Most people enjoy a clever limerick. These five-line poems have always been popular, and here we’ll teach you a bit about the limerick’s history, as well as the rules for writing one yourself.
While the limerick originates in the 18th century, it was in the 19th century that Edward Lear popularized the form. In 1846, Lear published A Book of Nonsense, which consisted of 72 limericks in two volumes. This collection was republished in 1855 and expanded in 1861 (to include 112 limericks). In 1872, Lear published More Nonsense, which contained (in addition to other nonsense poems) another 100 limericks.
Lear’s limericks have a number of distinct features. The final line of a Lear limerick usually repeats a previous line. In addition, many of his limericks are truly nonsensical, and lack an obvious punch line. Lear also did not go in for dirty jokes, and there is often a tragic tone to his poems. The main characters of the limericks are eccentric people who are not appreciated by the rest of society. These oddballs and outcasts are frequently beaten and mocked, and we may well wonder whether there is something autobiographical about these poems. For one thing, quite a few of the characters have large noses, and we know that Lear was rather embarrassed by the size of his own proboscis. While Lear thus popularized the limerick, his own contributions remain quite unique.
To write a great limerick you should pay attention to three things: rhyme, rhythm, and content. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The basic rhyme scheme is AABBA. In the early limericks, the last line often simply repeated one of the earlier rhymes.
There was an Old Person of Chester,
Whom several small children did pester;
They threw some large stones,
Which broke most of his bones,
And displeased that Old Person of Chester.
— Edward Lear.
These days you’re encouraged to avoid repetition.
The rhythm of a limerick can be tricky to master. The easiest way to think about rhythm is to realize that lines 1, 2, and 5 have three stressed syllables, and lines 3 and 4 have two stressed syllables.
There once was a man from Gaspé,
Who loved his deodorant spray.
He needed to scratch
So he took out a match,
And went up in a fragrant flambé.
However, you can use different feet (patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables) to create this rhythm. One common foot is the amphibrach (three syllables where only the middle syllable is stressed). The first two lines both start with two amphibrachs in a row.
Another common foot is the anapest (three syllables where only the last is stressed). For example the fourth line consists of two anapests, and the last line has three.
Finally, when you’re not using amphibrachs or anapests, you may ocassionally use an iambic meter (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). The first and third lines both end with an iamb.
All three of these rhythms are rising rhythms, in that they start with one or more unstressed syllables before leading to a stress. As you combine them in your limerick, try to capture that traditional lilt of a limerick that makes it so catchy.
What should go into a limerick? Here’s a quick checklist that covers the essentials:
- Limericks start with “There was” or “There once was”
- The first line introduces a person and (often) a city or place of origin.
- The person is characterized by one or more eccentric traits that make them stand out.
- Something humorous happens to the main character, and the poem ends with a joke or a surprising twist.
- The limerick is often accompanied by a humorous illustration.
Beyond these basic rules, you have plenty of leeway to make up an original limerick of your own.
Finally, here’s a checklist for writing limericks. Print a copy and use it in the classroom or at home.
Lear, Edward. Complete Nonsense. Wordsworth Edition, 1994.