A QUINTESSENTIALLY English literary device, the humble limerick falls somewhere between a bumper sticker and a sonnet. Best read aloud, the primary purpose of this five-line verse is to elicit immediate laughter by a deft blend of alliteration, incongruity and wordplay.
This distinctive construct entered mid-Victorian England with the nonsense verses of Edward Lear of “The Owl and the Pussycat” fame. Since then, it has flourished in the halls of academe and beyond. Predominantly a masculine artifact, the vast majority have been vulgar, rude or scatological, albeit funny. As American linguist Morris Bishop put it:
The limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine
Or she sneaks to the slum
And promptly becomes
Disorderly, drunk, and obscene.
Unlike other literary forms -- essays, plays or books -- the terse limerick cannot teach or advocate. It cannot evoke the love of an Elizabeth Browning sonnet, probe the tragedy of a Hamlet or explore the universe of an Einstein.
But a spirited limerick can puncture the pomposity of politicians, preachers or psychoanalysts and burst the bubble of self-righteous crusaders.
My interest in limericks stems from my childhood, when I ran about the house reciting “Lear” and making up verses of my own. While researching a book about limericks, I read more than 9,000 verses. The overwhelming majority embraced the seamy stereotype, but a small minority were wise, hilarious and often sexy without being obscene.
Their authors addressed the range of human experience -- from psychology and politics, to science and religion, to culture and the arts -- with humor and wisdom. It became clear that limericks can transcend the naughty and serve as a vehicle for self-understanding, political wisdom and insight into religion, science and the arts.
Written by such worthies as Robert Louis Stevenson, Archbishop William Temple, W.H. Auden, Ogden Nash and others, good limericks can be wise and whimsical. A near-contemporary of Lear, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote several enduring verses, including this classic:
God’s plan made a hopeful beginning
But man spoiled his chances by sinning.
We trust that the story
Will end in God’s glory;
But at present the other side’s winning.
Good limericks embrace a wide range of biblical characters and historic figures such as Socrates, Archimedes and St. Augustine. Bob L. Staple wrote:
St. Augustine thought he had found
The sin by which mankind is bound:
“It was not,” so said he,
“The fruit on the tree,
But the lust of the pair on the ground.”
And closer to our time, other writers have featured Gandhi, Bernard Shaw, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Albert Camus, Reinhold Niebuhr and Cecil B. DeMille.
Because most limericks have been obsessed with sex, I’ll conclude with a “clean” one by Frank Richards:
Said Freud: “I’ve discovered the Id.
Of all your repressions be rid.
It won’t ease the gravity
Of total depravity,
But you’ll know why you did what you did.”
In short, thoughtful limericks reflect facets of truth and virtue wrapped in the garments of irony and caricature.