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 my beard!”
– Edward Lear
Limericks are instantly recognizable; no one would ever think a limerick was a sonnet or haiku. Edward Lear, a British poet and artist who wrote and illustrated 109 limericks in The Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, said he was inspired by a nursery rhyme.
The rules of limericks are simple:
- They have five lines.
- Lines 1, 2, and 5 rhyme.
- Lines 3 and 4 rhyme.
- They have a distinctive rhythm (the technical term is metre).
- That rhythm, known as “anapestic,” requires that 1, 2, and 5 have three strong syllables and 3 and 4 only two. But you don’t have to count; read limericks aloud and the rhythm will be in your head.
Limericks caught on and evolved
Lear didn’t invent limericks, or use the term, and we don’t know how they arose. One possibility is that the form developed as verses added to an Irish soldiers’ song, “Will You Come Up to Limerick?” (Limerick is a major city in Ireland.) By the end of the 1800s, important men of letters began showing off their limerick skills, and in the next century, magazines and companies were holding contests. Limericks were silly, bawdy, or super clever, as in this tongue twister:
A tutor who taught on the flute
Tried to teach two tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
“Is it harder to toot,
or to tutor two tooters to toot?”
Modern science or any topic can inspire a limerick, as in this mind bender:
There was a young woman named Bright,
Whose speed was much faster than light.
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.
Or this lament:
I once fell in love with a blonde,
But found that she wasn’t so fond.
Of my pet turtle named Odle,
whom I’d taught how to Yodel,
So she dumped him outside in the pond.
Notice that one-syllable words are more common in limericks, but a rhyme involving more than one syllable makes it funnier (Odle and Yodle), and you can make up a word for your purpose (such as Odle.)
This is a famous example of that method, by the Tennessee poet Dixon Lanier Merritt:
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.”
It’s hard to resist a smile at these. The form is inherently silly. In fact, writing a sad limerick would be a major achievement.
How to get started writing limericks
As writers and poets get their inspiration in different ways, and from different places, there is no one-size-fits-all method for crafting a limerick.
If you’re feeling like giving it a go for St. Patrick’s Day, or any time of year, here are eight ideas for getting that quintain down on paper.
- Start with “There once was an Old Man with a beard.” Enter “beard” into an online rhyme program, such as RhymeZone or Rhyme Finder. Choose two words that rhyme with “beard.” Contemplate a story involving those three words. Find a rhyme pair for the middle. When the answer comes, you should feel a satisfying “click.”
- For the advanced class, do this with multi-syllable words. Ideally, all the syllables will rhyme, but you can get away with rhyming only the last syllable. The aforementioned rhyming websites will give you lots of options.
- Think of a funny place name, such as Why (Arizona) or Kill (Ireland), and start with “There once was a sly guy from Why.” Any extra rhymes, such as sly, guy, and Why here, make it funnier.
- Think of a favorite joke and apply the limerick format. Let it evolve.
- Think of five lines from a pop song you absolutely hate and ridicule them as a limerick.
- Take sad lines from a song or poem and watch them turn funny as a limerick.
- As you settle in to sleep, tell yourself you’ll wake up with a limerick.
- Look up limericks online and memorize one or two. Go to sleep. When you wake up, you might remember them incorrectly and be on your way to a new one.
Arise at sunrise and drink a lime rickey. Fancy yourself a limericker. Be tricky!