The Ecphorizer

Ambrose Bierce and the Hidden Double-Limericks
Neal Wilgus

Issue #69 (August 1987)


Several years ago, while digging around for science fiction/fantasy limericks to be used in Planet of the Limericks (Mensa Limerick SIG Newsletter No 14, November, 1982, which I guest-edited), I recalled seeing something by Ambrose Bierce quoted in the introduction to G Legman's The Limerick, the bible of the Limerick Movement. Since Bierce is a respected root of the fantasy tree, I dug out my Legman to check. And indeed on page lv, Legman quotes a "double limerick" by Bierce — "The Owls" — referring to Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage (edited by Jacques Barzun) as his source. It goes as follows:
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Sitting singly in the gloaming and no longer two and two,
As unwilling to be wedded as unpracticed how to woo:
With regard to being mated,
Asking still with aggravated
Ungrammatical acerbity: "To who? To who?"

Legman doesn't define what he means by "double limerick" but in earlier paragraphs, he discusses the double-couplet limerick in Shakespeare and De la Mare. In the Bierce example, he notes that "it is precisely the couplet that remains — like its author-hero — irresolutely single." Confusingly, the first, second and fifth lines in "The Owls" are double the length of the normal limerick, only an extra metric foot longer.

Since "The Owls" wasn't in the realm of fantasy, as I'd hoped it would be, I turned elsewhere in search of a Bierce limerick fantasy — to poet and scholar Donald Sidney-Fryer, whose collection of Bierce poetry, A Vision of Doom (Donald M. Grant, Publisher, 1980) I had just reviewed for Science Fiction Review and for the fantasy fanzine Nyctalops. In my letter to Sidney-Fryer, I mentioned the so-called double limerick quoted in Legman and asked if he knew of any other Bierce limericks I might use in Planet of the Limericks.

In his friendly and informative reply, Sidney-Fryer pointed out that "The Owls" is actually the last five lines of the poem "A Possibility," which is contained in its entirety in A Vision of Doom (p 57). Doom, by the way, is a compilation of 50 poems selected mostly from the Bierce collections Black Beetles in Amber (1892) and Shapes of Clay (1903), in the latter of which "A Possibility" first appeared. But, no, Sidney-Fryer did not know of any other limericks by Bierce, though he didn't rule out the possibility since Bierce had written something in the neighborhood of 800 poems.

Something about "The Owls" looked familiar to me, however, and in reading the full "A Possibility" over, I was struck again by the feeling that I'd seen something similar in Bierce's verse. Browsing through Doom and the classic The Devil's Dictionary, which includes over 200 poems, I discovered what it was. For it soon became apparent that the way Bierce used indentation of certain lines made it look like he had imbedded "double limericks" freely throughout his verse. Checking further, I discovered that even the rhyme scheme indicated imbedded limericks, for in many cases the first, second and fifth unindented lines rhymed with each another, while the couplet was indented and used a different rhyme, just as in "The Owls'' — and in the typical limerick.

But trying to describe these "hidden limericks" is rather pointless when quoting a few will give a clear picture of what I mean. In The Devil's Dictionary, for instance, is a "double limerick" which is again the last five lines of a much longer poem. It is, in fact, the second poem in the book, to be found under the entry for "Abracadabra," and the final lines run thusly:

In Abracadabra it solemnly rings,
Like an ancient bell that forever swings.
O, I love to hear
That word make clear
Humanity's General Sense of Things.

A few pages later, under the definition of "Babe," is an 8-liner which concludes with the following:

Until to buy babes he has squandered
His money. And so I have pondered
This thing, and thought may be
'T were better that Baby
The First had been eagled or condored.

Which is why he was called "Bitter Bierce," I guess. These two, and "The Owls," were the only ones I discovered where the near-limerick occurred at the end of the longer poem, but there were many cases where it came near the beginning. In the entry for "Vanity," for instance, lines 4 through 8 read:

A study of mankind, who say that men
Whose business 'tis to drive the tongue or pen
Make the most clamorous fanfaronade
O'er their most worthless work; and I'm afraid
They're not entirely different from the hen.

And under "Yesterday," the third from last in the volume, lines 4 through 8 run:

And unfamiliar foreslope to the West,
Where solemn shadows all the land invest
And stilly voices, half-remembered, speak
Unfinished prophecy, and witch-fires freak
The haunted twilight of the Dark of Rest.

Turning to A Vision of Doom, I found much the same pattern. In "To My Laundress," we find:

A shirt occasionally that's a snare
And a delusion, got, the Lord knows where,
The Lord knows why, a sock whose outs and ins
None know, nor where it ends nor where begins,
And fewer cuffs than ought to be my share.

In a more somber vein, we find the following, from "To Nanine":

If only in my dreams I might attain
The benediction of your touch, how vain
Where Faith to justify the old pursuit
Of happiness, or Reason to confute
The pessimist philosophy of pain.

And, true to form, in "To Dog" Bierce wrote:

Though now thy whelpage we protect by law,
In faith, thou must have been a beastly, raw
Uncultivated monster many score
Immemorable centuries before
Thy rigor was by breeding made to thaw.

So much for the samples. The question remains, are they "double limericks"? One clue is that in most of the samples quoted all the lines are "doubled," including the couplet, which was not the case with "The Owls," as Legman pointed out. Was Bierce playing games within his usual games, then, by inserting true "double limericks" in his poems?

Well, as it turns out, that's highly unlikely. For it finally dawned on me that most of the poems involved are Petrarchan sonnets, with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBACDECDE — and that Bierce habitually indented the B lines, so that lines 4-8 (AABBA) took on the format, superficially, of the limerick or "double limerick." Thus, a stylistic quirk Bierce was addicted to, translated through Follett to Legman, ended up the "double limerick" which had misled me.

There remains the loose end: did Bierce ever write any real limericks? Switching back to The Devil's Dictionary, we find under "Baptism" the following 6 liner:

But whether the plan of immersion
Is better than simple aspersion
Let those immersed
And those aspersed
Decide by the Authorized Version,
And by matching their agues tertian.

A bit further on, under "Immortality," we find:

A toy which people cry for,
And on their knees apply for,
Dispute, contend and lie for,
And if allowed
Would be right proud
Eternally to die for.

But, no, I'll concede that neither of these six-liners are true limericks either, close as they come. No, for that 1 in 800 you must turn to "Orthography" where, at last, we find a true Bierce limerick — not a fantastic one, not double, not part of a sonnet — but an honest-to-Bierce limerick:

A spelling reformer indicted
For fudge was before the court cicted.
The judge said: "Enough —
His candle we'll snough,
And his sepulchre shall not be whicted."

Well, that's what I get for my digging. Thanks a lot, Ambrose. 

Contributor Profile

Neal Wilgus

Neal Wilgus was born in Jerome, Arizona. He has a degree in English from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, and moved to New Mexico while working for the US Forest Service in the early 60s. He is a prolific writer of poetry, science fiction, and satirical humor. His latest chapbooks are The Leakoids: Newsalizing the Nation, and Rhymed and Dangerous, a book of poems. Neal currently resides in Corrales, New Mexico, and works the night shift with his illustrator, Filo Martinez, who provided the sketch of Neal at right.




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