What Makes a Limerick

A short discussion of the limerick form of humorous poetry, with an example.

Earlier today I posted a limerick inspired by the ridiculous coverage the topless photos of Kate Middleton (wife of Prince William) are getting, comparing it to the complete lack of interest that would be engendered if I waggles my man-boobs about. But that also got me thinking about other “limericks” I’ve seen posted which I’d not say were really of the limerick form at all. So what constitutes a limerick as a specific form of poetry? I did a bit of digging and this is what I found.

A limerick is a five-line rhyme of humorous, silly or cheeky intent, with the rhyming scheme AABBA, that is the first, second and fifth lines all rhyme with each other (A) and the third and fourth lines rhyme with a different ending (B). The first, second and fifth lines are long, with three ‘feet’ each of three syllables, the third and fourth shorter with only two feet each of three syllables (though you can slip in or drop a syllable here and there without ruining the meter too much). The feet are either amphibrachic (stress on the middle syllable) or anapaestic (stress on the last syllable). For my limerick above I chose amphibrachic.

That all sounds a bit technical and it’s easier to understand if I give an example. Taking the above-mentioned limerick about man-boobs, here it is, firstly as originally posted and then rewritten as you’d as you’d actually read it aloud.

I stand at my window for ages

Removing my shirt in slow stages

I preen and I pout

With my man-boobs stuck out

But they don’t get on the front pages!

See how it is a mostly a repeating pattern of three syllables with the stress on the middle one?

I-stand-at my-win-dow for-a-ges

Re-mov-ing my-shirt-in slow-sta-ges

I-preen-and I-pout

With-my-man boobs-stuck-out

But-they-don’t get-on-the front-pa-ges! 

It’s not perfectly regular though, and that makes it more interesting. The third line drops the last syllable of the second foot and the fourth switches briefly to amphibrachic i.e. putting the stress on the last syllable of each three. 

There you go. Hopefully you’ve learned something about the limerick form and been entertained to boot!

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5 Comments
  1. Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Bruce many thanks for brightening up my day
    Best Wishes
    stevetheblogger

  2. Posted September 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

    wow good in depth look at the limerick – funny one too.

  3. Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    You get my admiration not only for your technical expertise but also for your ingenuity in making a limerick into an article long enough to be republished on Expertscolumn. Personally, I try to shove my feet into anapaestic shoes when I write limericks. Reading Edward Lear with a close eye on his technique improved my limericks.

  4. Posted September 19, 2012 at 5:18 am

    Thanks for this Bruce! Not many things irritate me so much as short poems incorrectly being labelled as limericks, when they don’t meet the criteria you’ve correctly stated. Hooray to you, and to your man-boobs too, Hang’em out and be proud!

    I’ve written a piece about limericks on Triond too, here http://authspot.com/poetry/poetic-forms-the-limerick/

  5. Posted October 7, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Haha! Well done! I love limericks, and I don’t mind a forced rhyme or feet once in a while, but it is annoying when someone posts a limerick that doesn’t even come close in form.

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