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Writing Limericks: A How-To and a History

Published: April 24, 2017

In the weeks following the publication of each new issue of The Saturday Evening Post, we receive more than 300 entries to our Limerick Laughs contest. Most of them are well-written, some of them are outstanding, but far too many of them aren’t really limericks.

So we put together this post to help both budding and flowering poets understand what a limerick is, how to write good one, and where the form even came from.

When you’re ready to put your poetry prowess to the test, you can enter our latest Limerick Laughs contest here — for a chance to win $25 and publication in the Post.

Your favorite mag’s on a mission
To inspire your poem submission
Of five lines in length
With rhymes of some strength —
The best ones can win a commission!

Limericks: A How-To Guide

There are four guidelines that you should follow to write a good limerick. Although they do allow some leeway for the creative mind, the farther you stray from these guidelines, the less limerick-like your finished poem will be.

First, its length: A limerick is always five lines long. There’s very little wiggle room here.

Second, its rhyme scheme: A limerick always has an AABBA rhyme scheme, meaning that the first, second, and fifth lines end in a shared rhyme, as do the third and fourth. Some authors flirt with the format by swapping those letters around, but at best, these are variations on the limerick structure. For all intents and purposes, if it’s not AABBA, it’s not a limerick.

Here’s an example. Since The Saturday Evening Post is a family magazine, please refrain from mentally conjuring (or, more importantly, commenting on) the more vulgar version of this classic limerick:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

You can clearly see the rhyme scheme in this example, but let’s talk about rhythm and meter, the third guideline. Although the number of syllables contained in each line varies from one limerick to another, a good guideline is to have 7-10 syllables in lines 1, 2, and 5, and 5-7 syllables in lines 3 and 4. Above all else, though, the lengths should be consistent among rhyming lines. And in nearly every case, “A” lines are longer than “B” lines.

Limericks generally use an anapestic metric foot, which is the snooty-English-teacher way of saying it uses a repeating rhythm of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. In a limerick, the first, second, and fifth lines each hold three stressed syllables, and the third and fourth lines each contain two stressed syllables.

Clear as mud? Let’s take another gander at the man from Nantucket. Notice which syllables have harder beats than the rest:

There ONCE was a MAN from NanTUCKet
Who KEPT all his CASH in a BUCKet.
But his DAUGHter, named NAN,
Ran aWAY with a MAN
And AS for the BUCKet, NanTUCKet.

Because of that last syllable in Nantucket and bucket, these lines aren’t perfectly anapestic, but notice that the rhythm — the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables — is identical in the lines that rhyme. This consistency, along with the rhyme scheme, is what holds a good limerick together.

The final and loosest rule of limerick writing is its silly subject matter. Humor and wordplay almost always work their way into a good limerick. Often disregarded as the amateur poet’s training-wheel exercise, the limerick prioritizes a spritely wit and cartoonish joy over the lovelorn yearning of the sonnet or the emotional roller coaster (and length) of the Romantic epic. Your limerick doesn’t necessarily have to be funny, but if it’s not, you might have missed the point.

A Brief History of Limericks

So who made themselves the Kings and Queens of Poetry and invented all these rules? The name limerick was first formally recorded as the name of the five-line poem just two years before the beginning of the 20th century, when it appeared in the New English Dictionary. Our brightest poetry historians believe the name originated from the town or county of Limerick, Ireland, in reference to a popular nonsense song that included the phrase “Will (or won’t) you come to Limerick?” An 1880 New Brunswick newspaper ran a five-line rhyming poem about a young rustic named Mallory who drew a small salary; it was to be sung to the well-known tune of the aforementioned nonsense, for the first time connecting the Limerick name and the form. But the format itself is much older.

Edward Lear is often, and incorrectly, called the father of the limerick for his appropriately titled 1846 collection of illustrated short poems, A Book of Nonsense. These poems are easily recognized by their tendency to center on a “somebody” from “somewhere,” usually ending the first and fifth lines with the same location word. Undoubtedly, Lear was essential in popularizing the form. However, the actual invention of the limerick lies yet further back in time.

In 1943, Robert Herbert, a librarian from Limerick, reported on the namesake poem’s earliest origins. He credits the “Poets of the Maigue,” a group of Gaelic minstrels, with the form’s creation midway through the 18th century. These merrymakers were known to improvise limericks as a sporting event in the form of poetic insults. Here we have a sample zinger from one of the minstrels, translated to English by James Clarence Mangan:

I sell the best Brandy and Sherry
To make all my customers merry,
But at times their finances
Run short as it chances,
And then I feel very sad, very.

Okay, so these minstrels probably didn’t send anyone home in tears. Put these minstrels in a modern rap battle and they’ll come shamed, and not only because of their funny hats.

Searching any earlier in the poetry history books leads us deeper into ambiguity and speculation. Some attribute the first limericks to soldiers coming home from the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714), others to William Shakespeare (1564–1616) or even Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). But whenever the limerick was truly born, it retains its playful and humorous spirit.

Nowadays, we at The Saturday Evening Post like to think we’ve helped keep that spirit alive. Twentieth-century “Post Scripts” within our pages offered an array of jokes, lyrics, and poetry, including limericks, which touched on subjects ranging from classic literature to space travel to workaday problems. Check out this goofy number from 1903 by Carolyn Wells:

A scholarly person named Finck
Went mad in the effort to think
Which were graver misplaced,
To dip pen in his paste,
Or dip his paste-brush in the ink.

In 1979, the Post brought back the competitive side of poetry with “Can You Name This Picture?” which asked readers to send in either a snappy one-liner caption or their most whimsical limerick. The contest has been a staple of the magazine for almost 40 years running, albeit under a different name today; in 1992, the rules were amended to a limericks-only contest, and the Limerick Laughs have been rolling in ever since.

In closing, I leave you with a little dandy I wrote for a school assignment when I was 9:

A spider web caught a fly.
The fly began to cry.
The spider came out
But said with a shout,
“Eat you? I’d rather die.”

Think you can do better? The safe bet is, yes, you can, but you still have to prove it: In every issue, we provide a new picture to spark your creativity and dare you to write a great limerick. So dust off that rhyming dictionary, polish up your puns, check out our latest limerick contest, and send us your best. Our mailbox is waiting.

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  • Mack Vinson

    Two kids went to the candy counter.
    The purpose was a sweet encounter.
    The girl’s in red.
    The boy brought Fred.
    They took their loot and went down-ter.

  • Mack Vinson

    Jack and Jill went to the case for candy.
    Impatient Jim the clerk was handy.
    Jack brought Pookie.
    Jill brought Sukie.
    The end result was just Jim Dandy.

  • Mack Vinson

    Jack and Jill went up the hill for candy.
    Jim the impatient clerk was handy.
    Jack brought Pookie,
    Jill brought Sukie.
    The end result was Jim Dandy.

  • Mack Vinson

    Jack and Jill went up the hill,
    To fetch a little candy.
    Jack brought dog,
    Jill brought doll.
    Impatient Jim the clerk was handy.

    (Sorry, first effort.)