The HyperTexts

The Best Limericks of All Time
A Brief History of the Limerick

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Who wrote the best limericks in the English language? Which limericks are the raciest, the raunchiest, the weirdest, the zaniest, the most irreverant? This page attempts to answer such questions for students, educators and anyone else interested in the most entertaining and least-buttoned-down of poetic forms.

Before I delve briefly into the definition and history of the limerick, please allow me to share some examples, in the form of my personal favorites:

There was a young lady named Bright
who traveled much faster than light.
She set out one day
in a relative way,
and came back the previous night.
—Anonymous

I find it intriguing that one of the best revelations of the weirdness and zaniness of relativity can be found in a limerick. The limerick above inspired me to pen a rejoinder:

Einstein, the frizzy-haired,
claimed E equals MC squared,
which means mass decreases
as activity ceases ...
not my mass, my ass declared!
—Michael R. Burch

Edward Lear has been called the "father" and the "poet laureate" of the limerick because he helped popularize the form. To be frank, I believe other poets, particularly Ogden Nash, have penned better limericks, but I do admire this one, which has been attributed to Lear:

There was a young lady of Niger
who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
with the lady inside,
and the smile on the face of the tiger.
—attributed to Edward Lear and William Cosmo Monkhouse

Here's another of my all-time favorites, which illustrates how punning wordplay can spice up limericks:

A wonderful bird is the pelican;
His beak can hold more than his belican.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week,
Though I’m damned if I know how the helican!
—Dixon Lanier Merritt (often incorrectly ascribed to Ogden Nash)

The limerick above reminds me of something Dorothy Parker once said about Oscar Wilde: that when she read an especially good epigram, she always assumed Wilde was the author. Ogden Nash holds a similar place of distinction in the pantheon of limerick writers. One thing Nash did wonderfully well was ignore the "rules" that often result in stiffly corseted formal poems. Nash's poems tend to be funny, irreverent, whimsical and "loosey-goosy." (Nash is to limericks as e. e. cummings is to sonnets.) Here are a few of Nash's best limericks and limerick-like poems:

There was a young belle of old Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comments arose
On the state of her clothes,
She replied, "When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez."
—Ogden Nash

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, "let us flee!"
"Let us fly!" said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
—Ogden Nash

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.
—Ogden Nash

The ant has made himself illustrious
Through constant industry industrious.
So what? Would you be calm and placid
If you were full of formic acid?
—Ogden Nash

There are more poems by Nash later on this page. If we give credit to Lear for popularizing the form, shouldn't we give even more credit to Nash for perfecting it? In any case, moving on, some of the best limericks are "naughty" poems written by the greatest of all poets, Anonymous:

There was a young man from Savannah
Who died in a curious manner:
He whittled a hole
In a telephone pole
And electrified his banana.
—Anonymous

There was a young gal name of Sally
Who loved an occasional dally.
She sat on the lap
Of a well-endowed chap
Crying, "Gee, Dick, you're right up my alley!"
—Anonymous (I touched this one up slightly)

A pious young lady of Chichester
Made all the pale saints in their niches stir.
And each morning at matin
Her breast in pink satin
Made the bishop of Chichester's breeches stir.
—Anonymous (I also touched this one up slightly)

As one critic put it, the limerick "is the vehicle of cultivated, unrepressed sexual humor in the English language." But while some experts claim that the only "real" limerick is an obscene or bawdy one, the form really took off initially, in terms of popularity, as a vehicle for nonsense verse and children's poems, such as the Mother Goose nursery rhymes:

Hickory dickory dock,
the mouse ran up the clock;
the clock struck one
and down he run;
hickory dickory dock.
—Mother Goose

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!"
—Edward Lear

There once was a leopardess, Dot,
who indignantly answered: "I’ll not!
The gents are impressed
with the way that I’m dressed.
I wouldn’t change even one spot."
—Michael R. Burch

To show the flexibility of the limerick, it has often been used for political purposes. Here are are two such limericks of mine:

Baked Alaskan

There is a strange yokel so flirty
she makes whores seem icons of purity.
With all her winkin’ and blinkin’
Palin seems to be "thinkin’"—
"Ah culd save th’ free world ’cause ah’m purty!"


Copyright 2012 by Michael R. Burch
from Signs of the Apocalypse
all Rights and Violent Shudderings Reserved


Going Rogue in Rouge

It'll be hard to polish that apple
enough to make her seem palatable.
Though she's sweeter than Snapple
how can my mind grapple
with stupidity so nearly infallible?


Copyright 2012 by Michael R. Burch
from Signs of the Apocalypse
all Rights and Violent Shudderings Reserved


The most common form of the limerick is a stanza of five lines, with the first, second and fifth lines rhyming with each another and having three feet of three syllables each, while the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other, but are shorter, having only two feet of three syllables. The metrical "foot" employed is usually the anapaest, (ta-ta-TUM), but limericks can also be amphibrachic (ta-TUM-ta). But as you can see from the last two poems by Nash and my poems directly above, there are other variations of the form.

The origin of the name "limerick" for this poetic form is still being debated. The term was first officially documented in England in 1898, in the New English Dictionary, but the form itself is much older. The name is generally considered to be a reference to the city or county of Limerick, Ireland, and may derive from a parlor game that included a refrain such as "Will [or won't] you come (up) to Limerick?" The earliest known use of the name "limerick" for a short, humorous lyric is an 1880 reference in a New Brunswick newspaper to a tune apparently well-known at the time, "Won’t you come to Limerick?" That article included this verse:

There was a young rustic named Mallory,
who drew but a very small salary.
When he went to the show,
his purse made him go
to a seat in the uppermost gallery.

The earliest published American limerick appeared in 1902 in the Princeton Tiger:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

Related "sequels" were soon published. Of these, two of the most famous appeared, respectively, in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Press:

But he followed the pair to Pawtucket,
The man and the girl with the bucket;
And he said to the man,
He was welcome to Nan,
But as for the bucket, Pawtucket.

Then the pair followed Pa to Manhasset,
Where he still held the cash as an asset;
But Nan and the man
Stole the money and ran,
And as for the bucket, Manhasset.

There continue to be modern sequels, including this bawdy one of mine:

There was a lewd whore from Nantucket
who intended to pee in a bucket;
but being a man
she missed the damn can
and her rattled john fled crying, "Fuck it!"
—Variation on a classic limerick by Michael R. Burch

Limericks are often associated historically with Edward Lear, whose first published limericks appeared in A Book of Nonsense in 1846, although his poems were not called limericks at the time. But Lear didn’t invent the form. It appears that during his stays at Knowsley Hall in the 1830s, he discovered a book, Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen, which contained limericks published by John Marshall in 1822. Two similar books had been published around the same time: Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies and The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women. It seems likely that these books employed a form that was already popular at the time, and that Lear liked the form and began using it himself.

We can trace the limerick back to the eighteenth century Filí na Máighe, or Gaelic poets of the Maigue, a pub in Croom, County Limerick. Seán Ó’Tuama (1709-1775) and Aindrias MacCraith (1710-1793) were members of this group, which sometimes verbally sparred in verses employing limerick meter. Some of their poems were translated into English by the poet James Clarence Mangan and appeared in both languages in John O’Daly’s The Poets and Poetry of Munster, published in 1850. This is an example of their repartee:

Seán Ó’Tuama:

"I sell the best Brandy and Sherry
To make all my customers merry,
But at times their finances
Run short as it chances,
And then I feel very sad, very".

To which MacCraith replied:

"O’Tuama! You boast yourself handy
At selling good ale and bright Brandy,
But the fact is your liquor
Makes everyone sicker;
I tell you this, I, your friend, Andy".

But where did they discover the limerick? It may be possible that in the early 1700s soldiers returning from the War of the Spanish Succession brought the limerick to Ireland from the European mainland. In any case, by 1776 limericks had been published in Mother Goose’s Melodies. Shortly thereafter when Mother Goose nursery rhymes began to attain fame, the limerick became famous also.

And yet it seems the form may be far older. It has been suggested that the limerick originated in France during the Middle Ages. An 11th century manuscript demonstrates the limerick’s cadence:

The lion is wondrous strong
And full of the wiles of wo; (woe)
And whether he pleye (play)
Or take his preye (prey)
He cannot do but slo. (slay)

Five centuries later, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) employed limerick meter in Stephano’s drinking song:

The master, the swabber, the boatswain and I,
The gunner and his mate
Loved Mall, Meg and Marian and Margery,
But none of us cared for Kate;
For she had a tongue with a tang,
Would cry to a sailor, Go hang!
She loved not the savour of tar nor of pitch,
Yet a tailor might scratch her where'er she did itch:
Then to sea, boys, and let her go hang!
—from "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare

And Shakespeare used an actual limerick in "Othello":

And let me the canakin clink, clink; (canakin = drinking can)
And let me the canakin clink
A soldier's a man;
A life's but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.
—from "Othello" by William Shakespeare

It's interesting that some of the earliest published limericks were related to taverns and drinking. One might speculate that people had a few drinks, "loosened up," then began competitions in which they sang or chanted bawdy songs and poems, perhaps at times in competitions, with the winner getting a free drink, applause, or a kiss from a serving wench. It may have been hundreds of years before literary types started to take limericks seriously enough to start writing them down. But they eventually "got smart" and did just that. Today, famous penners of limericks include Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ogden Nash, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Salman Rushdie and Isaac Asimov (who wrote the infamous "Lecherous Limericks"). Here are examples of limericks by famous writers:

There was a small boy of Quebec
Who was buried in snow to his neck.
When they asked, "Are you friz?"
He replied, "Yes, I is —
But we don't call this cold in Quebec!"
—Rudyard Kipling

Our novels get longa and longa
Their language gets stronga and stronga
There’s much to be said
For a life that is led
In illiterate places like Bonga
—H. G. Wells

Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good!
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.
—Ogden Nash

The ostrich roams the great Sahara.
Its mouth is wide, its neck is narra.
It has such long and lofty legs,
I'm glad it sits to lay its eggs.
—Ogden Nash

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?"
—W. H. Auden

There was a young lady of station
"I love man" was her sole exclamation
But when men cried, "You flatter"
She replied, "Oh! no matter!
Isle of Man is the true explanation."
—Lewis Carroll

There is a poor sneak called Rossetti
As a painter with many kicks met he
With more as a man
But sometimes he ran
And that saved the rear of Rossetti.
—Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The marriage of poor Kim Kardashian
Was krushed like a kar in a krashian.
Her Kris kried, "Not fair!
Why kan't I keep my share?"
But Kardashian fell klean outa fashian.
—Salman Rushdie

I have written a number of limericks myself, under the magical spell of the venerable-but-ever-energetic form:

There was an old man from Peru
who dreamed he was eating his shoe.
He awoke one dark night
from a terrible fright
to discover his dream had come true!
—Variation on a classic limerick by Michael R. Burch
 
Dear Ed: I don’t understand why
you will publish this other guy—
when I’m brilliant, devoted,
one hell of a poet!
Yet you publish Anonymous. Fie!

Fie! A pox on your head if you favor
this poet who’s dubious, unsavor
y, inconsistent in texts,
no address (I checked!):
since he’s plagiarized Unknown, I’ll wager!
—"The Better Man" by Michael R. Burch

There once was a mockingbird, Clyde,
who bragged of his prowess, but lied.
To his new wife he sighed,
"When again, gentle bride?"
"Nevermore!" bright-eyed Raven replied.
—Michael R. Burch

Relativity, the theorists’ creed,
says mass increases with speed.
My ass grows when I sit it.
Albert Einstein, get with it;
equate its deflation, I plead!
—Michael R. Burch
 
Hawking, who makes my head spin,
says time may flow backward. I grin,
imagining the surprise
in my mother's eyes
when I head for the womb once again!
—Michael R. Burch

Hawking’s "Brief History of Time"
is such a relief! How sublime
that time, in reverse,
may un-write this verse
and un-spend my last thin dime!
—Michael R. Burch

There once was a Baptist named Mel
who condemned all non-Christians to hell.
When he stood before God
he felt like a clod
to discover His Love couldn’t fail!
—Michael R. Burch

Related pages: Best Poem of All Time, Best Poets, Best Lyric Poetry, Best Free Verse, Best Love Poetry, Best Romantic Poetry, Best Sad/Dark Poetry, Best Religious Poetry, Best Spiritual Poetry, Best Heretical Poetry, Best Poetry Translations, Best Old English Poetry, Best Epigrams, Best Fall/Autumn Poetry, Best Haiku, Best Hiroshima Poetry, Best Holocaust Poetry, Best Anti-War Poetry, Best of the Masters, The Most Beautiful Poems in the English Language, Best Poems for Kids, Best Nonsense Verse, Best Rondels and Roundels, Best American Poetry

The HyperTexts