prototypes. So this sort of nonsense has been going on for some time.
Burgess was writing in 1978. Conquest himself had noted in the TLS nine years earlier, of a book called The Lure of the Limerick that "It marks, one supposes, some kind of epoch when a respectable London publisher gives us a collection of limericks, including many of the most obscene, in the form of a sort of small coffee-table book". Indeed. Conquest could certainly, by then, quote a naughty one in the paper about "Victorian attitudes":
Charlotte Brontë said, "Wow, sister! What a man!
He laid me face down on the ottoman
Now don't you and Emily
Go telling the femily
But he smacked me upon my bare bottom, Ann!"
I'm sure you've heard ruder. The bumpy rhythm of this one reminds me, though, of W. S. Gilbert's cunning breaking of the rules of rhyme:
There was a young man of East Cheam
Who one day was stung by a wasp.
When asked: Does it hurt?
He said: No, it doesn't,
But I'm so glad it wasn't a hornet.
One more note about Conquest. That review of his inspired a two-stanza reply from the publisher of The Lure of the Limerick:
The savants who write for The Times
Never overlook publishers' crimes:
"The original metre
Was very much neater,
The author's were far better rhymes."
"Now the author", they're sure to go on,
Was my grandfather, Bishop Anon,
And the earliest version
(Derived from the Persian)
Was privately printed in Bonn."
On that note . . . It's not always possible to approve whole-heartedly of contrived National [insert worthy theme here] Days. But I asked around TLS HQ all the same, in case anybody was in the rhyming mood. And here's what happened – rendered, as is only right, Anonymous. I apologize in advance for getting into the spirit of things, and will revert, at the next blogging opportunity, to normal cynical service. (Further examples welcome, obviously.)
There was once a debate about Brexit.
Full of info (but nobody checks it).
It all ends in shouting,
Grumbling and pouting.
Any reasoned debate: someone wrecks it.
There once was a website called Twitter
That Franzen thought equal to litter.
"It's great!", someone said --
"You're wrong in the head!"
It ended up really quite bitter.
There once was a golfer named Clough
Who away from the links was quite gruff;
But the use of his putter
Got his caddy a-flutter
So they did it right there in the rough.
The sky over London is chalky
But the skyline’s appallingly gawky:
It is ravaged and scarred
By, e.g., the Shard,
The Gherkin, the foul Walkie-Talkie.
There once was a literary hack
Who was asked to reveal the knack
For writing a limerick –
“And make that double quick” –
Despite his marked lyrical lack.
There once was an icebox replete
With plums so deliciously sweet
That I gobbled the lot
And completely forgot –
Was this the breakfast you were planning to eat?
A chap not averse to a tweet
Got a job at a literary sheet –
So excited was he
That he jumped up with glee –
And tore a great hole in his seat!
And lastly, as recommended by the poetry editor, here's a polite one by Robert Conquest:
Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
Then very pissed-off with your schooling
Then fucks, and then fights
Next judging chaps' rights
Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.