Seven Limericks by Edward Lear

The limericks in A Book of Nonsense, by Edward Lear, number only six. But we can make a case for there being seven.

The remaining 105 verses, however, are not limericks at all.

Limericks, and How We Define Them

Limericks by Edward Lear. Illustration of a man sitting on a post.

A real limerick will conform to the following set of rules:

  • It has five lines
  • Three lines are long
  • Two lines are short
  • The long lines rhyme with each other
  • The short lines rhyme with each other
  • The long lines have three stressed syllables
  • The short lines have two stressed syllables
  • The pattern of lines is Long, Long, Short, Short, Long
  • The fifth line contains new information and, ideally, a twist that makes us laugh (or chuckle at least). It completes the limerick and neatly ties up the story it contains.

It was in this matter of the fifth line that Lear's Book of Nonsense verses fell short. For more on this, see Limericks After Lear.

A man in a tree is confronted by a huge bee. Edward Lear.

Edward Lear's Six Proper Limericks

Here are the six true limericks you'll find in A Book of Nonsense:

There was an Old Man in a tree,
Who was horribly bored by a Bee;
When they said, “Does it buzz?”
He replied, “Yes, it does!
It’s a regular brute of a Bee.”

There was an Old Man of the Coast,
Who placidly sat on a post;
But when it was cold
He relinquished his hold,
And called for some hot buttered toast.

There was an Old Man who said, ““Hush!
I perceive a young bird in this bush!”
When they said, “Is it small?”
He replied, “Not at all;
It is four times as big as the bush”

A huge bird on a small bush facing a man. Edward Lear.

The three above are my favourites of the six. The first two make me chuckle, and the third raises a smile.

The three verses below also meet the technical criteria of a limerick, but they're not funny. Each has a last line with something new, and a unique rhyming word, but it doesn't add anything we couldn't have surmised from the preceding lines. There's no twist, no humour, and no sense of satisfaction at the end.

People turn away in surprise at a girl with unusual eyes. Edward Lear.

There was a Young Lady whose eyes
Were unique as to colour and size;
When she opened them wide,
People all turned aside,
And started away in surprise.

There was an Old Man who supposed
That the street door was partially closed;
But some very large Rats
Ate his coats and his hats,
While that futile Old Gentleman dozed.

There was an Old Lady whose folly
Induced her to sit in a holly;
Whereon, by a thorn
Her dress being torn,
She quickly became melancholy.

A woman perches uncomfortably in a holly tree. Edward Lear.

Plus One More Proper Limerick

A man on one leg reads from a book, on a cliff overlooking the sea. Edward Lear.

To the six examples above I would add another of Lear's verses from A Book of Nonsense, making seven proper limericks in all. 

There was an old Person of Cromer,
Who stood on one leg to read Homer;
When he found he grew stiff,
He jumped over the cliff,
Which concluded that Person of Cromer.

A Person of Cromer is technically not a proper (modern) limerick, because its last line repeats the final word of the first line. The first and last lines should rhyme, but each should have a unique final word. But the final line of A Person of Cromer also features a play on words that ties things up nicely (though it ends badly for the Person), and it always makes me smile.

Perhaps, on this account, we can declare A Person of Cromer to be at least an honorary limerick.

A man sleeps while rats devour his wardrobe. Edward Lear.

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