Attempting to not-bore for England about limericks

I must apologise to all subscribers for their having received notification last week of a blog post that had no text in it! This was the result of human error, aka Aussie Flu. Unfortunately, when I did write the text for the post, WordPress would not allow me to repeat the notification to subscribers, just as it won’t allow me to lay out limericks properly below. Well, the lost post is viewable below this one as ‘So what IS biography?’, and the real point of it (beneath the parrot) is Jenny Uglow’s biography of Edward Lear.

To what extent should one expect a biographer to be intimately acquainted with their subject’s specialism? Is it reasonable to expect the biographer of Nelson to know the finer points of sailing? Or the biographer of Marie Curie to be thoroughly conversant with nuclear physics? I think not, but obviously they should have acquired a good working knowledge of these important areas of their subjects’ lives.

For readers who feel they have never ‘got’ Lear’s limericks, Uglow’s is the book. She explains that ‘the key quality of the nonsense rhymes is surprise: this is what makes us laugh’ (p. 154). There surely never was a writer so able to produce the unexpected as Edward Lear. A vital part of the power of Lear’s limericks is also the interplay between the verse and the inimitably wonky (‘unexpected’) drawing that goes with it. Essentially, Uglow sees Lear’s limericks as proto-modernist Kafkan allegories of non-conformity, persecution, rebellion, violence, escapism and agony; yet theirs is a ‘cartoon’ world in which nobody ‘really’ gets hurt… All this, if a weeny bit old hat in literary terms (like her gratuitous reference to ‘carnival’), is valid and helpful and stimulating and accompanied by excellent discussions of Lear’s rhymes and the play of sounds in his limericks.

But there is a statement she makes about limericks on p. 310 that appears (and I hope I am wrong) to open a chasm of literary ignorance:

For a while, because of Lear, limericks were all the rage. Poets of Lear’s generation and the next had a go: Rossetti, Lewis Carroll, later Kipling, and even, allegedly, Tennyson. Making up a limerick seemed so easy, old or young, drunk or sober, and it proved a perfect form of pornographic jollity in clubs and mess rooms across the empire.

The popularity of Lear’s published limericks may well have raised the profile of limericks generally, but the limerick of ‘pornographic jollity’ that all these Victorian lads found so irresistible was not the Lear form of limerick. If my memory serves me, I have only ever seen one Lear-form limerick inscribed in a Victorian/Edwardian Visitors Book or album; all the rest have been in the classical limerick form which long pre-dates Edward Lear. George Calderon himself wrote a masterly limerick for his hosts Evey and Violet Pym on his and Kittie’s visit to Foxwold in 1912 — and it’s in the pre-Lear form. (I am deeply indebted to John Pym for permitting me to publish it in my biography.)

Afficionados, addicts and inveterate composers of the ‘classical’ (scatological) limerick hate Edward Lear’s limericks.

The reason, if I can put it as briefly as possible, is that they deplore his having destroyed the epigrammatic punch of a clever new last rhyme-word and replaced it with mere repetition of the last word of the first or second line. They see him as having produced a crashing anticlimax that is the very antithesis of the art of the ‘classical’ limerick. This is true, but I think Lear’s intention is to suggest his characters are trapped in this world of the ever-recurring rhyme-word; the ‘clever’ punch of his limerick is always one extraordinary word in the last line (‘borascible Person’, ‘propitious Old Person’, ‘smashed that Old Man’), or even earlier (‘casually’ in the example I give below).

Limerickians can bore for England about why Lear’s limericks are so awful, and if there are any out there who want to do so as Comments, please feel free. But personally I will limit myself to four examples that illustrate — I intend — (a) the glories of both forms of limerick and (b) why to write a good classical limerick you have to understand the form, and why to write a Lear limerick you have…er…to be Edward Lear:

1. Perfect ‘classical’ limerick [warning: scatological]

There was a young Fellow of Wadham
Who asked for a ticket to Sodom.
When they said, ‘We prefer
Not to issue them, sir,’
He said, ‘Don’t call me sir, call me modom.’

2. Perfect ‘Lear’ limerick [warning: absurd]

There was an old man, who when little
Fell casually into a kettle;
But, growing too stout,
He could never get out,
So he passed all his life in that kettle.

3. Dud ‘classical’ limerick by J. Brodsky, 1969

Our Russia’s a country of birches
and axes and ikons and churches
without any priest
and crosses; at least
our Russia’s a country of searches.

4. Dud ‘Lear’ limerick by P. Miles, 1974

There was a young Russian cried, ‘How
Can I inculcate Marx in this cow?
Whatever I say
She bleats a loud neigh,
Whilst objectively staying a cow!’

(These limerick-critters don’t like intellectuals trying to ride ’em.)

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3 Responses to Attempting to not-bore for England about limericks

  1. Bryan Missenden says:

    Not original, but surely . . . The limerick’s an art-form complex, Whose contents run chiefly to sex. It’s famous for virgins and masculine urgin’s and vulgar erotic effects?

  2. Damian Grant says:

    Patrick: thank you for your entertaining and informative take on the limerick, via a discussion of Uglow’s book on Lear. I particularly like the idea of Lear’s recurring rhyme forming a kind of trap (or manhole cover?); there is no escape — usually afforded by a witty third rhyme which comically reverses the drift of the foregoing. A favourite in this mode:

    There once was a man from Darjeeling
    Who boarded a bus bound for Ealing.
    It said on the door,
    ‘Do not spit on the floor,’
    So he stood up and spat on the ceiling.

    But poor Brodsky! He must have done something bad to you at some time, to be thrown into the blog with his feet stuck in the concrete of that dismal example.

    I’m sure your readers have sampled the anarchic delights of the unrhyming limerick: ‘There once was a man from Dunoon / Who always took soup with a fork’ etc, and ‘There once was a man from Dundee / Who was stung on the nose by a wasp’ etc. But I wonder how well known is the rare French example, a limerick most scandalously heretical:

    Il y avait un jeune homme de Dijon
    Qui n’avait que peu de réligion.
    Il dit, ‘Quant à moi,
    Je déteste tous les trois:
    Le père, et le fils, et le pigeon.’

    I couldn’t remember the middle of this, but tracked it down in the lively introduction to Norman Douglas’s anthology ‘Some Limericks…’, published by the Library of Alexandria in 1929.

    I won’t try any of my own on you, for fear of ending up like Brodsky at the bottom of a lake…

  3. Patrick Miles says:

    Dear Damian,

    Thank you for this magnificent, erudite and beautifully illustrated Comment which, taken with Bryan Missenden’s, just about says it all concerning the ‘classical’ limerick. Perhaps ‘classical’ is the wrong word for it, it should be called the ‘popular’ limerick? Their impromptu nature, ‘Rabelaisian’ tendency, music hall slapstick, and even the fact that they often don’t scan, surely point to these limericks being an ever-fertile ‘unofficial’ genre? (Prétentieux, moi?)

    When I labelled Brodsky’s and my limericks ‘Dud’, I was being provocative, but what I mean is that they both ignore the essential nature of the ‘popular’ and the ‘Lear’ limerick and therefore seem to fail… Joseph wrote his down for me in his Leningrad flat on 11 January 1970 during a conversation we were having about the problems besetting poets in Soviet Russia, and I got the clear impression that he had deliberately ‘deformed’ the limerick genre as an experiment in originality (he was very much into ‘making strange’ in his own poems at the time). I think he’d first made the acquaintance of the ‘popular’ limerick from American friends the year before and decided he’d stand the limerick on its head, produce one that wasn’t funny, or was at least wry, and which is actually ‘serious’. It’s very ingenious, it scans of course, and we mustn’t forget that he wrote it in a foreign language! But, since it transgresses so many of the conventions of the ‘popular’ limerick, is it a limerick or is it a dud?

    Similarly, yours truly prefers the Lear limerick and when he lived in Soviet Russia produced a number of them that, perhaps, had an absurd element to them, but were basically satirical. I was wrenching the Lear limerick in that direction, but Lear’s heft is never as narrow as satire. (In this particular one I was having a go at the way Russians of the time were always saying ‘objectively’ when they meant ‘as a Communist’.) So these limericks of mine were ‘duds’ as Lear limericks, or at most perhaps parodies of Lear. At the end of the day, I think only one person could ever write successful Lear limericks…

    The French limerick is a masterpiece!

    All power to your lyre, monsieur, and my renewed gratitude for your Comment gems.


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