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Friday, November 26, 2010

Rude, Lewd, Crude, and Here to Stay...

There once was a lady named Cager,
Who as the result of a wager,
Consented to fart,
The entire oboe part
Of Mozart's quartet in F-major.

Recognize this poetry form?  Let's see...vulgar humor (check), impolite wordplay (check), AABBA rhyme scheme (check), why it must be a limerick!

Limericks appear throughout the broad span of the English language, from pubs to Shakespeare.  Don Marquis, the humorist and playwright, stated that there are three types of limericks:  limericks to be told when ladies are present; limericks to be told when ladies are absent but clergymen are present; and LIMERICKS!  This comment well illustrates the bawdy and lewd notoriety limericks have.

Although its history is obscure, some say the limerick originated in France during the Middle Ages, then crossed the English Channel.  An alternative origin is said to be the pubs of the Irish town of Limerick, but most likely that's where the name originated, but not the concept.  Other sources claim a 14th century origin from pubs.  Wherever they began, the limerick is here to stay.

Mother Goose rhymes associated the limerick forever with children's literature:

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating of curds and whey;
There came a great spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

In 1846, over a century after the Mother Goose rhymes were published, Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense was published, somewhat of a benchmark for the form.  Lear preferred the word "nonsense" to "limerick" no doubt because of the limerick's reputation.  One of his famous ones was:

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several times with her chin.

Composed of five lines, the limerick has a strict rhyme scheme and a catchy rhythm.  The first two lines rhyme, the third and fourth lines rhyme, and the fifth either rhymes with the first two, or repeats the first line.  Simply put (or "dumly" put) it follows an AABBA rhyme pattern like this:
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM
da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

(Note:  one of my favorite jokes is a limerick, but I will not publish it here.  It is only for pubs.)

Punch magazine in the 1860s, inspired by Lear's book, ran limerick contests and for a while limericks became a big craze.  Although the fad died out, the limerick still lived on.  A remarkable roster of  authors have engaged in limerick writing:  Ogden Nash, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, and Mark Twain were among them.  But perhaps most surprising is Isaac Asimov's book, Lecherous Limericks, published in 1975.   It contains 100 limericks he wrote, of which the following was the first:

There was a sweet girl of Decatur,
Who went to sea on a freighter.
She was screwed by the master,
- An utter disaster -
But the crew made up for it later.

That limericks have been constructed by a wide sweep of people, from pub crawlers to formal poets, makes them folk literature.  They are also truly an English poetry and literary form, since the rhyme scheme and rhythm make them difficult to write in other languages.

I like this modern limerick by Sheila Anne Barry:

There was an old puzzler, Ben Ross,
Who died - doing crosswords, of course,
He was buried, poor Ben,
With eraser and pen,
In a box six feet down, three across.

My favorite limerick story is my own.  One holiday season when I was able and did work a lot of overtime, I had a night off which I needed to do some gift shopping.  My 13-year-old cousin cajoled me into taking him out to dinner (truth be told, I loved hanging out with him!), and I acquiesced with the caveat that we would be going to a bookstore first.  Once in the store he headed to a bargain display, and I walked around to the other side.  All of a sudden I heard his very loud voice call out:  "Hey, Linda.  What's a bl*w j*b?"  He had found a book of limericks.  In total panic I quickly thought, "Nobody knows I'm Linda.  Simply walk out of the store."  Just as I had this realization, the good-looking man standing next to me said, "Judging from how red you are turning, you must be Linda."  I spent the rest of the evening refusing to discuss the words I told him never to say in public, and referring him to his father for the answer, thus losing my coolest adult in the world status.

I will end with a limerick from the Bard himself (Othello, Act II, Scene III), just to balance the above with a loftier tone, even though as limericks go it's kind of a washout.  (BTW, a canakin is a small can used as a drinking vessel, from a Dutch word):

And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink.
A soldier's a man;
A life's but a span;
Why, then let a soldier drink.