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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
... 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Gentlemen, and modelled his work almost exclusively on the verses he found in The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
In 2021 I started writing limericks about my favourite TV show, Derry Girls. You can read about them here.
Seven Limericks by Edward Lear
The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women