Words & Stuff

lll: An Art Form Complex

(6 June 1999)

I was wondering the other morning what the L to write about this week; by the greatest good fortune, I chanced to check my email and lo, there was a note from Don Monson filled with limericks. A brief check of the index assured me that the last time I wrote about limericks, I had failed to include several of my favorites. So here, submitted for your enjoyment, are a passel of limericks.

This one, of unknown provenance (I'm really including this just 'cause I wanted an excuse to use the phrase "unknown provenance"), is along the same lines as Gilbert's "Limerick in Blank Verse," but is particularly clever because the second, fourth, and fifth lines look like they're about to rhyme appropriately and then don't (kind of the limerick version of a secret yet):

There was an old man from Dundoon
Who ate all his soup with a fork.
He said, "As I eat
Neither fish, fowl, nor flesh,
I should finish my dinner too quick."

(If anyone knows the author of that, please let me know.)

And along vaguely similar lines, from Ian and Scott Novack:

There once was a man with a dime
Who wrote limericks some of the time.
He wrote just a bit,
But they sounded like s___
'Cuz he never could get them to sound right.

The Novack brothers also provided a set of followup limericks to the man from Peru, the man from Verdun, and the Emperor Nero, going in the opposite direction:

There once was a lady from Bree
Whose limericks went to line three,
And never went farther.

There once was a man on the floor
Whose limericks went to line four.
He'd start up the trend,
and then it would end.

There once was a man from the Styx
Whose limericks went to line six.
He never did know
How far they should go,
And never did bother to fix
Them at all.

Moving away from meta-limericks, there are still plenty of entertaining clean limericks. I'm partial to pun limericks like these (I believe the second one here is anonymous):

A tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to teach two young tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
"Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?"
Carolyn Wells

There was a young fellow named Hall
Who fell in the spring in the fall.
'Twould have been a sad thing
had he died in the spring,
but he didn't; he died in the fall.

That last is possibly my all-time favorite limerick, given the perfect pair of triple puns on "spring" and "fall" (well, okay, interpreting "fall" as "waterfall" for a third meaning is a bit of a stretch, but still). The only other pun that I can think of that's that intricate-yet-compact is the one about the father who suggests that his three sons name their jointly owned ranch "Focus" -- "where the sons raise meat."

Another time-honored category of limerick is the creative-abbreviation limerick. These limericks end the first line with one well-known abbreviation, then abbreviate the rhyming words in a similar fashion, rhyming (for instance) "Mr.," "Kr.," and "Sr." Here's an anonymous example that's not strong in sense but demonstrates the concept adequately:

A lady from way down in GA
Became a quite a notable FA.
But she faded from view
With a quaint I.O.U.
When she signed it "Lucrezia BA."

A better example, also anonymous:

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

(Since "M.A." is "Master of Arts," "C.D." must be "Caster of Darts," and "B.H." is "Bastor of Hearts," as in "John JacoBastor of Hearts." If you don't know who John Jacob Astor was, go look him up.) I've also seen the third and fourth lines of an otherwise similar version (mutatis mutandis) as "From their prodigal use, / He is, I deduce".

A variation on the creative-abbreviation limerick is the creative-respelling limerick. Perhaps the best-known example of this genre is "The Pelican":

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
but I'm damned if I see how the helican.
Dixon Lanier Merritt (not, as sometimes stated, Ogden Nash)

Finally, there are some fine limericks that are just plain nonsense. (Besides Edward Lear's, I mean. Lear's are okay, but it's cheating to repeat most of the first line as the final line.) Most people these days know Gelett Burgess, if they know him at all, as the author of a non-limerick nonsense rhyme, "The Purple Cow":

I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one.

(He followed that up twenty years later with further commentary:

Ah, yes, I wrote the "Purple Cow"--
I'm sorry, now, I wrote it!
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'll kill you if you quote it.
Cinq Ans Après, 1914

But I digress.)

Or else as the author of the books about the Goops. But my favorites of his works are a pair of limericks:

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!


The Floorless Room:

A novel sort of argument without support

I wish that my room had a floor!
I don't so much care for a door,
But this crawling around
Without touching the ground
Is getting to be quite a bore!

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>