Edward Lear didn’t invent the limerick. But when he published A Book of Nonsense in 1846, he inspired many other writers to adopt the form, and the limerick has been a part of popular culture in every generation since.
Limericks have a defined form that is immediately familiar: five lines in a pattern of two long, two short, one long, with a rhyme shared by the long lines, and another rhyme shared by the short lines.
Limericks in this form existed well before Lear, and Lear cited, as the model for his own efforts, the following verse quoted to him by a friend:
There was an old man of Tobago,
Who lived upon rice, gruel and sago
Till, much to his bliss,
His physician said this -
‘To a leg, sir, of mutton you may go.’
This is a proper limerick, in every sense.
But Lear himself did not as a rule write proper limericks.
Lear threw away the most powerful feature of the form: the fifth line, where a limerick concludes with a twist and is rendered satisfactory.
Edward Lear discarded the fifth line in function, and he rejected it symbolically as well, by combining lines three and four, the short lines, into a single third line. The disabled fifth line then became the fourth, and Lear used it merely to repeat the essence of what he’d said in the first line (or occasionally the second).
There was an Old Person of Ischia,
Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier;
He danced hornpipes and jigs, and ate thousands of figs,
That lively Old Person of Ischia
In The Fifth Line: Limericks After Lear, I mean after in the sense of inspired by or based upon.
Each of Lear’s verses from A Book of Nonsense, I’ve used as the starting point for a new limerick that reinstates the fifth line and restores its purpose.
For some verses I’ve developed several alternatives, in which case I’ve tried to select (and it’s often been a compromise) the version I think is the funniest, the best formed, and the one most suited to a general audience.
Some of Lear’s verses are difficult to adapt using his leading rhymes. Lear didn’t need three rhyming words for his long lines; he only needed two, since his last line would repeat the final word of the first. So while Lear could happily begin with …
There was an Old Lady of Chertsey …
it is all but impossible to turn that beginning into a proper limerick. There aren’t enough rhyming words. In cases like this, I’ve had to turn things around.
In some of my limericks I’ve remained close to Lear’s original premise, as established in his first two lines. In others I’ve taken a different direction … sometimes wildly different; but that’s a limerick’s particular delight, that it takes the writer where it wants to go.
A difficulty I faced with some of Lear’s rhymes was his Englishness. Edward Lear rhymed hush with bush, for instance, and Hull with bull, but outside England those rhymes don’t work at all. At times I have adopted Lear’s vowel sound, even though I would pronounce a word differently. Where this may cause confusion, I have marked the relevant words in bold italic, like this.
Lear sometimes bends the sound of a place name to suit his purposes, as when he rhymes Prague with vague or plague. This practice falls within the finest tradition of limericks, for a lady who rides on a tiger may indeed hail from Riga (or Niger). I’ve followed Lear’s lead in some cases, and diverged in others.
Above all, I’ve tried to make my limericks funny. I hope you enjoy them.
Below is a sample of what you'll find inside.
A Lady of Chertsey
There was an Old Lady of Chertsey,
Who made a remarkable curtsey;
She twirled round and round, till she sank underground,
Which distressed all the people of Chertsey.
A Travelling Lass of the firth
Spun around till she entered the earth;
And emerging in Chertsey,
She offered a curtsey,
And said, “I was aiming for Perth.”
A Lady of Bute
There was a Young Lady of Bute,
Who played on a silver-gilt flute;
She played several jigs to her Uncle’s white Pigs:
That amusing Young Lady of Bute.
There was a Young Lady of Bute
Who climbed an enormous green shoot;
It led up to a cloud
That was leaky and loud,
So she bought an umbrella en route.
A Man of the West
There was an Old Man of the West,
Who wore a pale plum-coloured vest;
When they said, “Does it fit?” he replied, “Not a bit!”
That uneasy Old Man of the West.
There was an Old Man of the West
Who woke with a seal on his chest;
Though he dealt it a blow,
It refused to let go,
And he couldn’t fit into his vest.
A Man of Quebec
There was an Old Man of Quebec,—
A beetle ran over his neck;
But he cried, “With a needle I’ll slay you, O beadle!”
That angry Old Man of Quebec.
A Seafaring Man of Quebec,
Turned his galleon into a wreck,
By releasing the wheel
With a womanly squeal
When a beetle ran over his neck.
A Person of Tring
There was an Old Person of Tring,
Who embellished his nose with a ring;
He gazed at the moon every evening in June,
That ecstatic Old Person of Tring.
There was a Young Lady of Tring,
Who’d leap in the air and take wing;
For her mum was a fairy,
But Father was wary,
And tethered them both on a string.
A Lady of Welling
There was a Young Lady of Welling,
Whose praise all the world was a-telling;
She played on the harp, and caught several Carp,
That accomplished Young Lady of Welling.
There was a Young Lady of Welling,
Whose brother was constantly yelling;
Which she couldn’t abide,
So she took him inside,
And insisted he finish his spelling.
A Person of Ems
There was an Old Person of Ems
Who casually fell in the Thames;
And when he was found, they said he was drowned,
That unlucky Old Person of Ems.
There was an Old Person of Ems,
A village immersed in the Thames,
Who could breathe with a reed,
Though he hadn’t the need,
For his air was all there in the Thames.