The First English Limerick?

The text set as No. XXII in Michael East’s Second Set of Madrigals 1606 is an almost perfect limerick (East, xii and 115-20; Fellowes, 91{1}); a fact which I believe has not been noted before.

The piece runs:

O metaphysical tobacco,
Fetched as far as from Morocco,
Thy searching fume
Exhales the rheum,
O metaphysical tobacco.

and it can be seen that it conforms in every respect to the ‘rules’ of the limerick, except that it changes to an iambic rhythm for lines 3 and 4, Like Edward Lear’s limericks, but unlike most modern examples, it uses the first line as the concluding line.

The tone and diction of the piece are at odds with the other, more courtly lyrics used in East’s collection and this, taken in consideration with the more homophonic and chordal music to which it is set, seems to anticipate the fashions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the era of ‘Wit and Drollery’. Indeed it is surprising that a precurson to the limerick-form has not already been discovered amongst the glees, catches, and ‘Pills to Purge Melancholy’ of that period. Now with this example of the form in front of us the absence of any proto-limericks from the eighteenth century is even more unaccountable.

John Leonard
University of Queensland.

Notes and Queries, n.s. 40.2 [Volume 238], June 1993, pp. 207-208.

As you may have realised, I’m throwing away tons of paper and scanning and ocr-ing my Lear-related photocopies: publishing some of this material here is a good way to make the material easy to find. Bonus: you can listen to Michael East’s ‘limerick’ here, or get a glimpse of the score and listen to a MIDI version here.

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