The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, Revised and Expanded Edition by Lewis Putnam Turco, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England (www.UPNE.com) , 2012 • 384 pp. 3 illus. 5 x 7 1/2" Reference & Bibliography / Poetry 978-1-61168-035-5, paperback.
The limerick is a form of light verse (vers de société). The alleged French ancestry of the limerick has been disputed. Some authorities feel it is a native English form, descended from the madsong stanza. The madsong is any lyric sung by a madman or a fool, but there is a particular Form of the Week 35: in which many such lyrics traditionally appear. The madsong stanza is said to be a descendant of the main stanza of "The Cuckoo Song":
THE CUCKOO SONG
Sing cuckoo now! Sing cuckoo!
Sing cuckoo! Sing cuckoo now!
Summer is a-coming in,
Loudly sing cuckoo!
It grows the seed
And blows the mead,
And springs the wood anew —
The ewe bleats after the lamb,
And after the calf, the cow;
The bullock starts,
The buck farts —
Merry sing cuckoo!
Well sing ye, cuckoo,
Nor cease ye never, now!
Anonymous (v. Wesli Court)
Written in strong-stress prosody (podics), the first, second and fifth lines of the main stanza (beginning above with line three) are tripodic, the third and fourth are dipodic. The lines rhyme or consonate a3 b3 c2 c2 b3, d3 e3 f2 f2 e3 , and so on. The long lines often end on an unstressed syllable (a falling ending), and there are internal sonic effects, including alliteration and assonance.
Here is a twentieth-century send-up of “The Cuckoo Song”:
Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, ‘tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.
This anonymous madsong following derives from the 16th century, and there are many versions of it; this is a shorter one:
TOM O'BEDLAM'S SONG
From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
All the spirits that stand
By the naked man
In the book of moons defend ye!
I slept not since the Conquest;
Till then I never waked
Till the roguish boy
Of love, where I lay,
Found me and stripped me naked.
The moon's my constant mistress
And the lonely owl my marrow;
The flaming drake
And the nighthawk make
Me music, to my sorrow.
I know more than Apollo,
For, oft when he lies sleeping,
I behold the stars
At mortal wars,
And the rounded welkin weeping.
The moon embraces her shepherd,
And the queen of love her warrior;
While the first doth horn
The stars of morn,
And the next the heavenly farrier.
With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear
And a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.
With a knight of ghosts and shadows
I'm summoned to a tourney
Ten leagues beyond
The wide world's end —
I think it is no journey.
Anonymous (v. Wesli Court)
However, the Anglo-Norman background of this form is probably not truly disputable, because it is clearly a podic form, and podic prosody developed after Chaucer, John Gower, and the Scottish Chaucerians adapted French syllabic verse to English accentual verse and adopted Norman rhyming.
The limerick is a quantitative accentual-syllabic quintet turning on two rhymes: aabba. Lines 1, 2, and 5 have an iamb and two anapests, in that order; lines 3 and 4 have either an iamb and an anapest, in that order, or two anapests. Line 5 can be merely a modified repetition of line 1 (AabbA), as the 19th century poet Edward Lear practiced it, but one of the oldest identifiable limericks also used this device: "Tobacco" is from Michael East's Second Set of Madrigals, published in 1606. Whether East himself wrote it is moot.
O metaphysical tobacco,
Fetched as far as from Morocco,
Thy searching fume
Exhales the rheum,
O metaphysical tobacco!
Michael East (?)
Despite the popularity of the limerick in the twenty-first century, the older folk tradition of the madsong can still be found in recent use. Here is a children’s game song that was current in New England at least as late as the 1940’s:
Help! Murder! Police!
My mother fell in the grease!
I laughed so hard
I fell in the lard.
Help! Murder! Police!
Many experiments have been enacted with the limerick form. Among other things, it has been used with some success as a stanza pattern rather than as a poem form. Changing its hard and wrenched rhymes to consonances, however, produces some strange results:
Some thieves sacked the home of Miss Hughes
Who owned a remarkable nose.
She said, "Sirs, I shall sneeze
And alert the police
If you don't get out of my house.”
A while back I posted this limerick on my Facebook page:
WEINER IN A BUN
A fellow named Anthony Weiner
Was fond of his penis' demeanor,
So he mailed its portrait
To girls...six or eight,
Who remarked that they wished it were cleaner.
Gary Getchell responded, “I tried to substitute ‘hot dog’ for ‘weiner,’ but the limerick never did work out! Lew ... you are the pro! Maybe you can show me how to do it!”
I’m happy to accede. We’ll begin with this little “fill-in-the-blank” exercise:
MAYOR BOB FILLNER OF SAN DIEGO
Bob liked to pat girls on the (fill in the blank)
And tickle their (fill in the blank) with his (fill in the blank).
He'd no hope of Filner
With fun or of killner
With wit, nor of making her (fill in the blank).