Limerick Poems and Civil Wars

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This is a St. Patrick’s Day guest post by Stephen Goranson.


The five-line nonsense verses with AABBA rhymes existed long before they were called Limericks, it’s generally agreed, but why they got that name lacks consensus.

Let’s start with an example:

There was a young rustic named Mallory
Who drew but a very small salary.
He went to the show,
But his purse was so
That he sat in the uppermost gallery.
Tune: wont you come [up] to Limerick

Though this verse may not be the cleverest Limerick ever, it is, nonetheless, notable. First, it appeared, with some variations, in several publications in 1880, thus antedating the association of the name and the genre as given in OED by several years. Second, it appeared in North American publications (in the U.S. and Canada) only, as far as I can tell, rather than in England or in Ireland.

Might the English verse form have gotten its Irish name in America? Maybe, maybe not, but consider the entry on Limerick in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Jonathan Lighter, editor). “Come to Limerick”–only in American slang–used to mean, more or less, to settle, to come to terms. Members of the American Dialect Society discussion list added to the three examples given in the Dictionary. They range in date from 1859 to about the end of the century. The first uses mostly relate to the looming and then raging U.S. Civil War; they later referred to more diverse put-up-or-shut-up situations. (More details to come in the comments, if interested.) There were many “Limericks” published then in America. I suggest the reference was to the end of the earlier Irish Civil War that was partly concluded with the Treaty of Limerick.

The OED quotes J. H. Murray–not to be confused with J. A. H. Murray, the OED editor (proof available on request)–in 1898 writing in Notes & Queries that Limericks were offered at convivial parties with the “come [up] to Limerick” chorus sung as a challenge for a new verse: in effect, offer another new one or surrender.

Admittedly, the above does not prove an American origin of the name. But here’s another hint that the name did not refer to poets literally and literarily from Limerick, having left, as the Treaty allowed, in the Jacobite “Flight of the Wild Geese” to France. In 1881 the Church of England Bishop of Limerick, who was also a poet (and relative of author Robert Graves), received an honorary degree from Oxford. This is recounted by his son, also named Charles Graves, in “The Cult of the Limerick,” Cornhill Magazine, Feb 1918, 158-66 (here 158):

“…he [the Bishop, in June, 1881] was greeted in the Sheldonian by cries of “Won’t you come up, come up, Won’t you come up to Limerick town?”–which we believe to be the correct form of the refrain. But the reason for the connection of the City of the Violated Treaty with this particular form of pasquinade remains, as Stevenson said of the young penny-whistler, ‘occult from observation.'”


(myl) Above is a guest post by Stephen Goranson, who sent it yesterday — the fact that it didn’t appear in time for St. Patrick’s day is my fault.

The Wikipedia entry on  Limericks quotes the following passage from the 9/17/1717 entry in the diary of the Rev. John Thomlinsonpublished in 1910 by the Surtees Society, as evidence for the early-18th-century origins of the verse form:

1717. Sept. 17th. One Dr. Bainbridge went from Cambridge to Oxon to be astronomy professor, and reading a lecture happened to say de Polis et Axis, instead of Axibus. Upon which one said,

Dr. Bainbridge was sent from Cambridge, — to read lectures de Polis et Axis; but lett them that brought him hither, return him thither, and teach him his rules of syntaxis.

The editors’ footnote

indicates that the astronomer in question became Savilian Professor of Astronomy in 1619. So unless memories for inflectional infelicities at Oxford are very long indeed, the satirical verse about Dr. Bainbridge must have been composed early in the 17th century. The fact that Thomlinson could note this in his diary in 1717 — and that Wikipedia could reference it in 2017 — tells us that memories for satirical verses about inflectional infelicities are indeed very long. Soloecismus brevis, ars longa.

Ironically,  if the cited verse is indeed meant to be in the anapestic form that came later to be known as a Limerick, then whoever wrote it needs some remediation in his rules of prosody and rhyme.

Also, a quick peek at Google Books reveals that one of the variants of the “young rustic named Mallory” verse was published in Grip, 12/11/1880, attributed to The New York News.



26 Comments

  1. Robert Coren said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 9:42 am

    In my personal opinion, the limerick cited at the head of this article would scan slightly better (and make a little more sense, if anyone cares) if the fourth line were “But his purse was so low”.

    Edward Lear is said, in both the “limerick” Wikipedia entry mentioned by Mark and in his own entry, to have “popularized” the limerick, of which he wrote a great many. Neither article says whether he himself called them “limericks”. If he did, it’s worth noting that he was English, and died in 1888.

  2. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 10:20 am

    “The limerick …was first brought to the attention of a wide public by Edward Lear, but he never gave the form a name. ‘Nonsense’ in titles of his books denotes verses in other forms as well as limericks.” George N. Belknap, “History of the Limerick,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 75 (1981) page 2.

  3. cameron said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 10:49 am

    Lear did greatly popularize the form, but he himself had been introduced to it in a couple of books published in the 1820s, The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women and Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen, and those books also didn’t use the word “limerick”.

    The citation in the post above mentions a tune “Won’t You Come Up to Limerick”. One J.R. Fitzgerald wrote to Notes and Queries in 1902 with the helpful suggestion that the name comes from a song with the chorus “Won’t you come Up, Come up/Won’t you come up to Limerick” and adds the not entirely helpful note “I presume the tune is that of some brisk air, which is probably well known, but on this point I can say nothing. The tune as applied to ‘Limericks’ was certainly in vogue twenty-five years ago, and may be so at the present time for all I know.”

    Some have claimed that the form was connected with a poetic school called Fili na Maighe that existed in Croom, County Limerick, in the 18th century. There was such a school of poets, but I have no idea whether they ever used the five-line verses we call Limericks.

  4. Mark said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 11:39 am

    The Wikipedia entry is certainly mistaken in treating the poem recorded by Thomlinson as an early version of a limerick. The meter is dactylic rather than anapestic, and the structure consists of a short couplet followed by a longer line, then another couplet followed by a longer line, with the rhyme scheme AAB CCB. None of this bears any resemblance to a limerick. Instead, it’s an early version of the verse form used for “Little Miss Muffet.”

  5. Paul Mulshine said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

    I hereby offer what I assert is the best combination of a limerick and haiku ever written:

    There once was a man
    Not from Ireland but Japan
    So this poem ends here.

  6. Faldone said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

    If memory serves richardelguru has come up with a hybrid called some portmanteau of limerick and haiku.

  7. David Morris said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

    The Penguin Book of Limericks (1983, ed EO Parrott) calls them ‘limerikaiku’.

  8. John Roth said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

    I agree with Robert Coren: the word “low” is missing at the end of the fourth line.

  9. djbcjk said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 10:47 pm

    OK, poulter’s measure, an ancestral form of English poetry, is an alexandrine followed by a fourteener — in syllables 12 + 14, or in stresses 6
    + 7. To make this a quatrain, you get lines of stresses 3 + 3 + 4 + 3. Now poulter’s measure is usually iambic, so if you make it dactyiic (add an extra unstressed syllable, or as in music change from duple to triple time) and divide the third line into a rhymed pair you get 3 + 3 + 2+ 2 + 3. A limerick! This is the origin of the limerick form from poulter’s measure, a popular verse scansion becoming a popular art form.

    For examples of limericks in music there is an exact one in the slow movement (siciliana) of Handel’s Oboe concerto No 1, HWV301, and (in duple time) the trio of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march No 5 (I think).

  10. djbcjk said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 10:48 pm

    OK, poulter’s measure, an ancestral form of English poetry, is an alexandrine followed by a fourteener — in syllables 12 + 14, or in stresses 6 + 7. To make this a quatrain, you get lines of stresses 3 + 3 + 4 + 3. Now poulter’s measure is usually iambic, so if you make it dactyiic (add an extra unstressed syllable, or as in music change from duple to triple time) and divide the third line into a rhymed pair you get 3 + 3 + 2+ 2 + 3. A limerick! This is the origin of the limerick form from poulter’s measure, a popular verse scansion becoming a popular art form.

    For examples of limericks in music there is an exact one in the slow movement (siciliana) of Handel’s Oboe concerto No 1, HWV301, and (in duple time) the trio of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march No 5 (I think).

  11. Barry Cusack said,

    March 19, 2017 @ 5:52 am

    @cameron
    The Fili na Maighe (Maigue poets) did indeed use 5-line verses in some of the Irish Gaelic poems which they wrote. James Clarence Mangan translated some of them into English in around 1740, using the classic metre and rhyme scheme of the limerick. So it would seem that the form of the limerick was established at that time, if not before.
    (Information from: The Limerick Makers, Harrowven, London,1976. This is a folklorique rather than scholarly work, but may be reliable on this point.)

  12. Barry Cusack said,

    March 19, 2017 @ 6:41 am

    James Clarence Mangan translated some of them into English in around 1840 (not 1740).

  13. Ellen Kozisek said,

    March 19, 2017 @ 7:27 am

    “His purse made him go
    To a seat in the uppermost gallery”

    I did a Google search, using the first line of the poem, and all the several pages I checked give the last two lines of the poem this way.

  14. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 19, 2017 @ 7:39 am

    Yes, it’s significant that these English translations were first published in 1849 (The Poets and Poetry of Munster) rather than 1740 or 1840. To quote George Belknap, “History of the Limerick,” cited above page 11:
    “The ‘translations’ were early nineteenth-century creations of James Clarence Mangan, an Irish poet who knew no Irish, based on literal manuscript English prose versions of the Irish verses by his contemporary John O’Daily.”

    For a more thorough technical description of the differences: Colm Ó Baoill, “The Limerick and Gaelic Song,” Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. 58 (1992-1994) pages 171-196. There, eight characteristics of limericks are given: no. 1, “It is in English.” Then (p. 172): “If we want to relate the limerick to Gaelic song, points 1 and 3 will obviously not apply; and it soon will become clear that point 2 does not apply either. The essay goes on to discuss remaining similarities and
    “divergences.”

    (Also, perhaps more speculatively: D. J. O’Sullivan, Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society (1926) 31-35. This article is one of those that misidentifies J. H. Murray, cited in the OED Limerick article, with Sir James Augustus Henry Murray, the OED editor. )

  15. Jonathan Lihgter said,

    March 19, 2017 @ 8:20 am

    Stephen’s 1880 discovery is undoubtedly the most significant yet in the history of the application of the name of “Limerick” to the verse form.

    “Will You Come Down to Limerick?” is the name of an Irish slip (or “hop”) jig (i.e., a jig in 9/8 time). The tune also known as “The Munster Gimlet ,” and appeared in print under this title as early as 1858. This site indicates that ribald, though non-limerick words were sometimes attached to it:

    http://tunearch.org/wiki/Annotation:Munster_Gimlet_

    With a little folklike adjustment, the “Will you come down to Limerick?” chorus of sung limericks easily fits the first strain of the jig tune.

    The tune (and the title) “Will You Come Down to Limerick?” was evidently well known to traditional musicians, as it appears in two related versions in Francis O’Neill’s _O’Neill’s Music of Ireland_ (1903).

    [(myl) Nice. The fit to 9/8 time is not perfect but it works, presumably something like

    
          I  used to think math was no  fun
      x   x  x     x   x    x    x   x   x 
             x              x            x
             x
        
    cause I couldn't  see  how   it was done
      x   x  x   x     x    x    x   x   x
             x              x            x
             x
    
        now  Euler's  my   hero
      x  x   x  x      x    x x      x  x
             x              x           x
             x
    
     for I  now  see  why  zero
      x  x   x    x    x    x x      x  x
             x              x           x
             x
    
        is   e   to  the   pi    i plus one
      x x    x    x    x    x    x   x  x
             x              x           x
             x
    
    

    ]

  16. ajay said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:20 am

    Dr. Bainbridge was sent from Cambridge, — to read lectures de Polis et Axis; but lett them that brought him hither, return him thither, and teach him his rules of syntaxis.

    But this isn’t in limerick form. It’s six lines, rather than five, with a different rhyme scheme, and almost certainly is in the same form as all sorts of nursery rhymes, most obviously “Dr Foster”.
    It should be split like this:

    Dr. Bainbridge
    Was sent from Cambridge, —
    To read lectures de Polis et Axis;
    But lett them that brought him hither,
    Return him thither,
    And teach him his rules of syntaxis.

    Compare:

    Doctor Foster
    Went to Gloucester,
    In a shower of rain;
    He stepped in a puddle,
    Right up to his middle,
    And never went there again.

    And see also Little Jack Horner, Jack and Jill, etc.

    [(myl) Exactly. ]

  17. richardelguru said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:42 am

    @ Paul Mulshine & Faldone

    To my undying shame this is true.
    I invented the Hairimeraku
    It combined the worse
    Of each sort of verse,
    And left me feeling quite blue.

    See my Hairimeraku, Hairimeraku Two and Hairimeraku Trek III: The Wrath of Camus if you are of a mind to feel blue too.

  18. richardelguru said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:46 am

    OOPS I royally screwed up those urls
    http://howlandbolton.com/essays/read_more.php?sid=73
    http://howlandbolton.com/essays/read_more.php?sid=373
    http://howlandbolton.com/essays/read_more.php?sid=469

  19. Robert Coren said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 9:24 am

    By the way, the Wikipedia article quotes the limerick about the young man from Japan whose limericks didn’t scan, but not the followup that I encountered somewhere, many decades ago:

    Another young poet, from China,
    Had a feeling for rhythm much fina.
    His limericks tend
    To come to an end
    Quite suddenly.

  20. ajay said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 10:25 am

    And of course

    There was a young man from Peru
    Whose limericks stopped at line two.

    Not to mention

    There was a young man from Verdun.

  21. richardelguru said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 11:29 am

    ajay
    Who knew you could have negative space in poetry!

  22. Peter said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

    I’m starting a lim’rick today
    That I will not finish ‘til May.
    I’ll do little more
    Than finish line four.
    And leave myself a note to get back to the rest of it later.

  23. Roscoe said,

    March 20, 2017 @ 6:27 pm

    Let’s not even bother with the limerick about Emperor Nero.

  24. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 6:57 am

    I forgot to mention that it was Anatoly Liberman who first suggested to me that J. H. Murray and J. A. H. Murray were different individuals. His blog:
    https://blog.oup.com/category/series-columns/oxford_etymologist/

  25. ajay said,

    March 21, 2017 @ 11:59 am

    Let’s not even bother with the limerick about Emperor Nero.

    Very good.

    I, sitting alone,
    On a beach, composing verse
    Hear seagull-haiku,
    Sonnet-waves, and, further off,
    I can see an oil tanka.

  26. Terry Collmann said,

    March 24, 2017 @ 10:41 am

    Surely a combination of a limerick and a haiku is a hai-rick?

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