Mr Keating in Dead Poets’ Society tells his students:
"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
In keeping with that sentiment, today’s Poetry Spot focuses on one aspect of limericks: Why that poetic form is so called.
Caution: there is a risque element, but is that not part of beauty, romance, love?
WS Baring-Gould offers an explanation as to the origin of the poetic limerick name in his wonderful book “The Lure of the Limerick”.
Baring-Gould relies upon Herbert Langford Reed as authority for one explanation:
- The limerick form was originally sung, not recited.
- In a group, each member would take it in turn to sing a limerick verse, which was then followed by a sung challenge from the group (or an audience):
That was a very nice song,
Sing us another one –
Just like the other one –
Sing us another one, do!
- The connection with the town of Limerick is related to the Irish Brigade, an infantry brigade, consisting predominantly of Irish Americans, that served in the Union Army in the American Civil War. When veterans of the Irish Brigade returned to Limerick, they sang their verses at gatherings with a chorus after each verse of:
Won’t you come up, come up,
Won’t you come up, I say,
Won’t you come up, come all the way up,
Come all the way up to Limerick?
- As a flow on, according to Reed, the format became known as a limerick.
- Baring-Gould observes that Reed was so convinced that Limerick was the home of the limerick that he saluted the town by way of a limerick (of course):
All hail to the town of Limerick
Which provides a cognomen, generic,
For a species pf verse
Which, for better or worse,
Is supported by laymen and cleric.
“Cognomen” means an extra personal name given to an ancient Roman citizen, functioning rather like a nickname and typically passed down from father to son.
Not the pinnacle of limerick humour.
- Baring-Gould comments that it has been said that the only English word for which there is no rhyme is the word “oblige”. He comments:
I think we can do better, don’t you dear readers, even if we aren't lads at our primers.“All hail to Reed, nonetheless, for making no effort to avoid finding a rhyme for ‘limerick’.Hail, too, to the anonymous author of:There was a young farmer of LimerickWho started one day to trim a rick.The Fates gave a frown,The rick tumbled down,And killed him – I don’t know a grimmer trick.”And to Elmo Calkins, who wrote:Pray search this wide land with a glimmer stick,For there must be some lad at his primer quick,Who when pressed can supplyA lot better than IAn acceptable rhyme scheme for “limerick”
Following is my contribution, send me yours . . .
There once was a lady from Limerick
Who said “Sex for me needs a trimmer wick,
I much prefer that
To a bologna style fat –
For me it’s best with a slimmer dick.”
As Mr Keating said, "Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."