The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Limerick: A type of light verse consisting of five lines that are composed primarily of amphibrachs (˘ˊ˘) or anapests (˘˘ˊ) and that exhibit an aabba rhyme scheme in which the a lines are trimeter and the b lines dimeter. The two dimeter lines are sometimes combined into one, generating an internal rhyme. The humor in limericks, which are often untitled, anonymous, and composed extemporaneously, frequently crosses over into the bawdy and absurd. Edward Lear, an English writer and illustrator of nonsense verse, helped popularize the form with his A Book of Nonsense (1846), which contained seventy-two illustrated limericks.

EXAMPLES: The following 1903 limerick by G. K. Chesterton, in which the meter is amphibrachic and the first, second, and fifth lines have a feminine ending:

Thĕre wás ăn│ŏld scúlptŏr│nămed Phі́dı̇̆│s

Whŏse knówlĕdge│ŏf árt wăs│ı̇̆nvі́dı̇̆│oŭs.

Hĕ cárved Ăph│rŏdі́tĕ

Wı̇̆thóut ăn│y̆ nі́ght̆ie —

Whı̇̆ch stártlĕd│thĕ púrely̆│făstі́dı̇̆│oŭs.

Countless off-color limericks have been inspired by a famous one about Nantucket Island, published in the Princeton Tiger in 1924 as follows:

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.

Some limericks toy with the form itself, as in the following anonymous example:

There was a young man from Peru

Whose limericks stopped at line two.