What Is A Limerick?


What is a limerick?

Courtesy of Wisegeek

A limerick is a five-line humorous poem with an AABBA rhyme scheme. It is about 500 years old, and held to have first been used as a distinct form at the end of the sixteenth century. The limerick was popularized by Edward Lear in A Book of Nonsense, which includes many limericks as well as other poems, for example “The Owl and the Pussy Cat.”

Limericks are in accentual verse, which means that the satisfactory construction of a line is determined by the number of accents with little or no regard to the number of syllables. In this it differs from metered verse, which is accentual-syllabic, taking account of both the pattern of accents and the number of syllables. Because the syllables are not counted, accentual verse has a certain flexibility. Ballads and nursery rhymes are other types of accentual verse. In limericks, the accents work like this:

  • Line 1: 3 accents
  • Line 2: 3 accents
  • Line 3: 2 accents
  • Line 4: 2 accents
  • Line 5: 3 accents

Because of the freedom allowed by accentual verse, the first line might work like this: There was once a young man from Berlin. or it might work like this: There was a young man from Berlin. Similarly the third line might work like this: He rode on a whale or it might work like this: And he rode on a whale. No matter which variations are used, the result is verse that basically has an anapestic feel — a pattern of strong, weak, weak.

So, the pattern for a limerick is:

ti tum ti ti tum ti ti tum
ti tum ti ti tum ti ti tum
ti tum ti ti tum
ti tum ti ti tum
ti tum ti ti tum ti ti tum

The first second and last lines must rhyme and the third and fourth lines must rhyme.

So there you have it.

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