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The story of the limerick, the carrier of much folklore, may itself be folklore. Although some researchers assert that this form of rhyme was in use in the golden Grecian years, 448 to 380BC. The great Greek dramatist Aristophanes had a good hand at the terse verse.
Pre-eminent in the 'Old Comedy' genre, he was a brilliantly intelligent conservative with the greatest contempt for democracy. He despised the establishment dramatists. In 'The Frogs' he savaged several of them. Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles were his favourite targets.
Eleven of his forty comedies have survived. In one of them, 'The Wasps' there is a scene in which the characters are drinking together. One of them describes a chariot accident on the streets of Athens. When translated this description falls comfortably into what has now become the common limerick form. How did he do it?
Aristophanes, ancient Greek wit
Doing his Thespian bit,
Anapaestic said he,
Not dactyl you see,
That's the structure that makes the form fit.
By way of definition: In quantitative verse, such as Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables. In accentual verse, such as English, it is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The opposite is the anapaest, two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable.
A limerick is anecdote in verse, an essay in five lines, an aid to memory, a time capsule recording for posterity the trials, tribulations and hedonistic pursuits of the world in which we live.
Consider, contained within the forthright simplicity of the common limerick lies a vast storehouse of wit and humour. In every field of human endeavour, social or anti-social, proper or improper, the gregarious limerick has made its mark with brevity and bounce.
The true limerick is a thing of poetic beauty, technical perfection, and a joy forever. It should contain five anapaestic lines of which the first, second and fifth have three metrical feet and rhyme together.
The third and fourth lines should have two metrical feet and rhyme together. The first line should introduce the main character and set the scene, the second should open the action, which is to bring on the crisis, the third and fourth should intensify the suspense, and the fifth should precipitate the climax.
The limerick writer's delight
is to write limericks in the night
with metrical feet,
the plot to complete
three threes and two twos gets it right.
You will find he ubiquitous limerick in all sorts of places. Next time you are in the British Museum, reading the Harleian Manuscript 7322 look for the one about the lion.
If Shakespeare is your bailiwick try Othello for The Soldiers Drink, King Lear for Poor Tom or Hamlet for The Mad Song.
Beyond the formal scribbling of crumbling scholars and rapier-witted playwrights there is another world - which they also share and sometimes plunder - the world of the people's poet, where the limerick really comes into its own.
If the music of the common folk is your choice, try Mondayes Work from the Roxburghe Broadside Ballads published in 1640. I have encountered two versions of this old soldier, each marching on slightly different feet. Here I show the differences in brackets.
Good morrow (to you) neighbour Gamble,
come let you and I go (a) ramble,
last night I was shot
through the brains with pot
and now my stomach doth (wimble and) wamble.
The limerick has become the source of compelling interest for all manner of questing academics and sundry scribblers. In his book 'The Lure of the Limerick' William S. Baring-Gould observed:
"Hardly an educated man is now alive who does not treasure in his memory at least one limerick. The chances are that he did not read it in a book or magazine. Rather, he acquired it by hearsay. It passed on to him by word of mouth, by oral tradition. As such the limerick is authentic folklore, a vital part of our heritage."
We may deduce, by their exclusion, that Baring-Gould shares with folklorist George Alexander the opinion that:
"Most women loathe limericks for the
same reason that calves hate cook books?"
May we also conclude that Baring-Gould, by his emphasis on educated men, considers the creation of limericks beyond the powers of uneducated men, just his way with words perhaps?
However, Baring-Gould, bless him, presents a strong argument, that the limerick form was well established and popular in folk and art tradition, long before gaining the name by which is now universally and irrevocably its own.
The limerick, a friend to us all,
the sharp fellow is ready at call,
a verse known to fame
but what of its name?
The Irish were lucky that's all.
How the limerick got its name has long been a generator of entertaining if fruitless debate. A good deal of popular opinion is willing to attribute the honour or lay the blame, depending on your point of view, at the feet of the returned veterans of 'The Wild Geese'
In 1690 William of Orange invaded Ireland. He crossed the Boyne River and defeated Patrick Sarsfield who fell back on Limerick. Marlborough captured Cork and Kinsale. In 1691 the Irish were defeated at the disastrous battles of Athlone and Aughrim. Under Patrick Sarsfield, at Limerick, they surrendered. Sarsfield and 10,000 of his troops, allowed to go into exile, served with distinction in the armies of Louis X1V.
In his book 'Irish Songs of Resistance' Patrick Galvin refers to this group as 'The Second Wild Geese'. In his view the first 'Wild Geese' were the 34,000 troops that chose foreign service after the Irish surrender to Cromwell at Kilkenny in 1652. Robert Kee in 'Ireland A History' makes no reference to the Kilkenny 'Wild Geese'.
The Irish Brigades, formed in foreign armies by the Wild Geese, were the most formidable soldiers in Europe. Patrick Sarsfield, at the Battle of Landon, had his revenge and drove the old enemy, William of Orange, from the field. Sarsfield died there, an empiric victory, perhaps, but still a victory.
The formidable Clares Dragoons in full roar with:
"Fling your green flag to the sky,
be Limerick your battle cry"
did much to turn the tide against the English at Fontenoy. The mightily miffed King George II bitterly complained: "Cursed be the laws that deprive me of such subjects."
Eventually, or so the story goes, the 'Wild Geese' or their descendants returned home to Limerick. There, on the banks of the Shannon, in the west of Ireland, they rested. The returning warriors apparently brought back with them the exuberant camaraderie of their former occupation.
They became famous for their convivial gatherings, and for the singing of random verses connected by a common localised chorus. The method was simple, each member of the group would sing a verse, and the rest of the group would sing the chorus:
"Won't you come up, come up
won't you come up, I say
won't you come up, all the way up
come all the way up to Limerick."
When the Wild Geese flew to France they carried with them, the race memory of the 'solo' singing Irish. If, on their military travels they discovered a universal verse form - familiar, current and popular - then mutual attraction seems inevitable.
It is also certain that, captured in limerick form, the folklore of exile was and carried back to that small town on the banks of the 'boiling' Shannon. The late Herbert Langford Reed, collector and writer, bet his high-button boots that in this place the limerick got its present name.
Baring-Gould cites Carolyn Wells and Monseigneur Knox as rejecting this theory as a mere fancy, on the grounds that the chorus sung in Limerick fits neither the metre nor the pattern of the limerick. So what!
I was once in a pub in Newport, Monmouthshire, (Old) South Wales where steel workers, colliers and truck drivers were singing a dazzling array of brilliant limericks led, on this occasion, by the indefatigable Max Boyce. The linking chorus was:
"That was an orrible song, sing us anothery
just like the othery, sing us anothery do."
The change in form between verse and chorus seemed to enhance the cycle rather than detract from it. I had a similar experience, in the Elizabeth Folk Club, of happy memory, in Sydney New South Wales, in the middle years of the nineteen seventies.
It was a night like any other night. Then, at the start of the second half, the unusual combination of a Spanish guitar player from Manchester, a biochemist from The Hague, and several members of the 'Wednesday Elizabeth' audience put on a limerick battle. They came to their linking chorus by mutual confusion. It could have been a dog's breakfast but it worked wonderfully well.
Those who would like to give this form of folkery a try can use a linking chorus of choice with this set of limericks attributed to the intellectually agile of yesteryear.
Oliver Herford (1863-1935)
A damsel, seductive and handsome,
got, wedged in a sleeping-room transom,
when she offered much gold,
for release, she was told,
that the view was worth more than the ransom.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
There once was a boy of Quebec,
who was buried in snow to his neck.
when asked, 'Are you frizz?'
He replied, 'Yes, I is,
but we don't call this cold in Quebec.
John Galsworthy (1867-1933)
To an artist a husband named Bicket,
said, 'Turn your backside, and I'll kick it.
you have painted my wife,
in the nude to the life,
do you think for a moment that's cricket?'
Carolyn Wells (1869-l942)
A canner, exceedingly canny,
one morning remarked to his granny:
'A canner can can
anything that he can,
but a canner can't catch a can, can he?'
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
There was a young girl of Shanghai
who was so exceedingly shy,
that undressing at night,
she turned out the light
for fear of the All-Seeing Eye.
Don Marquis (1878-1937)
There was a young fellow named Sydney,
who drank till he ruined his kidney.
It shrivelled and shrank
as he sat there and drank,
but he had a good time at it, didn't he?
Aldlous Huxley (1894-1963)
There was a young girl of East Anglia
whose loins were a tangle of ganglia.
her mind was a webbing
of Freud and Krafft-Ebing
and all, sorts of other new-fanglia.
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973
The Marquis de Sade and Genet
are most highly thought of today;
but torture and treachery
are not my sort of lechery
so I've given my copies away.
And now, just to show that a limerick can easily become a lyric love poem:
Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Her eyes the glow-worm lend thee,
the shooting stars attend thee;
and the elves also
whose little eyes glow
like the sparks of fire, befriend thee.
There are other sorts of limericks, of course. They often make an appearance at blokie gatherings. I have encountered them on coach trips to and from football matches, around the campfire when the ladies have retired, and at late night revels in far away places with strange sounding names.
This old favourite describes the genre remarkably well:
The limerick's an art form complex
whose contents run chiefly to sex;
it's famous for virgins
and masculine urging's
and vulgar erotic effects.
The limerick has its practical side too. Many have discovered that a piece of information encompassed by the almost indestructible form of the limerick is close to being unforgettable. This masterpiece, the work of Professor Harvey Carter, is to help students remember the value of pi.
'Tis a favourite project of mine
a new value of pi to assign.
I would set it at 3.
for it's simpler you see,
than 3 point 1 4 1 5 9.
The limerick can be very useful as a tool to focus attention. I discovered this convenient truth when asked to provide a series of concise chapter heading notations for a workshop and seminar report on information system security.
After some thought, I decided to use limericks for the purpose. None, of an appropriate nature, were available so I was obliged to write my own. This appeared in the chapter heading for 'Guarding Your Assets'.
An investment is judged by the yield.
but then, if I truncate the field
one tenth of a cent
will soon pay the rent
and the balance will make me well heeled.
Writing the limericks was a very useful exercise. Using them was far more productive than I had ever expected. As introductory icebreakers they worked very well. They encouraged people to talk, to swap experiences and, perhaps not surprisingly, to produce more limericks. It certainly worked for me.
In cobol and fortran we try
to lift downcast eyes to the sky.
then hey diddle diddle
a chance comes to fiddle
and the dollars roll in by and by.
The penultimate words, on this occasion at least, must go to the limerick writers, Gerald Wiley and Alan Wightman. They wrote for television series 'The Two Ronnies'.
The enormously successful duo, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, represent the stand-up comedian, comedy sketch, radio, television and recording end of a great music hall tradition. Their cross-talk presentation of the topical and entertaining limerick never fails to win the appreciation of their audience.
You're that wit that writes things about marriages,
on the walls of first class railway carriages,
please tell me once more of the classic you saw,
on the seat of the boys room at Clareges
My mother, a born intellectual,
made me a complete homosexual,
underneath wrote some fool,
if I gave her the wool
would she make me one, not ineffectual?
Ronnies both - taking alternate lines:
Have you noticed that little blonde tart
Oh how pretty she is, bless her heart,
She's a right little goer.
How well do you know her?
Well she's not a real blonde for a start.
The final limerick in this far reaching farrago must come from that indefatigable sage, accidental intellectual and Blue Mountain’s party animal Albert Abercrombie:
There was a young man from Corunna
who tried hard to chat up a stunner,
he too late discovered
what she had covered
and cried out in pain, what a bummer.
The birthplace of the limerick and the source of its name are of interest to those of us who delight in the esoteric. The creation and use of the everyday limerick, however, is a pleasure all can share. Next time you are in a tense situation - in a traffic jam, filling out your tax return or applying for a job - unwind and write a limerick.
Next time you are having a 'brannigan' with 'the spouse' retire to opposite corners, write a limerick and come out reciting or even singing. The limerick is a versatile aid to sanity.
As we move into the third millennium we carry with us on our journey an ever-growing body of folklore, some fact and a little gentle fantasy. If we were to look back along life's highway and write a limerick for every event that was in any way personally significant what a remarkable social history we would create. Why not give it a try?
References and Acknowledgments
Herbert Langford Reed, The Complete Limerick Book, G.P. Putnam, London 1925
Patrick Galvin, Irish Songs of Resistance, Oak Publications, New York 1962
George Alexander, The Limerick - A Brief History, University Books, New York 1964
William S. Baring-Gould, The Lure of the Limerick, Rupert Hart Davis, London 1968
Gerald Wiley and Alan Wightman. The Two Ronnies Vol.3 BBC Records, REB 331, 1978
Robert Kee, Ireland - A History, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1980
Dermott Ryder. Information System Security - A Cause for Concern. In association with
Bankstown Management Researchers - Sydney 1982
Dermott Ryder. Ryder Round Folk, FM Radio Guide Sydney 1983
Dermott Ryder, Waiting For Something to Happen, The Screw Soapers, Liverpool 1999
Albert Abercrombie, The Odd Collection, Green Lane Press Lancaster 2010
Revised July 2014 © Dermott Ryder – From a Reading at: The Screwsoapers Guild.
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