The limerick is a five-line joke of a poem—witty, usually involving place names and puns, and most often bawdy, sometimes unprintable. A limerick is constructed mostly of anapests, the metrical foot consisting of two unaccented or short syllables followed by one stressed or long syllable: da-da-dum. The first two lines are made up of three metrical feet, containing three stresses, the third and fourth lines are two, and the last line is three again, like so:
Da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum,Occasional unstressed syllables can be added in at the beginning of end of a line, and the whole poem is rhymed, aabba.
Da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum,
Da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum!
The limerick takes its name from the town in Ireland, but whether limerick poems actually originated there has long been a subject of debate. In 1943, the Limerick city librarian wrote a newspaper article for the local Limerick Leader, tracing the earliest limericks to the “Poets of the Maigue,” carousing Gaelic minstrels of the late 18th century. And the form is thriving in present-day Limerick, where the Limerick Writers’ Centre sponsors an annual All-Ireland Limerick Championship in a local pub.
Edward Lear is the best known of limerick writers, although he did not actually call his poems “limericks” when he popularized the form in his 1846 Book of Nonsense. We have a selection of Lear’s limericks, accompanied by his delightfully humorous drawings, here in our library at About.com Poetry.