Racing down the windowpane
Dust and soot are passengers of rain
As commuters in suits,
those gents of ill repute
Are grime upon the morning train.
— Delilah Des Anges
Limericks are one of the earliest identifiable poetic forms the average English schoolchild learns, and by “average English schoolchild” I naturally mean me. They were made wildly popular by the accomplished and incomparable nonsense poet Edward Lear, and have a bouncy, school-room simplicity to their rhyme scheme and a rhythm which is easily-taught, even to the very young (or possibly especially to the very young, who are after all more receptive to new things).
Most people are familiar with limericks in their portable form: they are told to people on the backs of buses and recited in pubs and behind the bins at school, for like the triolet the limerick is designed to be spoken. This accounts for its brevity, its simple and memorable rhyme scheme (aabba), its rhythm, and even the way the structure mimics a joke in set-up. Unsurprisingly, the limerick is usually used to convey a joke, often by the omission of an expected dirty word that would fit the rhyme scheme (There was an old man from Nantucket).
Unlike the similarly short and satirical clerihew, the limerick does not require that content always begin with “there was an [adjective] [gendered individual] from [location] (or possessing [characteristic])”, but this is the familiar by now traditional form.
Limericks are also (alongside, now, haiku) the main poetic form in which on-the-spot composition is encouraged and expected among the even mildly literate, and in long-running silly parlour games BBC Radio 4 show I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue there has frequently been a round devoted to line-by-line group composition.
Whatever the content, the form of the limerick is best suited to upbeat themes, brief stories with twists in the tail, and bawd. Even melancholy content is rendered dissonantly chirpy by the form itself, not to mention the expectations created by the traditional cultural use of the form.
Throughout this month I will be nagging readers to donate to MSF.