The History of the Limerick | So, You Want to Write a Limerick?

The History of the Limerick according to J.T. Benjamin

Nobody’s really sure how those clever little five-line poems came to acquire the name of that city in Ireland. The town of Limerick housed a colony of poets in the 18th Century, but so did a lot of other Irish towns. In alehouses there were frequently contests where somebody was called upon to sing or say verses extemporaneously, and often the last line of the verse was, “Will you come up to Limerick?” However, these verses weren’t what we now call limericks.

The poetic form of the limerick was first published in about 1820. They weren’t called limericks, and nobody’s sure who wrote the first one. Just one of those things that’s always been around until somebody finally put them in a book. Edward Lear, an English poet, published a book in 1846 that was loaded with limericks, but they weren’t called that at that time, either. A local clergyman dubbed the collection a book of “Learics”, playing on 1) the author’s name, 2) the fact that the verses lacked the “dignity” to be called true lyrics, and 3) the ribald and lewd subject matter of the poems were the sort of things that made people “leer” at them. Oh, those witty 19th century clerics.

A.V. Beardsley published a book in 1896 called, “Beardsley’s Letters” and he was the first to really name these poems limericks.

The limerick is characterized as having five lines, with an a-a-b-b-a rhyming structure. That is, the first, second and fifth lines of the poem must rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines must rhyme with each other. The first second and fifth lines usually run about ten to twelve syllables, and the third and fourth are usually half that.

Limericks are meant to be enjoyed more by spoken word than by written. There’s a distinctive rhythm to the best limericks, with a heavy emphasis on alternating syllables that can’t be duplicated on the written page. “Dah DAH-dah dah dah-dah dah DAH” The best limericks also usually have a punchline in the last line of the verse.

Of course, we are talking about poetry and the only hard and fast rule about poetry is that rules are meant to be broken. I’ve seen some very funny seven and ten line limericks, and even a three line number.

Finally, there’s a saying that there are three kinds of limericks; the kind of limericks you tell your wife, the kind of limericks you tell your clergyman, and limericks. Limericks typically, (but not always) deal with lewd, sexual or even raunchy subject matter, and one of the most interesting things I’ve discovered in this research is how unabashedly bawdy even the most ancient limericks were. I mean, the one about the man from Nantucket dates back to the Victorian era, for crying out loud. Here are two examples of the Limerick:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Whose dick was so long he could suck it
He said with a grin,
While scratching his chin,
“If one ear was a cunt, I could fuck it!”

A young maiden got married in Chester.
Her mother, she kissed her and blessed her.
And said, “You’re in luck
He’s a marvelous fuck
I know, for I had him in Leicester.”

© 1999 J.T. Benjamin.

So, You Want to Write a Limerick? by John Boase

(Please note: the following limericks are copyright by John Boase and published in 2000 in print form.)

The purpose of this short piece is not to provide scholarly analysis or historical background but to get you started on writing limericks. A good limerick is timeless. Years later you will still get a chuckle from repeating it.

Don’t be deceived by the apparent simplicity of the limerick form. It is in fact a disciplined genre. It will give you a degree of flexibility because it will never allow rigidity of structure to get in the way of good whimsy but it will not permit you to stray too far.

Remember that the limerick is designed to be read aloud. Never be satisfied with a version that does not read fluently. It won’t work.

Irreverence and whimsy are hallmarks of the limerick. It also has a long and noble association with sex.

Now on with the writing! What better place to start than with a limerick itself? I’ll use my own limericks except where shown.

His sacking the chef caused dismay
The management he would repay
With no hint of remorse
He spat in the sauce
And pissed in the soup of the day

Read the lines in exaggerated fashion to pick up the metrical beats. Line 1 has 8 metrical beats. Line 2 and line 5 also have 8. These 3 lines – 1, 2 and 5 – need to match or go acceptably close to matching in metrical length. Your ear will tell you which version to use. No limerick should be difficult to read or difficult to listen to, otherwise the whimsy will be compromised or lost. I have taken a small liberty in lines 3 and 4 where line 3 has 6 beats and line 4 has only 5 but there would appear to be no adverse effect on the flow of the lines.

The subject is in poor taste {no pun intended) but the limerick can get away with tastelessness because it makes us laugh. It goes about its business with disarmingly good fun. What else could one do other than forgive? Here are two (not mine) that history has forgiven:

From deep in the crypt at St Giles
Came a scream that resounded for miles
Said the abbot ‘Good gracious
Has Father Ignatius
Forgotten the bishop has piles?’ (8/9/7/6/8)

There was a young man from Belgrave
Who kept a dead whore in a cave
He said ‘I admit
I’m a bit of a shit
But think of the money I save’ (8/8/5/6/8)

Some of the whimsy lies in the matter of fact statement of the absurd circumstances. It’s simple, really: a fellow ‘kept a dead whore in a cave’ for reasons of unassailable economic logic. The limerick says so!

The word ‘Belgrave’ is a rhyme of convenience, typical of many limericks. One could argue that this is a wasted line in that 20% of the available verse is merely procedural and contributes little to the fun. Compare the first line of ‘St Giles’ which sets the scene for furtive acts of clerical misconduct.

The rhyming scheme of the limerick form is standard. Lines 1, 2 and 5 must rhyme. Lines 3 and 4 must also rhyme, though with a different rhyme. Half rhymes are rarely acceptable and you should really keep trying until THE line comes along. The meaning should not be forced in order to achieve a rhyme. There should be no semantic barrier between words and reader. So… if the rhyme is not forthcoming, try again! Vary the word order. Change the tense of the verb. If nothing happens, start again.

One way to approach writing a limerick is to postulate a situation of absurdity, say a penis of unimaginable proportion. Having settled on the concept, what ideas come to mind? This is what I came up with:

His penis hung well past his knee
The ladies would take fright and flee
This lengthy arouser
Could belt round his trouser
Though that made it harder to pee (8/8/6/6/8)

The word ‘arouser’ came in handy to achieve the rhyme with ‘trouser’. Each of the 5 lines is working, line 1 contributing substantially. The absurd notion of penis as trouser belt is assumed as a matter of fact. The matter of factness is carried into line 5. Note also that using his penis as a belt only made it ‘harder to pee’, not impossible to pee. Think about that for a moment! The limerick delights in such fun.

One might muse in droll fashion on unusual or unique situations:

Hermaphrodites, not to be coy,
Can choose to pursue girl or boy
If they have no luck
Themselves they can fuck
An advantage that’s theirs to enjoy (8/8/5/5/9)

One might speculate on the possibilities of unfortunate error:

In recovery Sean realized
He was missing the bits he most prized
With horror he knew then
He’d said to castrate when
He’d meant to be circumsized (9/9/6/6/7)

Ugh! Ghastly thought! But wonderfully suited for the wicked limerick form.

What about finding gentle humor in a human situation?

Her lover she found unappealing
For him she could muster no feeling
While in passion he rose
She lay there and chose
A new color scheme for the ceiling (9/9/6/5/9)

Or the humorous possibilities of walking around the house with an erection:

At home walking round in the raw
A sensible man will ensure
That his extended cock
Won’t be dealt a cruel knock
By an inwardly opening door (8/8/6/6/9)

The word ‘sensible’ seems apt here. The fact of walking around the house with an erection is assumed. The limerick takes it from there. Was it not Alfred Hitchcock who talked about finding menace in everyday things? Alternatives might include using a hot iron but I like the understated whimsy of ‘inwardly opening door’.

The limerick can go where anti-discrimination legislation makes it increasingly harder to tread:

A stuttering man was heard say
‘I’ve just had a
She k.knew every trick
to on my dick
She’s a f.f.f.fucking good lay (8/8/6/6/9)

Perhaps you might notice something that takes your fancy eg a sign saying ‘Tradesman’s Entrance at Rear of Premises’? How might that translate into a limerick? Have fun! Let your mind speculate wickedly.

To etiquette Meg would adhere
And etiquette made it quite clear
That there’d be no affront
If gents entered her cunt
But tradesmen must enter her rear (8/8/6/6/8)

I’ve used ‘Meg’ to give her an identity rather than depersonalise her as ‘she’. Meg deserves to be a real person. She is self-evidently a woman of principle.

Sport might give you inspiration:

A baseballing groupie I’ve heard
Would screw on the field undeterred
She’d offer her date
A fuck on home plate
And a fuck between second and third (8/8/5/5/9)

I considered ‘Or a fuck between second and third’, then realized that the limerick would prefer promiscuity to prevail.


The diva’s performance was flawed
She looked and she sang as if bored
So when the conductor
Impulsively fucked her
The audience rose to applaud (8/8/6/6/8)

The word I like here is ‘impulsively’. What was going through his head, I wonder?

Or the church:

Said the vicar with true circumspection
‘I’ve had trouble achieving erection
The saints of the church
Have left me in the lurch
St Viagra may bring resurrection’ (10/10/5/6/10)

‘St Pfizer’ works better metrically but I’ve deferred to ‘viagra’ being better known and have maintained ‘St’ for its ironic touch.

Maybe you can think of something funny you yourself have seen. In Marseille I saw a hobo in a public place with his balls exposed, intently inspecting them.

A man made a not guilty plea
For sunning his balls publicly
‘Your Honor has heard
It’s obscene and absurd
But it gives them their vitamin D’ (8/8/5/6/9)

Balls needing vitamin D, for goodness’ sake? Why not, if the limerick says so?

You’re at the Erotica Readers Association where people write in celebration of sex and sexuality.

When randy she’d walk with a list
Her cunt lips swelled big as a fist
But folk unaware
As she lurched everywhere
Would simply assume she was pissed (8/8/5/6/8)

Extended metaphor, perhaps?

A farmer took out his long hoe
Intending his woman to sow
He ploughed her and tilled her
With seed he then filled her
And waited for the crop to grow (8/8/6/6/8)

A gentle look at human nature, perhaps?

Naked and sipping a scotch
My neighbors I frequently watch
Their frolics nocturnal
I log in a journal
And then seek relief for my crotch (7/8/6/6/8)

You might consider a limerick to inject humor into a discussion that has become too serious eg a discussion about grammar at ERA. Could this particular limerick describe the ultimate act of pedantry?

Our lovemaking went all night long
Your cries to my ears were like song
Though in one or two cases
Throughout our embraces
Your verb forms were technically wrong (8/8/7/6/8)

The limerick is a demanding form and will not be dismissed as inconsequential. It is a lot of fun but must be accorded respect in the writing. It is a wonderful form for the imagination, the intellect and the sense of humor to work together in a common cause. And there is a transfer effect to more serious versifying: the skills and thought processes are the same.

Good luck with your writing!

© 1999 John Boase.