A limerick is a humorous poem consisting of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines must have seven to ten syllables while rhyming and having the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines should only have five to seven syllables; they too must rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm.
Classic Limerick Examples
While the origin of the limerick is something of a mystery (it shares its name with the city and county of Limerick in western Ireland, and has possible roots in Gaelic folk music), the popularity of its current form is better understood.
You’ll find well-structured — and hilarious — limericks from poets who enjoy the AABBA rhyme scheme of a limerick.
The word limerick may come from an 18th-century Irish folk song called “Will You Come Up to Limerick?” in which singers add increasingly nonsensical lyrics as they sing.
The five-line poem we now know as a limerick was often sung to the same tune as the folk song, which is one way it may have picked up the name.
Edward Lear's Limericks
19th-century British poet Edward Lear, known as the father of the limerick, popularized the form in his book A Book of Nonsense. His limericks often consisted of stories about an old man:
There was an Old Man with a beard
Who said, "It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!"
Young ladies weren't safe from his humor either:
There was a Young Lady of Dorking,
Who bought a large bonnet for walking;
But its colour and size,
So bedazzled her eyes,
That she very soon went back to Dorking.
And finally, this Edward Lear limerick example describes an interesting character:
There was a Young Person of Crete,
Whose toilette was far from complete;
She dressed in a sack,
Spickle-speckled with black,
That ombliferous person of Crete.
Examples of Limericks in Literature, Poetry, and Music
Though Lear may be the most famous limerick poet, he’s not the only one. Famed poet and humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt's limerick "A Wonderful Bird is the Pelican" uses wordplay to make the limerick form even funnier.
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak,
Enough food for a week,
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.
The limerick form also suited Mark Twain's comic writing in "A Man Hired by John Smith and Co."
A man hired by John Smith and Co.
Loudly declared that he'd tho.
Men that he saw
Dumping dirt near his door
The drivers, therefore, didn't do.
The author of the classic Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, also made great use of limerick poetry, as seen in "There was a Young Lady of Station."
There was a young lady of station
"I love man" was her sole exclamation
But when men cried, "You flatter"
She replied, "Oh! no matter!
Isle of Man is the true explanation.
The wonderful thing about limericks is that anyone can write them.
The simple rhythm and form are ideal for anyone inclined to write something silly. For instance, Ron Rubin, expert versifier and jazz musician, wrote this one:
There was an old drunkard of Devon,
Who died and ascended to Heaven;
But he cried: 'This is Hades-
There are no naughty ladies,
And the pubs are all shut by eleven.
Here's a classic by the most prolific poet of all, Anonymous:
There was a young lady of Lynn,
Who was so uncommonly thin
That when she essayed
To drink lemonade
She slipped through the straw and fell in.
Finally, editor Monica Sharman wrote a limerick that resonates with writers the world over:
Relentless, insatiable deadlines!
This manuscript's still full of red lines.
First I'll sweat through the edits
and check all the credits
then chill with my favorite red wine
It's surprising just how many famed writers have turned to this nonsense poetry form, take a look.
- There was a Small Boy of Quebec by Rudyard Kipling
- My Firm Belief is that Pizarro by Aldous Huxley
- There was an Old Poop from Poughkeepsie by John Updike
- There's a Ponderous Pundit MacHugh by James Joyce
- The Marriage of Poor Kim Kardashian by Salman Rushdie
Examples of Original Limericks
Anyone can write a limerick — all you need is five lines, two rhyme endings, and a sense of humor.
Here are a few original limericks by YourDictionary writer Matt Salter:
There was a young lady of Nice,
Who insisted on bathing in grease.
She slid through the house
Tormenting her spouse
Til he hid in the oven for peace.
Here our story continues to unfold:
That very same lady, I'm told
Had a pet most uncommonly bold
Not a cat, rat or woodchuck
But a self-driving tow truck
That dragged her young man down the road
And the last will bring us full circle:
But her husband cried aloud, "Cease!"
And with a toasting fork gained his release.
He popped every tire
Then said "I perspire,"
And joined his dear wife in the grease. - Matt Salter