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The Limerick and Its Failure to Kick the Bucket

The Limerick and Its Failure to Kick the Bucket
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Hard thinking and hard living, the philosopher and the soldier, action and non-action, sense and nonsense, East and West: the ever-critical human has always been prone to compartmentalize things into black and white. We pit things against their opposites and take sides like it’s a sport.

Sense and nonsense—there needs to be a little bridge in between the two that serves as a connector, divider, and just a simple place to watch the big river roll by. This is where the limerick came in:

There was an Old Man of Nantucket,
Who kept all his cash in a bucket,
His daughter, called Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

From Princeton Tiger, Issue 1902
Some writers wrote them for a laugh, some because they were bored or needed a reprieve. Others did it to prove their wit. And many were composed after a drink or two. Each of these authors knew that hard thinking must breed hard nonsense in tangent. The limerick embodied this, in action and thought.

There was a young man from Savannah,
Who died in a curious manner:
He whittled a hole,
In a telephone pole,
And electrified his banana.

By Anonymous

Crass. Inane. Silly. Serves no purpose. But if art takes after life, then limericks might just be one of our master theses. They can be respected for form and wit, then simultaneously reviled for coarseness and simplicity. For the trained eye, they can bear a world within just five lines.

The formal limerick is made up of five lines with an AABBA rhyme scheme, and an emphasis on bawdiness, humor, and nonsense. It takes whimsy, levity, brevity and wit, and elevates the combination into a fine art. A great limerick will show us that to know the power of sense is to know the power of nonsense, and vice versa. Great writers who dabbled in limericks include Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Shakespeare, and Rudyard Kipling just to name a few.

There’s something to be said for silliness wrapped in wit. (I don’t know what that “something” is, that’s why the saying goes “something to be said,” because we’re all still waiting for it to be; and, when it finally is said, it won’t be impressive.)

This limerick goes in reverse,
Unless I’m remiss,
The neat thing is this:
If you start from the bottom-most verse,
This limerick’s not any worse.


It’s been said that puns are the lowest form of humor, and by extension, limericks are the lowest form of poetry. The pun has seen a resurgence in the past decade, and this postmodern period of irony and over-access to information has fertilized the soil just enough for limericks to flourish once again.

May 12th is Limerick Day, dubbed in honor of the great limerick poet Edward Lear. The World Library has many other great limerick collections including Charles Knowles Bolton, Ogden Nash, and a collection of 700 limericks by Vaughn Stanton.

By Thad Higa
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