Limericks: An Introduction


Engraving of well-to-do Elizabethan people with a big dog looking up at them.


Limericks are to our culture as dogs are to humanity; so much a part of us that it's hard to imagine life without them ... but no one knows how or when the relationship began.

No other form of verse has ever been so embraced by so wide a cross-section of society as the limerick.


Title Page and frontispiece of Mother Goose's Melody: or, Sonnets for the Cradle, published circa 1780.

Hickory Dickory Dock

Hickory Dickory Dock is said by some to be the oldest limerick in the English language:

Hickory dickory dock!
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one -
The mouse ran down.
Hickory dickory dock!



It first appeared in 1780 (or 1781), in a book called Mother Goose's Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle:


Dickery, dickery dock,
The mouse ran up the clock;
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Dickery, dickery dock.

Dickery Dickery Dock Nursery Rhyme in Mother Goose's Melody: or, Sonnets for the Cradle, published circa 1780.


Hickory or Dickery, it contains almost every element of the modern limerick:

Five lines, the familiar rhythmic pattern of long, long, short, short, long, and a rhyming pattern of aabba (the one and down at the end of the short lines would have rhymed, I think, for readers of the time).

All that's missing is a twist in the fifth line, and a different rhyming word.


The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women


Title Page from The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, 1820.

In 1820 a pamphlet (or chap book) was published in England by John Harris and Son, under the title The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women.

It was the first publication in English (that we know of) devoted exclusively to what would become the limerick verse form.

All sixteen verses featured, like Hickory Dickory Dock, a last line that echoed the first; but now that line sums up the story - explaining it, almost, with an adjective.

You can read all sixteen verses here.


Here are two examples from The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women.

Limerick and Engraving - An Old Woman at Exeter, 1820, from The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women.

There dwelt an Old Woman at Exeter,
When visitors came it sore vexed her,
So for fear they should eat,
She lock'd up all the meat;
This stingy Old Woman of Exeter.

Limerick and Engraving - An Old Woman of Croydon, 1820, from The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women.

There was an Old Woman of Croydon,
To look young she affected the Hoyden,
And would jump and would skip,
Till she put out her hip;
Alas poor Old Woman of Croydon.


That adjective in the fifth line is perhaps a remnant from the time when stories needed to end with a moral.

So ...

... we may pity the Old Woman of Croydon for trying to hold onto her youth, but we should condemn the Old Woman of Exeter for being stingy.



Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen


Title Page from Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen (1822), republished circa 1863.

A year or two after Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, a second pamphlet of limericks appeared on the streets of London.

Called Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen, it appeared two years after Fifteen Wonderful Old Women, and was published by a rival printer (John Marshall). The verses may have been written by a grocer of Bishopsgate named Richard Scrafton Sharpe.

Seven of the Gentlemen verses followed the same template as Hickory Dickory Dock and Sixteen Wonderful Old Women. But the remaining eight verses brought something quite different: a twist in the fifth line, and a new rhyming word.



An Old Soldier of Bicester, verse and engraving, from circa 1863 edition of Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen.


There was an old soldier of Bicester,
Was walking one day with his sister,
A bull, with one poke,
Toss'd her into an oak,
Before the old gentleman miss'd her.

This is a modern limerick.

But the world wasn't ready for it yet.



Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies


Title Page from Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies, circa 1822.


A third chap book of limericks followed soon after, again published by John Marshall, perhaps written by Richard Scrafton Sharpe, and called Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies.

Fifteen Young Ladies, like Fifteen Gentlemen, featured experiments with the fifth line, and several verses added new information there.


 Only two, however, gained a brand new rhyming word at the end.

A Young Lady named Ryder, from Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies, circa 1822.

There was a young lady named Ryder,
She shrunk at the sight of a spider;
She once gave a scream,
And leaped into the stream,
When she saw one crawling beside her.

A Young Lady of Bow, from Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies, circa 1822.

There was a young lady of Bow,
When a gentleman trod on her toe,
She took out her fan,
And beat the poor man,
Who cried, O! spare an unfortunate beau.



The Limerick and Edward Lear

With A Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, and expanded in 1863, Edward Lear would jump-start the limerick into mass popularity.

But he bypassed developments in Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemenand modelled his work almost exclusively on the verses he found in The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women.


Title Page from expanded 1863 Edition of A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear.


His enlarged edition contained 112 nonsense verses, as he called them, each illustrated in his own hand.

Most of Lear's verses precisely followed the format established in Sixteen Wonderful Old Women (a handful of exceptions shows him toying with changes to the fifth line, just as the author of Fifteen Gentlemen had done decades earlier).



An Old Lady of Prague by Edward Lear. A girl bearing caps approaches a woman in a chair.







There was an Old Lady of Prague,
Whose language was horribly vague;
When they said, "Are these caps?"
She answered, "Perhaps!"
That oracular Lady of Prague.


An Old Lady of Chertsey by Edward Lear. Agitated people gathered round a woman half in the ground.


There was an Old Lady of Chertsey,
Who made a remarkable curtsey;
She twirled round and round,
Till she sank underground,
Which distressed all the people of Chertsey.


Neither Lear nor the author of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women was concerned to tell a joke, so they didn't need a punch line.

But Lear brought absurdity to this five-line verse form. Nonsense. And since it was nonsense, he didn't need a moral either; so he kept the adjective but removed the judgement - mostly.


An Old Man with a Nose by Edward Lear. A man's nose winds and snakes towards leaping children.


For Lear, the illustration held equal importance with the verse. His words would introduce a scenario, and his image would demonstrate it.

Of course, it also worked the other way round: his image would present an absurdity, and the reader would turn to the verse for an explanation.


An Old Man in a Casement by Edward Lear. Two men leap in agitation as a man glares at them through a window.


That Lear's nonsense and absurdity struck a chord in Victorian England is proved by the runaway success of A Book of Nonsense after 1863.

Writers, poets, academics, public servants, journalists, shopkeepers, readers, all of them began creating limericks because of Edward Lear.

But limericks have moved on since A Book of Nonsense, embracing the changes hinted at in Fifteen Gentlemen and taking on a life of their own. Rarely illustrated, the limerick must stand on its own, and it's the punch line - the fifth line - that rules.


A small group of schoolgirls from Grays
Got lost in the Hampton Court Maze,
Where each reprobate child
Regressed to the wild,
Surviving on Squirrel for days!


The Fifth Line: Limericks After Lear


Cover of The Fifth Line: Limericks After Lear, by John Arthur Nichol. A dog looks up happily from the base of the cover, with a brick wall behind.


In 2020 I set myself the task of rebuilding all of Lear's limericks and proto-limericks, using each of his verses as a starting point, and producing from that a limerick with a rewarding fifth line.

But a good limerick is hard to create, and you'll need to judge for yourself how successful I've been.




More Limericks Pages

Limericks for Kids

Limericks After Lear

Seven Limericks by Edward Lear

The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women


  1. Kidsbooke
  2.  ›
  3. Limericks