The Ecphorizer

Lima Riki
Gareth penn

Issue #11 (July 1982)

Of all the forms of bad verses The limerick is surely the worsest

Marvin Grosswirth's remarks on the limerick in the Mensa Bulletin deserve a response. He doesn't know beans about it. Lima beans.

Limerick is a county in Ireland which takes its name from the Old Norse Lima ríki (there was a Norse

...perhaps the densest literary form ever practiced in any quantity.

settlement by that name there.) For obscure reasons, the name "Limerick" became attached to a type of verse characterized by the stuffy 1911 Britannica as a "burlesque epigram." The earliest example is attested in 1820, and the form is virtually unknown outside the English-speaking world.

[quoteright]Limericks don't have to be written in English, however; in a previous incarnation, I used to write them in Old Norse. I would adduce examples, but they were so dirty I am afraid that some readers would be offended.

There's another aspect in which Old Norse provides a suitable backdrop to a discussion of the limerick. The formal requirements of the limerick are exceeded in rigidity only by an Old Norse verseform called drottkvaett (courtly verse). Drottkvaett is composed in four pairs of couplets. Each couplet is written with three alliterations, preferably falling on syllables 1 and 5 of line 1 and syllable 1 of line 2; two vowel-rhymes falling on syllables 2 and 5 of line 1; and two syllabic rhymes falling on syllables 1 and 5 of line 2. There are three beats to the line and no end-rhyme.

It's a severely closed form, perhaps the densest literary form ever practiced in any quantity. It obviously places very difficult restrictions on expression. One effect of these formal limitations was the development of involved metaphor, whose purpose was to express thought using normal vocabulary in a highly artificial format. To use a familiar parallel, drottkvaett was rather like speaking in crossword-puzzles. In a place calling for "sword", for instance, formal considerations might require the author to put "wound-snake" instead.

By contrast, Latin hexameter is more open-ended. It has its own formal constraints, and metaphorical speech is hardly unknown among classical authors. An even more open form is Shakespeare's "pentameter" (which is not classic pentameter, incidentally). Obviously, The Bard was not hindered by the form in expressing elegant and contrived figures of speech, but the form lends itself very well to narrative and other extended compositions.

The limerick is characterized by what the French call the pointe, a surprise twist at the end. A rhyming pattern is established in lines 1 and 2; then suspense is built up by a couplet, lines 3 and 4, which switches to another rhyme and a shorter length (two beats to the line instead of three). The pointe is often contained in the rhyming word concluding line 5. Limericks tend to dactyls, and while this is a matter of taste, the better ones change the rhyme in lines 3 and 4 from masculine (the line ends in a stressed syllable) to feminine (line ends in stressed and unstressed syllables), e.g., cat-bat and liquor-quicker, or vice versa.

As with drottkvaett, some distortion of normal speech is required to fit English into the form. A certain amount of the humorous effect derives from that distortion. While some purists insist on pure rhyme, a contrived or near rhyme, especially in the pointe, heightens the humorous effect, a technique well-known to fans of Ogden Nash, Sir William S. Gilbert, and the shaggy-dog story.

One difficulty with limericks is that to tell a story going beyond the simple set-up/punch-line format, it is necessary to go back and reiterate a preface each time a new verse is begun. Another limitation is that line 1 is traditionally reserved for the naming of the subject or establishing the geographic setting. I have composed an illustration of what happens to a subject requiring epic breadth when it is set in a closed form. As is usual with the limerick, the subject is offcolor. In this case, the limerick, for all its limitations, seemed the only appropriate form to use.


There was a young lady named Doda
Bearing pectoral resemblance to Rhoda;
  She went to Japan,
  where a silicone-man
Made her tits each the shape of a Gouda.

("Gouda" rhymes with "Doda" if you say it in Dutch.)

A young topless dancer named Carol
Had huge breasts, each as big as a barrel;
  Her patrons all goshed
  When her silicone sloshed,
which was heard all the way to O'Farrell.

To make her small mammaries fonder,
Japanward our Carol did wander;
  By bobble of boob,
  She made her salary cube,
Which she saved up to buy out the Condor.

To finish the subject of Doda,
Let me add on a financial coda;
  You can hit paydirt big
  Without having to dig,
By implanting your own Mother Loda.

I think that this makes clear that each five-line group can be used to present only one small piece of information, whose further development requires another five lines, which may be too much. The first group presents the story of what the subject did to be notable; the second, what she did with it; the third, the economic results; and the fourth, a general observation drawn from the history just presented. It was the best I could do.

It's quite a challenge. I'd like to suggest a competition for those who are interested in experimenting with this problem, let's say rewriting The Gettysburg Address in limericks. Any takers? 

When we suggest to Gareth Penn that we save up his contributions for an "all-GP" issue he replied that he didn't think our readers would stand for an entire magazine about guinea pigs.

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