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The Wonderful Shame of the Limerick
2003-02-27

don't know of a poetic form less forgivable than the limerick. I have written two tonight, and, frankly, they are simply inexcusable. Let me show you:

A New Method of Fertilizing

A gardener by unfortunate chance
Was caught with green stains on his pants;
He confessed it's the reason
He grows trees out of season:
He jerks himself off in the plants

The Tale of Two-Hole Annie

A prostitute, plying her wares
Made love to a man on the stairs;
When their lovemaking ended
Her back it did bended,--
Now her mouth and her asshole are pairs.

And, as bad as those two are -- and they are truly wretched -- they seem like the musings of Byron when compared to the very worst limerick I ever wrote, which I am preserving here only to make my point:

Zen Koan

A deaf young Buddhist from Nanking,
Asked the noise of one hand clapping,
Nodded, dropped his drawers,
Scowled, exerted force,
And made the sounds of one man crapping.

Do you see? Nanking and clapping? Those aren't even imperfect rhymes! And why Nanking anyway? Zen Buddhism is Japanese, and Nanking is in China!

But everything about the limerick invites both frivolity and such poetic felonies as fractured meter and corrupt rhymes, and I suppose that is why I adore them so. They are, after all, simply dirty jokes versified, and has been for more than 200 years.

As you probably know, this particular poetic form gets its name from a county in Southwestern Ireland, and it is a county with a storied history. As an example, Limerick is home to more castles than any other county in Ireland, including the elegantly named Castle Matrix, where Edmund Spencer met Sir Walter Raleigh and where the potato was first grown in Ireland. And, if we look a little further back in time, to the late-1600s, we discover that Limerick was the site of two sieges during James II's unsuccessful attempt to wrest the throne of England back from the Protestant William of Orange and Mary II. (That's James II, in happier times, in the painting to the left.) The Irish sided with the Catholic James II against the British Parliament and the Protestant usurpers, hoping that if James II could reclaim the throne with their help it would lead to significant political and religious concessions. On June 14 of 1690 James II, aided by a badly trained Irish infantry and 7,000 French troops, marched on Dublin. William of Orange, with his troops, met the approaching troops on July 1 and gave them a sound drubbing.

James II and his troops retreated to the city of Limerick -- at that time the second-largest in Ireland. William of Orange lay siege on the city, at a considerable loss to his troops. With his ammunition nearly expended and the bitter Irish autumn fast approaching, William decided to end the siege and send his soldiers to their winter quarters. The following summer, the English army quickly captured a series of Irish cities, driving entrenched Irish soldiers from them, until by July what remained of the now-leaderless Irish army gathered in Limerick. After a month-long siege that included relentless bombardment and a massacre of over 600 soldiers trapped outside a drawbridge, the demoralized Irish infantry surrendered.

Terrific history, that, and from what I have heard the city of Limerick is still a magnificent city for tourists. So how, oh how, did such a noble geographic location become associated with poetry's foulest form?

Believe it or not, the first known limerick is an innocuous one, and, although it was in all likelihood originally a French poem, you already know it. In French, it reads as follows:

Digerie, digerie, doge.
La souris ascend l'horloge.
L'horloge frappe
La souris s'échappe,
Digerie, digerie, doge.

I need not translate to the English; Suffice it to say that this limerick deals with a mouse ascending a clock, only to be struck by it, at which time the mouse descends the clock. Every schoolchild can recite you the English version without blushing, and this hardly seems a suitable origin for the filthiest of rhymed and metered verse. And why do the Irish get saddled with the blame for the poetic form's transformation from a children's rhyme to something intended only for adult ears?

Received wisdom has it that we must look again to the Irish military, this time in the 18th century. Specifically, we find ourselves with a group of Irish mercenaries who were known as the Wild Geese, who served as soldiers for France, Spain, Austria, England, and even Russia. The battle cry of this Irish Brigade serving in France, who had sailed there to serve James II in exile, became, "Cuimnidh ar Luimneach agus ar Feall na Sasanach!" -- Remember Limerick and the Saxon Faith, referring back to the siege of Limerick. These soldiers were said to sing a semi-improvised song using the five-line structure associated with the modern limerick, whose chorus asked "Will you come up to Limerick?"

In the meanwhile, this same five-line structure was growing very popular with wits and wags of the 18th and 19th centuries -- it was especially popularized by nonsense poet Edward Lear, who worked almost exclusively in the style. But while Lear wrote for children, many of the limerick writers of the era used the form to concoct savage satires of local politicians, and, apropos to a style of poetry that borrowed from a military song (which are notoriously off-color), the era's limericks were frequently openly bawdy. And so they remain today.

And, as terrible as my own limericks might be, I feel a peculiar sort of pride about them. There's nothing quite like the shameful pleasure of telling a really dirty joke, and limericks offer just about the ideal form for doing so. Besides, as I have demonstrated, the limerick is so rich with history! Mustn't we preserve the form, including its filthy contents, for posterity? What sort of world would it be for our children if they could not grow up to participate in the rich poetic tradition that emerged from one of Ireland's mightiest battles, I ask you!

And so, having said that, I leave you with three of my favorite self-penned limericks:

From the Arts Pages

A diabolical opera conductor
Stalked a diva and planned to abduct her.
Her protestations were minimal
As she was aroused by the criminal
And sang arias whenever he fucked her.

Legends of the Briny Deep

It is said that the masturbating whale
Will drown thousands of seamen without fail
While the monstrous kraken
When he starts a-whackin'
Showers seamen into the air like hale.

The Luxurious Smoker

She blew patterns of cigarette smoke
With curlicues and filigree baroque
But she said with a sigh
As I unfastened my fly,
"If I try to blow that, sir, I'll choke!"


Cheers!

© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.

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Posted by UkuleleKing at 11:52 p.m.

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