The Limerick


THE limerick’s is indeed a happy fate — or at least it has been so up to the present. Serious-minded critics have been so afraid of lowering their dignity that they have never thoroughly discussed it. But — alas, poor limerick! — it shall no longer be allowed to rest in peace. Its pedigree, growing steadily larger every moment, cries out to be chronicled, and, pitiless of the limerick’s personal feelings, I shall emblazon its history — not so dark by half as many believe — upon these pages.

Limerick is the name of a city, of a county, and of a diocese in Ireland. You will probably object to being told such a universally known fact, but there is ample reason for mentioning it here, as it has given rise to much dispute among those rare scholars who have dedicated a few moments to the verse form of the same name. J. H. Murray states that there has long been a song in Ireland, whose elaborate refrain is built on the question, ‘Will you come up to Limerick?’ And he further says that the stanza form of this song is identical with that of Lear’s limerick.

Well and good. But the Encyclopœdia Britannica upsets that apple-cart by impertinently contradicting Mr. Murray, saying that his Irish song does not resemble Lear’s limerick in the least.

You may say, ‘ Why don’t you read the song yourself, and settle the matter?’ but that question, unfortunately, is as easily answered as asked. The song must forever be consigned to the limbo of the unpublished, for Mr. Murray says it is endless, and of extremely 134 doubtful moral character. Now my personal inclinations command me to steer clear of two scholars when they meet in battle. Therefore let us consider the source of the limerick and of its name as two more riddles of the Sphinx, awaiting only an Œdipus to solve them — and he will most certainly have to be an Irishman.

On t he other hand, there can be no dispute that some of the earliest limericks come from the Mother Goose rhymes. Truly that is a noble birthplace, which no verse form should disdain. And in the country of nursery rhymes the limerick is king. Numerous verse forms far more distinguished can claim no such honor. How many, for instance, can produce an early ancestor so charming to a dieted man as this Mother Goose rhyme: —

There was an old man of Tobago
Who lived on rice, gruel, and sago;
Till, much to his bliss,
His physician said this: —
‘To a leg, sir, of mutton, you may go.’

‘Far and few, far and few’ are forms richer in food for the mystic. Only the deepest clairvoyant, the most confirmed opium-eater, the profoundest alchemist, could extract from lines like these their hidden but golden significance : —

So diddledy, diddlely, dumpty.
Feedum, fiddledum, fee.

Very justly have such words been clothed in legend with magic potency, and the Mother Goose limericks are rife with such magic.

Furthermore, the limerick showed itself to be a true supporter of freedom, even at its outset. Not only do we find in the Mother Goose limericks the usual triple-beat metre of ‘There was an old man of Tobago,’ but also many variations, of which there is room to give only the most unusual: —

Pitty Patty Polt,
Shoe the wild colt!
Here a nail,
There a nail,
Pitty Patty Polt.

The Mother Goose rhymes, however, cannot be assigned any definite date. And heretofore the serious-minded critics mentioned above have, by their indifference to the limerick, overlooked the first one ever published. It has been printed twice before: once in Michael East’s Second Set of Madrigals to 3 4 and 5 parts: apt for Viols and Voices, 1606; and again in Fellowes’s English Madrigal Verse, Oxford, 1920; but never previous to now has it been recognized as the first dated limerick.

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

The honor of writing the first signed poem in limerick form must be added to the already overladen Robert Herrick. Of this poem, the ‘Night-piece: To Julia,’ the last stanza is peculiarly beautiful.

Then, Julia, let me woo thee,
Thus, thus to come unto me;
And when I shall meet
Thy silv’ry feet,
My soul I ‘ll pour into thee.

The record of the limerick lies buried in shade as deep as that of Hades for two hundred and more years after Herrick wrote his ‘Night-piece: To Julia.’ Who can tell to what great heights it rose, or to what vast depths it fell, during that gaping void of years? History keeps quieter than the tomb. At all events, the limerick reappears about 1810 with the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore. In the well-known songs, ‘The Young May Moon,’ ‘The Time I’ve Lost in Wooing,’ and ‘ I Can No Longer Stifle,’ each stanza is formed of two limericks.

We find the limerick next in the verse of Leigh Hunt, who uses the form in a ‘Song to Ceres,’ given in Emerson’s Parnassus, though not to be found elsewhere under covers, even in the bibliography of Hunt’s w’ork given in the Oxford edition. This perhaps accounts for its not having been mentioned in other essays on the limerick. Hunt also wrote in 1830 a series of humorous limericks on the poet Galt, but they are not nearly so worthy of quotation as the ‘Song to Ceres,’ one of whose stanzas is as excellent poetry as any of Hunt’s I know.

Laugh out in the loose green jerkin
That’s fit for a goddess to work in,
With shoulders brown,
And the wheaten crown
About thy temples perking.
And with thee come Stout Heart in,
And Toil that sleeps his cart in,
Brown Exercise,
The ruddy and wise,
His bathed forelocks parting.

The next limerick really begins the history of the form as we generally know it. That is the well-known ‘There was a young man of St. Kitts,’ which had a wide circulation in the English university circles about 1834.

Beyond this point, there is a steady, consecutive growth, from Lear to the present day. Who, again I ask, can tell to what vast depths the limerick may fall, or to what great heights it may rise, not far in the future ? But no! as I live in a practical age, I must be practical in this history, by limiting it to the past.

Returning to Lear: as everyone knows, he was the limerick’s earliest champion. His first Book of Nonsense, issued in 1846, marks the transition in the history of the limerick from the prehistoric stage, where relics are few and insufficient, to the historical, where there is a blaze of glory shining on the record. Here is a limerick which surely possesses a vivid beauty; who would guess from his other works that Lear ever wrote thus: —

There was a Young Lady of Tyre,
Who swept the loud chords of a lyre;
At the sound of each sweep
She enraptured the deep,
And enchanted the city of Tyre.

Dear me, how very unobservant I am! I shall have to withdraw my compliment, for, as Lear’s illustration shows, the Young Lady was using a broom!

Here is another limerick of 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!’

with the ‘Nonsense Rhyme in Blank Verse,’ which it inspired in W. S. Gilbert: —

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp;
When they said, ‘ Does it hurt? ‘
He replied, ‘No, it does n’t,
But I thought all the while’t was a hornet,’

Next we find that the limerick seems to be the favorite verse form of artists. Of the painters known to have written limericks only a few are Whistler, Rossetti, and Du Maurier. The last, besides succeeding very well in writing limericks in French, composed a classic in English, — of a sort, — which I recommend to all Americanization propagandists: —

I am gai, I am poet. I dwell
Rupert Street, at the fifth. I am svell.
And I sing tra-la-la,
And I love me mamma,
And the English, I speak him quite well.

After this are the serious poems in limerick form which have come to my attention. Kipling used a strange variant of the usual limerick in ‘The Peace of Dives,’ and even stranger varieties in other poems. So unusual they are that few, I suppose, recognize them as limericks, and none have — to my knowledge—mentioned such notice in writing.

In future generations, enlightened by the renewal of vision, men will regard Carolyn Wells as the ideal rebel against the materialism of our time, in the most important limericks that are being written to-day. For, scorning the narrowness of a zoölogy book, she creates with true poetic imagination a new and gorgeous animal-world of her own: —

The Lollipopossum, it seems,
Is made out of chocolate creams.
He hangs by his tail
From a bough or a rail,
And he has most remarkable dreams.

Likewise she is the leading writer of those limericks which attain great suggestiveness by spelling words in remarkable fashion, on the analogy of other words similarly pronounced. I forbear giving an example from her work, as I consider that the masterpiece of this type appeared long ago in the Harvard Lampoon:

An amorous M. A.
Says that Cupid, the C. D.,
Does n’t cast for his health,
But is rolling in wealth —
He’s the John Jaco-B. H.

Reader, is your tongue straightened out yet? Then let us proceed. Would that I might, in closing, give you a wide select ion from popular anonymous limericks, great numbers of which are part and parcel of our daily speech. You would there see, for the first time perhaps, the prototypes in limerick form of moss-grown tales that you have heard over the boards of every vaudeville house, that you have read in the pages of every comic magazine. You would weep with sheer delight at seeing so many old friends joined in a reunion. But alas! two facts prevent me from giving you this delight: the majority of these beloved brethren are too disreputable in their morals to gain admittance to this magazine; and the others are so numerous that any selection would be grossly unfair, incomplete, and arbitrary. How could I slight the feelings of so many boon companions of my youth ? No, it would never do. I shall end, rather, by indicating the balms for afflicted mortals that are found in limericks. Have you vague suspicions of approaching baldness? Then comfort yourself by the pathetic verses of Gelett Burgess:

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.

Does excessive modesty make you redden at every ambiguous remark? Turn for consolation to this famous limerick, by an unknown though certainly illustrious writer: —

There was a young lady named Banker,
Who slept while the ship lay at anchor;
She awoke in dismay
When she heard the mate say:
‘ Now hoist up the top-sheet and spanker.’

There are endless other panaceas I could give you from the recipe book of the limerick, but unfortunately for my benevolence, this magazine is not equally endless. It is fitting, however, for me to close with a remedy appropriate to my own troubles. If, like me, you belong to the great army of the ugly and unashamed, — as I hope from a spirit of comradeship you do, — you will join with former President Wilson and myself in treasuring this limerick of Richard Burton’s: —

For beauty I am not a star,
There are others more handsome by far;
But my face — I don’t mind it,
For I am behind it;
It’s the people in front that I jar.