I hate poetry.
Oh wait, that’s Len. Here’s what I do hate. I hate the limericks of Edward Lear. When I read a limerick, when I get to the last line, I expect some sort of payoff. A good pun; a neologism; a punchline; a twist; a bawdy double éntendré. Mr. Lear, as pleasant as it might be to know him, has the unfortunate tendency to repeat the first line in the fifth:
There was an Old Man of Cape Horn
Who wished he had never been born;
So he sat on a chair,
Till he died of despair,
That dolorous Old Man of Cape Horn.
As I say, the best limericks are those which reward the reader with some sort of cleverness, especially in the last line. Today we will look at some of the cleverest limericks I can find and look at the devices with which they make us smile. I’m indebted to (okay, fine, I’m stealing wholesale from) The Lure Of The Limerick by William S. Baring Gould (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, Publ.; 1967). (Limericks not attributed are of unknown origin.)
Having said that, there’s nothing terribly ingenious about this example. It’s just pitch-perfect, droll Scottish understatement. Vincent Price gives it a delightful reading in the movie Edward Scissorhands.
There was an old man of the Cape
Who made himself garments of crepe.
When asked, “Do they tear?”
He replied, “Here and there;
But they’re perfectly splendid for shape.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
But it leads naturally to this one, which, along with the next two, features the device of lampooning an odd spelling:
A thrifty young fellow of Shoreham
Made brown paper trousers and woreham;
He looked nice and neat
Till he bent in the street
To pick up a pin; then he toreham.
A sensitive lady from Worcester
At a ball met a fellow who gorcester–
A lecherous guy
With a glint in his uy—
So she ducked out before he sedorcester.
A young Irish servant in Drogheda
Had a mistress who often annogheda,
Whereupon she would swear
In a language so rare
That thereafter nobody emplogheda.
Note next the altered spelling of butter and mutter to match Calcutta; also, how the brilliant five-syllable “oleaginous” (meaning “buttery”) expeditiously and effortlessly drops us onto the payoff of the final word:
There was an old man of Calcutta,
Who coated his tonsils with butta,
Thus converting his snore
From a thunderous roar
To a soft, oleaginous mutta.
Here are a couple tours de forces featuring puns and homophones:
A tutor who tooted a flute,
Tried to teach two young tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
“Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?”
A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “Let us flee,”
Said the flea, “Let us fly,”
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
The next three play off abbreviations. The first, by Mark Twain—possibly, I read, the only limerick attributable to him—is particularly ingenious:
A man hired by John Smith and Co.
Loudly declared he would tho.
Man that he saw
Dumping dirt near his store.
The drivers, therefore, didn’t do.
A lady from way down in Ga.
Became quite a notable fa.
But she faded from view
With a quaint I.O.U.
That she signed, “Miss Lucrezia Ba.”
She frowned and called him Mr.
Because in sport he kr.
And so in spite
That very night
This Mr. kr. sr.
Here’s one with a groaner of a punchline as contrived as any hoary shaggy dog story. (You know the kind: “Look at the orange Mama laid.”… “Look at that S Car go.”… “Transporting gulls across stately lions for immoral porpoises.”)
The reverend Henry Ward Beecher
Called a hen a most elegant creature.
The hen, pleased with that,
Laid an egg in his hat—
And thus did the hen reward Beecher.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
I love rhymes like this next one (words which look like they should rhyme but don’t), which force you either 1) mispronounce the subsequent rhymes or 2) go back and start over:
All hail to the town of Limerick
Which provides a cognomen, generic,
For a species of verse
which, for better or worse,
Is supported by layman and cleric.
H. Langford Reed
No collection of limericks would be complete without some bawdy ribaldry. Limericks didn’t even start being clean until they’d been around for centuries. Here are five of the most delicate I could find.
(Love the internal rhymes of this one!)
To his bride said the lynx-eyed detective,
“Can it be that my eyesight’s defective?
Has your east tit the least bit
The best of the west tit?
Or is it a trick of perspective?”
(Another shaggy dog pun-chline:)
With a maiden a man once begat
Bouncing triplets named Nat, Tat, and Pat;
‘Twas fun in the breeding
But hell in the feeding:
She hadn’t a spare tit for Tat.
(Here’s a rhyming Biblical allusion. What more could you ask for?)
A comely young widow named Ransom
Was ravished three times in a hansom.
When she cried out for more
A voice from the floor
Said, “Lady, I’m Simpson, not Samson.”
(The world’s oldest pun. Delicate types are advised not to think about this one too, ahem, hard:)
A widow whose singular vice
Was to keep her late husband on ice,
Said, “It’s been hard since I lost him—
I’ll never defrost him!
Cold comfort, but cheap at the price.”
(Finally, the brightest punchlines are those which thwart the readers’ expectations
A bather whose clothing was strewed
By breezes that left her quite nude
Saw a man come along,
And, unless I am wrong,
You expected this line to be lewd.
Returning to G-rated fare, another way to thwart expectations is to play with the form. This one of mine toys with the rhyme scheme:
Hitched a ride with a trucker named Hannah;
Said I, “Would you like a banana?”
I just happens to has ‘em.
They’re full of potassium.
Smokey Bear’s in the bushes—back down when you passium.”
And this one, besides featuring a clever pun, toys with the, well, you know…
A decrepit old gas man named Peter,
While hunting around for the meter,
Touched a leak with his light;
He rose out of sight—
And, as everyone who knows anything about poetry can tell you, he also ruined the meter.
Here’s one more play on place-name pronunciation as well as words that look like they should rhyme but don’t. I love the accent that produces the final rhyme:
There was a young fellow from Boise
Who at times was exceedingly noise;
So his friends’ joy increased
When he moved way back east
To what people in Brooklyn call Joise.
And finally…it took me a couple readings to get the ingenious double éntendré of this limerick’s last line:
A young trapeze artist named Bract
Is faced by a very sad fact.
Imagine his pain
When, again and again,
He catches his wife in the act!
Write one or more limericks. Some of you will be happy if your limerick scans more or less and you get the rhymes in the right places. I hope at least one reader is inspired to study the comic devices we’ve talked about here and try to incorporate one or more into their limerick before they pronounce it finished.
Tip: find or devise the wordplay first—pun, double meaning, homophone, oddly-spelled place name, abbreviation, words that look they should rhyme but don’t, etc. Work with it for awhile and explore the possibilities for rhymes and other twists. Then build your limerick around it.
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