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The Limerick is Furtive and Mean...

From the Maigue poets to Ogden Nash, witty wordsmiths have delighted in composing the oft-risqué five-line verses

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“Hickory, dickory, dock, a mouse ran up the clock. . . . ” so vivid is the imagery and so strong the rhyme and meter that even the most poetically impaired can supply the last lines to this charming bit of doggerel. It has enthralled children since its publication in 1744 and is the first poem I can ever recall hearing, rendered dramatically by my kindergarten teacher some 70 years ago. Like a lot of well-remembered poetry, it is a limerick.

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In college, after I had read most of the important English, American and European poets, I returned to nursery rhymes and considered myself witty because I could recite Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea. . . ,” as well as other of his short, punchy poems, such as: 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.”

It recently dawned on me—now that I am, myself, an old man with a beard (but as yet no larks)—that I have been exposed to an astonishing number of limericks since I first heard about the clockclimbing mouse. During decades of relatively casual encounters with the work of numerous poets and writers, the trail has been generously littered with these ubiquitous five-line verses. How did such a rinky-dink metric form manage to insinuate itself into the creative life of so many authors?

Take Lewis Carroll. When the wildly imaginative storyteller was not tutoring young people, working on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and attending to his voluminous correspondence, he delighted in tossing off descriptions of, for example, a young man who grew constantly shorter, while . . .

His sister, called Lucy O’Finner,
Grew constantly thinner and thinner;
The reason was plain,
She slept out in the rain,
And was never allowed any dinner.

It’s doubtful that the theatrical partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan would have maintained its long and enormously popular success in the absence of W. S. Gilbert’s propensity for limericks, which appear in so many of his lyrics, such as his courtship advice from the 1888 light opera, The Yeoman of the Guard, on page 94. But Gilbert was also well known for his quirky, non-rhyming limericks, designed to catch the reader off guard:

There was an old man of St Bees
Who was horribly stung by a wasp.
When they said: “Does it hurt?”
He replied: “No, it doesn’t—
It’s a good job it wasn’t a hornet!”

And, W. H. Auden, a brilliant poet whose literary corpus is marked by thoughtfulness and solemnity, seemed to find release in the humor of the limerick:

T. S. Eliot is quite at a loss
When clubwomen bustle across
At literary teas,
Crying: “What, if you please,
Did you mean by The Mill on the Floss?”

Limericks are essentially word puzzles in light verse, more often than not infused with sexual innuendo. Nobody wrote wittier ones than Ogden Nash, whose ingenious poetic playfulness complemented the form and who, as it happens, was born 100 years ago this month. Many know his “I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance, were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.” But fewer readers may be acquainted with his take on the Middle Ages:

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