There once was a man from Nantucket …
What is a limerick?
They’re short, just five lines long. They’ve got a simple rhyme scheme and a catchy rhythm. And they’re funny. Limericks might just be the perfect comic poetry.
Given the name, most people assume limericks hail from County Limerick in Ireland. But in truth, their origin is a bit murky.
Though the earliest written poems that resemble limericks can be found as verses of early European drinking songs, in 18th-century “insult poems” performed by Gaelic minstrels during sporting events in Ireland, and even in a few of Shakespeare’s plays, they didn’t come into their own as a standardized form until 1846. That was the year English artist and writer Edward Lear published his Book of Nonsense, a volume filled with poems written in limerick form. Though Lear made the style famous, he didn’t invent it and he didn’t give it the name “limerick” — that happened more than 50 years later in 1898.
Limerick-writing took off during the Victorian era and continued to grow in popularity year after year, with a number of famous poets and humorists contributing verses to the limerick canon, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Ogden Nash, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain and Isaac Asimov.
The anatomy of a limerick
For such short poems, it takes a LOT of words to explain how limericks are structured. And these words tend to leave the would-be limerick writer more befuddled than before. In the interest of keeping things as clear as possible, let’s start with a bare-bones outline of basic limerick form and structure, then take a (very) brief look at the more complex features of this seemingly simple style of poetry.
Basic Limerick Structure
LENGTH: 5 lines
That’s it. Just a single, solitary stanza.
RHYME PATTERN: AABBA
Lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyme with each other. Similarly, Lines 3 and 4 rhyme with one another.
LINE LENGTH: The “A” lines are longer than the “B” lines.
The “A” lines all have the same length. Same for both “B” lines.
SYLLABLES PER LINE:
Short limericks: 88558
Long limericks: 99669
SYLLABLE STRESS PATTERN:
Lines 1, 2 and 5: unstressed-STRESSED-unstressed / unstressed-STRESSED-unstressed / unstressed-STRESSED
Lines 3 and 4: unstressed-STRESSED-unstressed / unstressed-STRESSED
Lines 1, 2 and 5: unstressed-unstressed-STRESSED / unstressed-unstressed-STRESSED / unstressed-unstressed-STRESSED /
Lines 3 and 4: unstressed-unstressed-STRESSED / unstressed-unstressed-STRESSED /
At the end of Line 5, repeat the last word of Line 1. A fun feature to include, but not a requirement.
That’s it! Easy, right?
And now, let’s dive into the dark details of limerick meter and rhythm. If you want to start writing your own limericks right now, skip ahead to the How to Write a Limerick section.
More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Limerick Structure
This is for you poetry nerds, English 101 students with a report to write, and die-hard completionists. At first glance, this information is probably going to confuse rather than clarify. But don’t despair! It’ll all make sense through the twin miracles of studious concentration and spreadsheets.
Last chance to bail! How to Write a Limerick section >
Still here? Okay, here’s the deal: The two types of limerick aren’t actually called “short” and “long” limericks. We’ll get into what they’re really called in a moment.
“Long” limericks are simpler than “short” limericks, so we’ll explain their structure first. These little poems have a grand total of 39 syllables and are written in anapestic trimeter. As we learned in “How to Write Like Dr. Seuss,” an anapest is a group of syllables, known as a “foot,” that has the following pattern:
Here’s a mnemonic to help you remember the three-syllable anapest pattern:
The word “trimeter” tells us how many anapests there are per line. Since “tri” means “three” (as in “tricycle), that means there are three anapests per line, for a total of nine syllables in each line.
EXCEPT! This isn’t the case in Lines 3 and 4. These are written in anapestic dimeter. As you can guess, “di” means “two,” so we know there will be just two anapests in both of these lines, for a total of six syllables per line.
If not, this basic limerick formula should help you keep all the elements straight:
Here’s an example (a clean version of the classic “man from Nantucket” poem):
There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.
And here it is again, stripped down to its structure:
Line 1: anapestic trimeter, A rhyme, 9 syllables
Line 2: anapestic trimeter, A rhyme, 9 syllables
Line 3: anapestic dimeter, B rhyme, 6 syllables
Line 4: anapestic dimeter, B rhyme, 6 syllables
Line 5: anapestic trimeter, A rhyme, 9 syllables
And that’s what we call an anapestic limerick.
Now, on to “short” limerick structure. This type of limerick is 34 syllables long and is described by some not as anapestic but amphibrachic.
An amphibrach is a type of foot that consists of a central stressed syllable that has an unstressed syllable before it and another unstressed syllable after it. It looks like this:
Amphibrachic poetry is pretty rare, usually only occurring as nursery rhymes and experimental poems.
Short limericks have the following syllables and stress pattern:
Lines 1, 2 and 5:
unstressed-STRESSED-unstressed / unstressed-STRESSED-unstressed / unstressed-STRESSED, 8 syllables
Lines 3 and 4:
unstressed-STRESSED-unstressed / unstressed-STRESSED, 5 syllables
The final foot of each line is an incomplete amphibrach — or more properly, an iamb. Iambs are a type of foot with an unstressed-STRESSED pattern.
Let’s take a look at a classic Limerick, “A Young Lady of Lynn,” to see this structure in action:
There was a young lady of Lynn,
Who was so uncommonly thin
That when she essayed
To drink lemonade
She slipped through the straw and fell in.
Stripped down to its structure, we have:
Line 1: amphibrach / amphibrach / iamb, A rhyme, 8 syllables
Line 2: amphibrach / amphibrach / iamb, A rhyme, 8 syllables
Line 3: amphibrach / iamb, B rhyme, 5 syllables
Line 4: amphibrach / iamb, B rhyme, 5 syllables
Line 5: amphibrach / amphibrach / iamb, A rhyme, 8 syllables
It’s easier to visualize when it’s placed in a spreadsheet:
HOWEVER! Remember when I said short limericks are amphibrachic rather than anapestic? Well, it turns out they aren’t really amphibrachic at all, according to some experts.
Unlike the anapests we examined earlier, an amphibrach isn’t considered to be a go-to poetic foot like the iambs of iambic pentameter or the trochees found in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Instead, amphibrachs are more like ornaments for a line of poetry. You might wear a necklace or a couple bracelets, but you wouldn’t construct an entire outfit out of them; like jewelry, amphibrachs are mainly used for decoration.
In reality, the short limerick is still anapestic in structure, but with a catalexis, which is a missing unstressed syllable, at the beginning of each line.
To illustrate what we’re trying to get at, let’s see how “A Young Lady from Lynn” would appear as a long limerick, with complete anapests:
Well, there was a young lady of Lynn,
And she was so uncommonly thin
So that when she essayed
For to drink lemonade
Well, she slipped through the straw and fell in.
This is how it would look laid out in a spreadsheet:
When we chop off the first unstressed syllable from each line (creating five catalectic lines), this is what we have:
And that’s how you create an anapestic limerick with catalexis.
Let’s never speak of this again.
How to write a limerick
1. Structure it like a joke
As poet and literary critic John Hollander observed in Rhyme’s Reason, “Of brief, comical forms of verse which have become, in themselves, more like the formats for jokes, the most celebrated is the limerick.”
You’ve got five lines to work with: one to introduce the main character, three to describe their humorous quirks, and a final line for a clever twist or punchline. As poetic jokes, limericks are pointed and pithy.
The style of humor in limericks can be daring, silly or straight-up nonsensical. You can use your limerick to poke fun at people, social mores, political conventions, or just to indulge in puns and droll wordplay. The content can range from gently mocking to insulting to outright rude. It can also be dirty.
Very, very dirty.
Let’s write a clean (sorry) limerick based on this photo of a most imperious cat, taken from my Twitter account.
2. The opener
In Line 1, you’ll introduce the subject of the limerick and where they hail from. Whether it’s a “young lady of Lynn,” “man from Nantucket,” Isaac Asimov’s “sweet girl of Decatur,” or Edward Lear’s “young person of Smyrna,” they should be an individual from a specific place who has some very … singular attributes.
The person usually comes first, then the location. Since the place will typically establish the “A” rhyme, choose your setting wisely.
Regarding the regal feline, let’s try:
Line 1: In my home sat a cat in plain view
3. The setup
Humor and wordplay are essential elements of limericks. Being witty is more important than being grammatically correct; in fact, breaking the rules of grammar can make the poem even funnier.
Internal rhyme and alliteration can be included in Lines 2 through 4 as you describe your subject’s odd behavior or physical qualities.
For our cat limerick, we’ll just tell the truth and nothing but the truth:
Line 2: Who did nothing a pet ought to do.
Line 3: She caught nary a mouse
Line 4: And just lounged ‘round the house.
4. About that punchline …
The best punchlines are the ones you can’t see coming. Margaret Everton described the all-important final line of a limerick best when she wrote, “Generally the most favored limericks offer a surprise at the end, and often this can be a grammatical surprise.”
For our punchline, let’s have the cat weigh-in on her domestic status:
Line 5: “Lady, I’m not your pet — I own you!”
And here’s the full limerick:
In my home sat a cat in plain view
Who did nothing a pet ought to do.
She caught nary a mouse
And just lounged ‘round the house.
“Lady, I’m not your pet — I own you!”
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.