THE origin of the term Limerick, as applied to a certain form of five-line stanza, seems to be as yet undiscovered. A statement was recently made that this stanza is so-called because it was invented by Edward Lear, and that he was born in Limerick, Ireland.
But Mr. Lear was born in London, and furthermore, he emphatically disclaims the credit of having created the type, and says that it was suggested to him by a friend as a form of verse lending itself to a limitless variety of humorous rhymes. Another suggestion offered is that the first stanza of the kind referred to the town of Limerick. This can scarcely be true, for the type dates back many centuries, although the title is of comparatively recent application.
Another explanation, and possibly the true one, is that a witty Irishman of Limerick made this particular form of stanza popular in political squibs. But whatever the origin of the title, it has been rapidly and widely accepted and fills a positive want.
The earliest known examples of the stanza are found in Halliwell’s collection of English Nursery Rhymes, among a large mass of jingling folk-lore, to which it is impossible to ascribe definite dates, but which was current about the fifteenth or sixteenth century.
The first line of these stanzas is usually a string of meaningless words which also forms a refrain at the last. A well-known one is:—
Diddledy, diddledy, dumpty!
The cat ran up the plum-tree;
Half a crown
To fetch her down,
Diddledy, diddledy, dumpty.
Another very ancient specimen is:—
Upon my word and honor,
As I was going to Bonner,
Without a wig,
I met a pig
Upon my word and honor.
But these lack the distinguishing trait of the modern Limerick, which is a first line stating the existence of a certain person in a definite place.
So far as may be verified, the oldest of these are also found among the “Mother Goose” rhymes, collected by Halliwell.
There was an old man of Tobago,
Who lived upon rice, gruel and sago;
Till, much to his bliss,
His physician said this:
“To a leg, sir, of mutton, you may go.”
There was an old soldier of Bister,
Went walking one day with his sister;
When a cow, at one poke,
Tossed her into an oak,
Before the old gentleman missed her.
After these, the earliest Limerick of positive and authenticated date, is one current in an English public school in 1834:—
There was a young man of St. Kitts
Who was very much troubled with fits;
The eclipse of the moon
Threw him into a swoon,
When he tumbled and broke into bits.
In 1846 Edward Lear published his first collection of “Nonsense Rhymes,” which, though not called Limericks, are all written in that form.
Aside from their first-rate nonsense, the distinguishing qualities of Mr. Lear’s Limericks are their coined words and their rhymes to difficult geographical names:—
There was an Old Man of Aôsta,
Who possessed a large cow, but he lost her;
But they said, “Don’t you see,
She has run up a tree,
You invidious Old Man of Aôsta?”
There was a Young Person of Crete,
Whose toilette was far from complete;
She dressed in a sack
Spickle-speckled with black,
That ombliferous Person of Crete.
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen, Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in mv beard.”
There was an Old Man of Apulia,
Whose conduct was very peculiar;
He fed twenty sons upon nothing but buns,
That whimsical Man of Apulia.
I,ear’s verses were followed, in 1864, by two books full of Limericks, which were privately published and sold for the benefit of the New York Fair in aid of the Sanitary Commission.
A few of these rhymes are here given:—
There was a Young Lady of Lynn
Whose waist was so charmingly thin,
The dressmaker needed
A microscope, she did,
To fit this Young Lady of Lynn.
There was an Old Man who said, “How
Am I going to carry my cow?
For if I should ask it
To get in my basket,
‘Twould make such a terrible row.”
There was an Old Man who said, “Do
Tell me how I’m to add two and two.
I am not quite sure
That it doesn’t make four,
But I fear that is almost too few.”
Among English authors of Limericks may be mentioned the late Cosmo Monkhouse, who published a book of them, of which we subjoin two:—
There was an Old Person of Benin,
Whose clothes weren’t fit to be seen in;
When told that he shouldn’t,
He replied, “Gumscrumrudent!”
A word of inscrutable meaning.
There once was an Old Man of Lyme
Who married three wives at a time.
When asked, “Why the third?”
He replied, “One’s absurd,
And bigamy, sir, is a crime.”
Walter Parke is responsible for the next.
There was a young man who was bitten
By twenty-two cats and a kitten;
Sighed he, “It is clear
My finish is near—
No matter; I’ll die like a Briton.”
There once was a baby of yore,
But no one knew what it was for;
And being afraid
It might be mislaid,
They put it away in a drawer.
The only Limerick that Rudyard Kipling is known to have written is the oft-quoted:—
There was a small boy of Quebec,
Who was buried in snow to his neck;
When asked, “Are you friz?”
He replied, “Yes, I is;
But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”
Another well-known one is W. S. Gilbert’s “Nonsense-Rhyme in Blank Verse.”
There was an Old Man of St. Bees
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp.
When asked, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t,
But I thought all the while ’twas a hornet.”
This is said to have been inspired by Edward Lear’s
There was an Old Man in a tree
Who was horribly bored by a bee;
When they said, “Does it buzz?”
He replied, “Yes, it does!
It’s a regular brute of a Bee.”
George du Manner wrote many Limericks in French under the name of ” Vers Nonsensiques.”
Two of his follow:—
II existe une espinstere a Tours
Un peu vite, et qui portait toujours
Un ulster peau-de-phoque,
Un chapeau bilicoque
Et des nicrebocquers en velours.
I am gai, I am poet, I dwell
Rupert Street, at the fifth. I am svell.
And I love my mamma,
And I sing tralala
And the English, I speaks him quite well!
In America the writers of Limericks are legion. Indeed, it would be easier to enumerate the non-composers of this classic stanza.
But among those acknowledged in print, we may quote:—
There was a Young Man of Cohoes,
Who wore tar on the end of his nose;
When asked why he done it,
He said for the fun it
Afforded the folks of Cohoes.
ROBERT J. BURDETTE.
There once were some learned M. D.’s,
Who captured some germs of disease,
And infected a train,
Which, without causing pain,
Allowed one to catch it with ease.
I’d rather have fingers than toes,
I’d rather have ears than a nose;
And as for my hair,
I’m glad it’s all there,
I’ll be awfully sad when it goes.
There was an old Cat named Macduff,
Who could joke till you cried “Hold! Enough!”
His wife and his child,
So persistently smiled,
That their cheeks got a permanent puff.
J. G. FRANCIS.
There was a brave knight of Lorraine,
Who hated to give people pain;
“I’ll skeer ’em,” he said,
“But I won’t kill ’em dead.”
The noble young knight of Lorraine.
MARY MAPES DODGE.
There’s a lady in Kalamazoo
Who bites all her oysters in two;
For she feels a misgiving,
Should any be living,
They’d kick up a hullabaloo.
Many of the best and best-known Limericks are anonymous. All efforts seem unavailing to trace the authorship of the famous:—
There was a Young Lady of Niger,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They came back from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
Other anonymous gems are these:—
There was a Young Maid who said “Why
Can’t I look in my ear with my eye?
If I put my mind to it
I’m sure I can do it,
You never can tell till you try.”
There was a young man so benighted,
He never knew when he was slighted;
And out at a party
Would eat just as hearty
As though he were really invited.
There was a young man of Ostend
Who vowed he’d hold out to the end,
But when halfway over
From Calais to Dover,
He done what he didn’t intend—
There was an old man of Tarentum
Who gnashed his false teeth till he bent ’em,
When they asked him the cost
Of what he had lost,
He replied “I can’t say, for I rent ’em.”
When thatte Seynt George hadde slain ye Dragon,
He sate him downe forninst a flagon;
And wit ye wel
It soone befel
He had a bien pleasaunt jag on.
A favorite diversion of Limerick writers is to rhyme words (usually proper names) which are illogically pronounced.
Said a bad little youngster named Beauchamp:
“Those jelly-tarts how shall I reauchamp?
To my parents I’d go,
But they always say ‘No,’
No matter how much I beseauchamp.”
A very polite man named Hawarden
Went out to plant flowers in his gawarden.
If he trod on a slug,
A worm, or a bug,
He said: “My dear friend, I beg pawarden!”
There was a young fellow named Knollys,
Who was fond of a good game of kbollys;
He jumped and he ran,—
This clever young man—,
And often he took pleasant kstrollys.
A similar device is rhyming well-known abbreviations.
Oh, think of the hosts without no.,
Who are slain by the deadly cuco.,
It is a mistake,
Of such food to partake,
And it leads to an eternal slo.
There was a rich man in N. Y.,
The gayest who ever Dr. C.,
All manner of beasts
Were seen at his feasts,
But he never was known to Ch. P.
There was an old fellow of Me.,
Who was fond of the works of Hall Ce.,
With a wide, vacant smile,
He said, “They’re good style;”
Alas! the poor man was inse.
Another side-issue in Limerick lore is the repetition of similar sounds.
There was a young man of Typhoo
Who wanted to catch the 2:02,
But his friend said. “Don’t hurry
Or worry or flurry,
It’s a minute or two to 2:02.”
I venture to quote one or two of my own for the sake of Mr. Herford’s delightful illustrations:—
A Tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to teach two young looters to toot;
Said two to the Tutor,
“Is it harder to toot, or—
To tutor two tooters to toot?”
There once was a Happy Hyena
Who played on an old concertina;
He dressed very well,
And in his lapel
He carelessly stuck a verbena.
There once was a corpulent carp
Who wanted to play on a harp;
But to his chagrin
So short was his fin,
He couldn’t reach up to С sharp.
A very grandiloquent goat
Sat down at a gay table d’hote,
He ate up the corks,
The knives and the forks,
Remarking, “On these things I dote.”
“There’s a train at 4:04,” said Miss Jenny,
“Four tickets I’ll take; have you any?”
Said the man at the door,
“Not four for 4:04,
For four for 4:04 is too many!”
And the end is not yet. Our witty poets, or rather our poetical wits, seem to approve of this vehicle, and new and superior Limericks are to be found in every fresh issue of our current periodicals.
Wells, Carolyn. “Limericks.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, vol. 55, no. 5, March 1903, pp. 532-5.