Naughty but nice... in praise of the limerick

Ipswich Museum's Rosie the rhino... a diaphanous doorscraper, as Lear would have called her. Picture

Ipswich Museum's Rosie the rhino... a diaphanous doorscraper, as Lear would have called her. Picture: ANDREW PARTRIDGE - Credit: Andrew Partridge

A nice young girl from Dickleburgh, Asked her new boyfriend to tickle 'er... and so begins a classic unfinished limerick challenge. Lynne Mortimer celebrates the nonsense poet Edward Lear and his shorter works.

Edward Lear. Picture: WIKICOMMONS

Edward Lear. Picture: WIKICOMMONS - Credit: Archant

National Limerick day, on May 12 each year, celebrates the birthday of illustrator, author, poet and penner of limericks,Edward Lear.

Despite being a sickly sort of chap he lived to the age of 76 and this year marks 205 years since his birth in 1812.

Lear, who famously wrote the children's poem The Owl and the Pussycat, is most famous for his works of literary nonsense and though he did not devise the limerick, he made them perennially popular with his 1846 Book of Nonsense. The first appearance of the poetic form dates from the early years of the 18th century. It is a very short, humorous, nonsense poem comprising five lines. The first two rhyme with the fifth and the third and fourth lines rhyme together. Sometimes a limerick is a bit naughty, sometimes, downright filthy but it is a poetic model that we can all have a go at...

For those that like to know this sort of thing, the rhythm of the limerick is officially described as 'anapestic trimeter'... demonstrated by Lear's:

Lear's Book of Nonsense. Picture: WIKICOMMONS

Lear's Book of Nonsense. Picture: WIKICOMMONS - Credit: Archant

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There was a Young Lady whose chin

Resembled the point of a pin;

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So she had it made sharp, and purchased a harp,

And played several tunes with her chin.

Lear's payoff line normally used the same final word as his first line although, limericks being what they are, it is by no means compulsory.

His famous lines on the Norfolk resort of Cromer, go as follows:

There was an old person from Cromer

Who Stood on one leg to read Homer;

When he found he grew stiff, he jumped over the cliff

Which concluded that Person from Cromer.

Despite the sad ending, there is a logic to this arrant nonsense which is pleasing.

Limericks today (which can still be composed in your head, on the bus, in the dentist's waiting room etc) tend to add a punchline at the end, as in:

A colonial type from Darjeeling

Got on the fast train to Ealing

A note on the door

Said, 'Don't spit on the floor'

So he promptly spat on the ceiling

In the summer of 1835, Edward Lear travelled to Ireland with Edward Stanley, later the Bishop of Norwich. It was there, it is recorded, Lear's interest turned to landscape painting. Did they visit county Limerick? I can throw no light on this but it would be nice to think they did.

Edward Stanley, a naturalist, was consecrated Bishop of Norwich in 1837 and Wikipedia reveals: 'The diocese at this time was conspicuous for laxity and want of discipline, which he proceeded to remedy, although at first he met with much opposition.'

Bishop Stanley was tolerant towards Dissenters, however and supported missionary undertakings without regard for their sectarian associations. Politically, he was a Liberal and interested in educational issues.

He was the original Patron of the Ipswich Museum, and presided at its opening in 1847, there is an oil portrait of Stanley in the Museum. He died in 1849 and was buried in the nave of Norwich cathedral.

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In the style of Lear:

There was an old man from Ipswich

Who had a troublesome lip twitch

So he laid in manure, And found it a cure

That smelly old man from Ipswich


There was a young lady from Stiffkey

Whose rhymes were decidedly kooky

It works if you're Norfolk, cos that's how we all talk

Said that young poetess from Stiffkey


There is an election in June

Unexpected and really quite soon

Corbyn, Fallon or May is the choice on the day

So I'm booked on a trip to Rangoon


Limerick writers of Anglia

Prefer prepositions danglier

In grammatical sin

They added one in

Just to be a little new-fanglier

More about Edward Lear

• Of Danish descent, Born in Holloway, London, Edward Lear was the 20th of 21 children.

• He had to earn his own living at an early age and did this by drawing birds and other works for shops and hospitals.

• In 1831, aged 19, he got a job as a draughtsman in the gardens of the Zoological Society, assisting with ornithological and other drawings.

• Between 1832-1836 he was engaged at Knowsley by Edward Smith Stanley, the thirteenth Earl of Derby. He was popular with the Derby family and wrote the Book of Nonsense for the Earl's grandchildren.

• From 1836 he devoted himself to the study of landscape and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850. In 1845 he gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, and later produced some illustrations for his close friend Alfred Tennyson.

• He journeyed through Italy 1842-3, visited Greece and Egypt 1848–49 and toured India 1873–75.

• A pianist and composer, Lear also played accordion, flute, and guitar. Only two of his scores survive, the music for 'The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò' and 'The Pelican Chorus.'

• He was never to have a successful relationship. He fell for a young barrister who did not reciprocate his feelings and made two marriage proposals to women, neither of which were accepted.

• In the 1870s Lear made his home in San Remo, Italy, where he died in 1888 of heart disease.

• In Lear's poetic world a stuffed rhinoceros becomes a 'diaphanous doorscraper.'

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