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Friday, October 23, 2009


Odd limericks

In reading John Julius Norwich's 1990-1999 Still More Christmas Crackers (a series of highly entertaining commonplace books), I came across some interesting verses. They were written by the Reverend Patrick Bronte, father of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell, and quite rightly described by Norwich as 'what must be the most irritating verse form ever devised.'

Basically, the form is serious limericks - but limericks in which the last line deliberately doesn't rhyme. Here are two examples:

To novels and plays not inclined,
Nor aught that can sully her mind;
Temptations may shower,
Unmoved as a tower
She quenches the fiery arrows.

Religion makes beauty enchanting;
And even where beauty is wanting
The temper and mind
Will shine through the veil with sweet lustre.

Really, it's poetic equivalent of having your teeth drilled. I think what makes it particularly annoying, apart from the moralising - if you're going to moralise, you need to make deeper observations than that - is that the final line may not rhyme, but it does scan. You can break with the form completely and
have a quite pleasing effect, for instance (borrowed from this site):

The limerick, peculiar to English,
Is a verse that's hard to extinguish.
Once Congress in session
Decreed its suppression
But people got around it by writing the last line without any rhyme or meter.

That isn't annoying, because once the line runs on past the last syllable the ear relaxes, knowing that the form is being properly broken with. It's as if we were running a race and came in second: we don't get the satisfaction of the tape breaking across our chests, but we run a few paces and cool off. But when the unrhymed last line scans, it's as if we were running a race and the judges sneakily replaced the tape with a brick wall. Thud.

I remember an interesting lecturer at college talking about how the limerick is so inherently comic in its sound that it's difficult to contrive one that isn't funny (or at least, doesn't feel like it's trying to be.) His best example was on Sir Walter Raleigh:

Sir Walter was handy with cloaks,
And tobacco, and packets of smokes.
Such a mighty romancer
Of insomniac cancer -
I thank him, and hope that he chokes.

But I wouldn't say that was successfully serious either. A limerick might well lend itself to anger, but it comes out feeling like an epigram, and epigrams are another form with comic overtones.

I can't think of other non-comic limericks either. There are some that aren't funny if you take them seriously, so to speak, such as Edward Gorey's:

To his clubfooted child said Lord Stipple,
As he poured his postprandial tipple,
'Your mother's behaviour
Gave pain to Our Saviour
And that's why he made you a cripple.'

- which is very upsetting if you think about it, but animated by Gorey's dark humour; it tends to produce an appalled laugh. Edward Lear could do something similar, made less funny by his outmoded tendency to repeat his first line:

There was an Old Man on some rocks,
Who shut his Wife up in a box:
When she said, 'Let me out,'
He exclaimed, 'Without doubt
You will pass all your life in that box.'

Which is pretty creepy, really, and has that uncomfortable diminuendo that Lear's repeated last lines tend to have, but it still feels comic in its form. A lot of Lear's comic poetry is minor-key and curiously sad, and this is no exception, but you wouldn't call it a serious poem.

So the Reverend Patrick Bronte seems to carry the laurel for unfunny limericks, and he does it by - with the best of intentions, I'm sure - using the last line to thump you hard enough that you aren't amused. Unless anyone can think of another contender, I think it's Bronte in the lead.

Here's my take on the subject:

Rev. Bronte, a worthy old cleric,
Whose children wrote books atmospheric,
Tried verse for a time,
But his endings lacked rhyme -
An effect that is oddly frustrating.

Anyone else got one?

The Bront√ęs' didactical father
Found ending rhymes too much a bother
He'd start up a verse
But ended up worse
Than if he'd just prosed a bit more.

(Kirala from Slacktivist)
This is one we said to each other in school. It isn't properly a limerick, but it does have a final line that fails to rhyme or scan, plus makes a dirty joke:

Mary had a little lamb
She also had a duck
She put them on the window sill
To see if they would fall down
A few months ago the New Yorker had an article on a neighborhood where there had been several panther sightings, whose residents published a "panthology" of panther-related limericks. The two examples reprinted in the article set my teeth on edge. It was a scansion problem. The last lines were "Has made the atmosphere worse" and "When the market is at nerve-racking lows."

The problem is not just that the last lines don't scan--though the don't. (Also: "wracking," not "racking.") The thing that drove me nuts is that they could have been fixed with minimal editing. Don't these people understand limericks?
Following on from Wesley's comment. Most people writing a limerick get scanty with the scansion and to the proficient this is like scratching a nail on a piece of tin.

To help those with a poor ear for rhythm I devised a little tool to check the correctness of the rhythmical pattern. It can be downloaded from my site at no cost. Limerick

A dour Yorkshire parson named Bronte,
For poetry wasn't a Dante--
But do those names rhyme?
I muse for a time,
Then go off to read a real poem.

Most people writing a limerick get scanty with the scansion

Or over-generous, as in the classic example:
There was a young poet name Mann,
Whose limericks never would scan.
When the said, "But the thing
Doesn't go with a swing,"
He said, "Yes, but I always try to get as many words into the last line as ever I possibly can."

And another old chestnut for Mika:
The was a young curate at Kew
Who kept a large cat in a pew,
Where he taught her each week
A new letter of Greek,
But she never got farther than Mu.

Higgledy Piggledy
The Rev Patrick Bronte
Constructed his lim'ricks
Unlike Edward Lear's.

Perfect in meter,
Yet no rhyming punchline:
Grates on the nerves.

I am reminded of a musical friend of mine who used to attend Church with me. The liturgy most frequently sung in our congregation always concluded on a minor key, which would leave me tetchy and on edge until Mitchell would softly resolve the chord for me.
Oh, and I shall have to hunt down the Norwich book. I fell in love with his graceful writing in his three volume history of Byzantium, and his book on Venice is just lovely too.
Limericks are notoriously difficult to write in English. I was told that the limerick style was originally a Gaelic form, and the language of Gaelic follows a natural dactyl rhythm, while English has a natural iambic rhythm. Therefore, to write a limerick in English, we have to break our own natural linguistic rhythm in order to force the stresses in the right places when composing a limerick. Writing a limerick in Gaelic, on the other hand, is fairly simple.

I have no idea if this is true since I'm not proficient in Gaelic and I don't personally know any Gaelic speakers. However I do know people who speak with a pronounced Irish lilt, and their natural speaking rhythm is definitely more dactyl than iambic, so it seems plausible.
ETA: Either it's dactyl or anapestic meter. I get those confused.
An idea that irks even more,
or maybe it works, I'm not sure,
Is to make the last line
Of the limerick rhyme
With the previous lines.
(Three and four)
This reminds me of 12th grade english -- we were challenged to write unfunny limericks and none of us ever could. No matter how depressing the subject picked, put it in limerick form and it became somehow comic. Interesting to see that the easiest way to manage is to play with that last rhyme.

I think that the difference of the rhythm from normal English is part of why they so easily scan as humor -- something about the unusual lilt almost begs one not to take it seriously.
As it's clearly the latter part of the verse which causes problems, I like this neat solution. Stop me if you've heard it.

There once was a man from Peru
Whose limerick stopped at line two

It's well-known, but after that I feel obligated to post the usual followup:

There once was a man from Verdun
Here's one I remember from long ago:

There was an old man of St. Bees
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp.
When asked, "Does it hurt?"
He replied, "No, it doesn't.
I'm so glad it wasn't a hornet."
There was a young curate of Salisbury
Whose manners were all halisbury-scalisbury.
He walked about Hampshire
Without any pampshire,
Till his bishop compelled him to walisbury.
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