The Difference Between Real Limericks and Lame Imposters

We all have two or three friends who tend to speak in the style of someone funny without being actually funny. For example, my friends of this sort like to speak in a clever, aphoristic style reminiscent of somebody’s idea of a British wit. This derivative form of humor is closely related to what happens at the opposite end of the scale of propriety — namely, the oaf who thinks he is funny when he is being merely coarse and boorish in emulation of someone who is genuinely good at being coarse and boorish. In each case, the speaker parasitizes the truly funny by evoking it through a stylistic formula, and the disturbing thing about this is that while the derivative style of speech might have been inspired by sincere admiration for something truly funny, over time and innumerable repetitions of the formula the speaker loses the ability to tell the difference between the authentic funny and the simulated funny. The dedicated practice of stylistic mediocrity always ends up dimming the lamp of insight.

   We see this with my favorite genre of humorous poetry, the limerick. There are many magnificently funny ones, but then a horde of facile, inventive minds — still chortling at the funny ones — must set their hands to generating hundreds of new limericks on stereotypically racy situations or bouncing off proper nouns in the first line that are difficult to rhyme. An example of the first:

There was a young lady who lay
With her legs wide apart in the hay,
   Then, calling the ploughman,
   She said, “Do it now, man!
Don’t wait till your hair has turned gray!”

Richard Erdoes, The Richard Erdoes Illustrated Treasury of Classic Unlaundered Limericks (ed., Isaac Asimov, 1975) 

And of the second: 

A Shakespearean actor named Yorick
Was able in moments euphoric
   To bring to perfection
   Three kinds of erection:
Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric.

(Ray Allen Billington, Limericks Hysterical and Historical, 1981)

Both of these are good specimens of the glib, formulaic limerick, or simulacrum of limerick. You will find hundreds of these in that monstrous artifact, the book of limericks, which can contain hundreds, even thousands, of such likenesses. The formula for manufacturing a limerick requires first observance of the mostly rigidly anapestic meter (the first foot can be either iambic or anapestic):


Merely reciting this meter can be enough to bring a smile to an English-speaking face (it’s worth trying it out on Chinese or Indian friends to see their reaction). The last words of first, second and last lines rhyme, and most good limericks begin with the provocation of a seemingly impossible word to rhyme at the end of the first line, usually a place name; the short rhyming middle lines are there primarily to delay the last line for the maximum surprise punch of the final rhyme. The classic example is Swinburne’s

There was a young girl from Aberystwyth
Who took sacks to the mill to fetch grist with
   But the miller’s son Jack
   Laid her flat on her back
And united the things that they pissed with.

Nothing is supposed to rhyme with “Aberystwyth,” but the poet succeeds in finding two rhymes that make narrative sense in a single sentence. Then there is the content: most good limericks culminate with an image of nether body parts or secretions. Clean limericks are always somehow disappointing, and it is impossible to imagine a limerick that conveys an edifying moral teaching. The form is designed for transgression: a narrative that would be scandalous or criminally perverse if true, a rhyme that should never occur, and the ruthless speed of an experienced burglar who breaks, enters, and escapes. Limericks are the perfect poetic subversion for northern Puritannical societies riddled with prurience and hypocrisy, and speaking languages in which rhymes are hard (not Italian or Spanish!): that is, societies in which the conjoinings of sex and rhyme are both a struggle.

   There is one book of limericks that I would call a gem — a vile, wicked gem. Norman Douglas (1868-1952) is better known for the comic masterpiece South Wind (1917), a novel from the uptight-Brit-finds -the-secret-to-happiness-in-the-Mediterranean genre, of which Where Angels Fear to Tread, Room With a View, and Enchanted April are more famous representatives. Accused of various forms of sexual debauchery and sex crimes for much of his life, Douglas belongs to the shady, unwholesome underworld of English writers lke Defoe and Wilde — and he too had an incisive, cosmopolitan mind with zero tolerance for intellectual pretention and self-righteousness. Some Limericks (1928) — one of the most banned and therefore pirated books in history — frames a few dozen choice limericks with an introduction, commentary, and “geographical index” of marvelous, poker-faced, pseudo-scholarly erudition. 

   For example: 

There was a young man of Peru
Who was hard up for something to do.
     So he took out his carrot
     And buggared his parrot,
And sent the results to the Zoo.

Douglas’ curator comments:

Golden Period. It is always when people are idle or ‘tired of doing nothing,’ as they call it, that these things occur. Which of us has not been told that:

‘There was a young monk of Siberia,
Who of frigging grew weary and wearier.
     At last, with a yell,
     He burst from his cell,
And buggared the Father Superior.’

Half the cases of rape recorded in the newspapers, the epidemics of onanism among schoolboys – to say nothing of a great many murders – would never be heard of, if the perpetrators were not hard up for something to do. The larger apes in captivity, notably mandrills, are liable to masturbate themselves into a consumption from sheer boredom, and it is not difficult to guess what would happen in such circumstances, if there were a bird handy. So true are the words of Dr.Watts:

Satan finds some mischief still 
For idle hands to do.

According to C.E. Hilliar (Avifauna of the Peruvian Highlands, London, 1888, p. 163) Peruvian parrots are of an ‘unusually confiding disposition.’ This may supply a key.

He sent the results to the Zoo – where, it is to be feared, so delicate a hybrid cannot have survived for long. I conjecture the specimen is now in the Museum of the College of Surgeons.

To me, what makes the poem even funnier is the persona of the curator: a refined connoisseur of poetic quality (“Golden Period”), a moralist, a speculator on human behavior, an ornithologist (“This may supply a key”), and a man driven by unbridled lubricious curiosity to fantasize on every detail surrounding peculiar sexual acts (“it is to be feared…I conjecture”), no matter how improbable they may be. His mind is relentlessly literal and without a feeling for boundaries — a startling fusion of scholarly instincts and absolute insanity.

There was a young lady at sea
Who complained that it hurt her to pee.
     Said the brawny old mate:
     That accounts for the fate
Of the cook, and the captain, and me.

It is to be hoped that the vessel carried a duly qualified surgeon, else one or the other of the sufferers might have been in hospital later on. A neglected clap is not all beer and skittles – beer, indeed, is strictly to be avoided, and jerky games may send the gonococks lower down with sad consequences, unless you are wearing a suspender. And even then….

Readers will note the genial conciseness of these lines. How much truer poetry they are than a great deal of what is printed under that name!

Here the insanity comes in the form of altruistic concern, from apparently personal experience, for the suffering of the personages in the limerick. With a single “indeed” the narrator moves instantly from the idiom “not all beer and skittles” to literal reflections on the physical pain that might be caused by beer and skittles. And what is he thinking with “And even then…”? The climax of the commentary is the general reflection on poetry, in which the speaker seems to praise the insight into passions, medical causation, and fateful suffering evoked in a mere five lines — far superior to the vapid sentimentality of most lyrical verse. 

   Throughout the book the limerick is set up as a competitor with so-called “high verse,” a kind of anti-poetry. Douglas is at his most impishly anti-poetic when he attributes the following “exquisite lyric” to Tennyson, of all people:

There was an old fellow of Brest,
Who sucked off his wife with a zest.
Despite her great yowls
He sucked out her bowels,
And spat them all over her chest.
Douglas’ curator claims to have been “assured”

that he wrote numbers of such, and that nearly all were destroyed after his death. In point of finish and good taste it is quite worthy of him, and that he should have indulged his genius with this class of poetry does not strike me as very unlikely. Whoever perpetrates solemn rubbish like the Idyls must feel the need of unburdening himself from time to time, especially when gifted with his powers of versification. Indeed, I should say that whoever lives Tennyson’s life must write an occasional limerick, or burst; and it would not surprise me to learn, when the real truth about him is published, that he died “with a limerick on his lips.”

The limerick now turns out to be medicinal, an antidote to the toxic and gassy excesses of conventional poetry; and it owes its effectiveness as a medicine to all the excellences that generated the disease in the first place. In point of finish and good taste it is quite worthy of him… High-minded Protestant poetifications need the low-minded precision of the limerick; without it, high-mindedness would burst from a surfeit of itself. Purity and pornography were secretly married a long time ago.

   Douglas quotes another jewel, later attributed to Swinburne:

There was a young man of Cape Horn
Who wished he had never been born.
     And he wouldn’t have been
     If his father had seen
That the end of the rubber was torn.
I should apologise for inserting this well-known lyric but for the fact that so perfect a specimen of the Golden Period cannot be excluded from a collection like this. The smoothness of the versification: the glamour that hangs about mysterious regions like Tierra del Fuego: the wistfulness of the opening lines and the anticlimax of the last one – they all testify to the genius of the Unknown Poet.

“Glamour” and “wistfulness” are deadly accurate characterizations — not of the poem, which bubbles with rambunctious schadenfreude, but of the kind of reader who would read it as if it were a serious 19th century poem about romantic wandering, remorse, and disappointment. Other limerick collections fail because their editors seek to be funny and are explicitly purveying tomes full of mirth; Douglas’ collection succeeds because his curator seems to have no awareness that these poems are funny. In this vein he launches forth into a stream of pedantic sexual antiquarianism culminating in a sublime moralistic non-sequitur:

It is not surprising that the young man in question should have suffered from melancholia. Travellers concur in stating that this is one of the gloomiest landscapes on earth; a desolation of fog, drizzle, and snow. Charles Darwin, in his Voyage of the Beagle, tells us that “Death, instead of Life, seems the predominant spirit” of those parts, and a more recent writer, Metcalfe, reports that the natives are letting themselves die out, apparently, from “sheer weariness of living.”

   I cannot say how that rubber came to reach Cape Horn; maybe it was bartered by the mate of a passing whaler for a dozen sea-otter skins. These appliances are supposed to be of French origin, but they must have been already known at the Byzantine Court, if what Gibbon calls “the most detestable precautions” of Theodora were of this kind. And some curious material has now come to light (Prof. O. Schwanzerl, Kondonsgebrauch im frühesten Mittelalter, Budapesht, 1903) showing that they were in use under the Merovingians. They were made of deerskin – gegerbtes Hirschleder – and smeared with tallow – Unschlick – to facilitate penetration. (For an analogous use of leather see Mime VI and VII of Herodas). The invention was attributed to the Queen who, while fond of lovers, insisted, and rightly, on the legitimacy of her offspring.

   The world would be a better place, if modern women had the same respect for their husbands.

Our narrator is an old debauchee with old-fashioned notions of propriety and an obsessive interest in the minutiae of sexual apparatus; he also has a wide-ranging and undisciplined mind that has to demonstrate its learning at every opportunity. Moreover, he is a reductive  materialist, insensitive to poetic ends and effects, and capable of seeing life only in terms of scientific or historical “facts.” In this respect Douglas’ curator of limericks differs little from the reductivist scholars of the Bible who sought to explain everything through historical circumstances and usages. 

   Even so, he sometimes hits a wall, when a limerick reveals to him the limits of his imagination:

That naughty old Sappho of Greece
Said: “What I prefer to a piece
     Is to have my pudenda
     Rubbed hard by the enda
The little pink nose of my niece.”
These lines being unintelligible to me, I sent them to my lady-specialist for comment and elucidation. Her reply, I confess, leaves me where I was – in complete ignorance of what the poem is about. She writes: ‘I learnt no Greek at school, but have of course heard of Sappho’s poems. They must be fifth-rate stuff, if she knew no more about poetry than she did about other things. The nose: what next? Be sure, dear Sir, there is some mistake here. The suggestion is too absurd. No woman is ever so much of a fool, not even under the influence of drink.’

    I will leave it there, and wait for enlightenment from some other quarter, merely noting that Sappho was not born in Greece (though a good many other people were) and that tradition fails to record whether she had a niece or not.

Douglas leaves it to us to imagine the curator striving but failing to imagine, while his “lady-specialist” (in what? — not in Greek, as she confesses) is able to imagine (“what next?”) but refuses to spell out: …not even under the influence of drink. What is funnier here than even the limerick itself is the curator’s blank incomprehension, which doubles the laughter — like the one person in the company who doesn’t get the joke. In fact, Douglas’ curator performs this role with every single limerick, and this is why the book is so funny: he gets everything but the joke and thereby becomes the joke.

   Unlike other collectors of limericks, Douglas knows when to stop: Some Limericks is delightfully short, and can be savored like a cup of rare tea. 


Norman Douglas’ Some Limericks can be read in its entirety here:


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