A limerick is a five-line humorous poem with an AABBA rhyme scheme. It is about 500 years old, and held to have first been used as a distinct form at the end of the sixteenth century. The limerick was popularized by Edward Lear in A Book of Nonsense, which includes many limericks as well as other poems, for example "The Owl and the Pussy Cat."
Limericks are in accentual verse, which means that the satisfactory construction of a line is determined by the number of accents with little or no regard to the number of syllables. In this it differs from metered verse, which is accentual-syllabic, taking account of both the pattern of accents and the number of syllables. Because the syllables are not counted, accentual verse has a certain flexibility. Ballads and nursery rhymes are other types of accentual verse. In limericks, the accents work like this:
- Line 1: 3 accents
- Line 2: 3 accents
- Line 3: 2 accents
- Line 4: 2 accents
- Line 5: 3 accents
Because of the freedom allowed by accentual verse, the first line might work like this: There was once a young man from Berlin. or it might work like this: There was a young man from Berlin. Similarly the third line might work like this: He rode on a whale or it might work like this: And he rode on a whale. No matter which variations are used, the result is verse that basically has an anapestic feel -- a pattern of strong, weak, weak.
The limerick form as practiced by Lear was often different in two respects from what we expect of limericks today. Lear frequently uses the fifth line of the limerick as little more than a paraphrase of line 1 or 2, or a combination thereof. In addition, he generally uses the same word at the end of line 5 as at the end of line 1. For example,
There was a Young Lady of Clare, Who was sadly pursued by a bear; When she found she was tired, She abruptly expired, That unfortunate Lady of Clare.
However, neither generalization is always the case. Sometimes the final line serves more as a punchline, as in most modern limericks, and ends with a different word.
There was an Old Man of Berlin, Whose form was uncommonly thin; Till once, by mistake, Was mixed up in a cake, So they baked that Old Man of Berlin. There was an Old Lady whose folly Induced her to sit in a holly; Whereupon, by a thorn Her dress being torn She quickly became melancholy.
More modern limericks generally end with a punchline, the same way many jokes do. There has also been an expansion of the topics covered in limericks since Lear's time, and there are many bawdy limericks nowadays. Here is a limerick with a punchline:
There was a young man from Darjeeling, Who got on a bus bound for Ealing. It said at the door: "Don't spit on the floor." So he carefully spat on the ceiling.
Another development is that some people are interested in playing with the form, as in this anonymous limerick:
A decrepit old gas man named Peter, While hunting around for the meter, Touched a leak with his light. He arose out of sight, And, as anyone can see by reading this, he also destroyed the meter.
W. S. Gilbert played with the form in a different way:
There was an old man of St Bees Who was horribly stung by a wasp. When they said: "Does it hurt?" He replied: "No, it doesn't— It's a good job it wasn't a hornet!"
People have also combined limericks with other forms, in this case, a tongue twister, while ignoring the BB rhyme:
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.