Limerick 17: Not Nonsense

Banner book of sense EDV - Shake-Speare's connection limerick Lear

25 January 2020
· Shake-Speare’s connections to the limerick, in verse and prose ·
  • The poet and artist Ed Lear
  • Composed limericks known far and near
  • When Victoria was queen;
  • A form Shake-Speare’d not seen,
  • Since he lived long before its premiere.
  • While the second Elizabeth reigned
  • Ed de Vere, Oxford, Shake-Speare, obtained
  • His own blog. A website.
  • History to rewrite!
  • Shake-Speare’s truth, his voice finally gained.
  • Lots of sonnets he’d already done,
  • Lots of plays about crowns lost and won.
  • More of love? Non, c’est tout
  • Time to find something new
  • What he wanted was poesy and fun.
  • The solution was soon to appear:
  • To combine the two Edwards was clear
  • -ly the course to be taken,
  • The Speare to be Shaken
  • His lim’ricks can all be found here.

©2020 @edevere17 all rights reserved

A limerick is easy to recognise when you hear one, but it’s good to know what defines it. The modern limerick is a short verse form consisting of two lines of anapaestic trimeter, then two lines of anapaestic dimeter, then a final line of anapaestic trimeter. The five lines follow an AABBA rhyme scheme. That’s it.

An anapaest (or anapest) is a metrical foot of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.


From this single brick a limerick is built. You can use it to write the world’s most generic limerick:

  • da-da-DUM  da-da-DUM  da-da-DUM
  • da-da-DUM  da-da-DUM  da-da-DUM
  • da-da-DUM  da-da-DUM
  • da-da-DUM  da-da-DUM
  • da-da-DUM  da-da-DUM  da-da-DUM

Limerick writers occasionally stick an extra unstressed syllable at the end of a line, and/or skip a line’s first unstressed syllable, or use a word that splits between the end of one line and the beginning of the next (‘clear-ly’ in the fourth stanza above is an example of this). Rules stretch to allow some trickery around the edges, and the tricks can make the poems funny, or funnier. Humour in limericks is so pervasive (especially in the dirty ones) that a serious limerick is doomed to eternal disrespect. It can’t escape the paradox: a limerick that isn’t funny is funny because it isn’t funny.

The expectation of humour in limericks may be an acquired cultural preconception that they’re supposed to be funny, but at a deeper level I suspect that the three-beat anapaest has something to do with it. Odd numbers are… odd. Funny. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the banging-coconut horses canter, a three-beat gait, the anapaest of equine locomotion. They do not trot, an equine spondee of two equal beats. My post about the film and its Henry IV subtitles contains a video clip of Scene 1, where you can hear the cantering coconuts. Whether the Pythons made their choice overtly or innately, they chose correctly. Trotting coconuts would not be as funny.

Limericks canter.Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense was the first popular collection of limericks, published in 1846 when Lear was thirty-three. He drew the illustrations himself. It was a nineteenth-century mass-market bestseller and went through several editions, while the limerick became nearly ubiquitous among readers and rhymers of English.

Most of Nonsense’s limericks don’t earn full marks by today’s standards. Lear’s metre was sometimes bumpy, and his last line usually repeated most of the first including the rhymed word, which now seems wasteful or lazy. A typical example:

Lear limerick illustration - old man of Moldavia

There was an Old Man of Moldavia,
Who had the most curious behavior;
For while he was able, he slept on a table,
That funny Old Man of Moldavia.

He also tended to combine the shorter third and fourth lines. He was of course writing his limericks before any standards had evolved.

Please note: I’m permanently disclaiming any obligation to be consistent in my spelling of metre or meter. I type what feels best in context at the moment. Dimeter, trimeter, pentameter; on its own usually metre, but not always. Poetically speaking the word means exactly the same thing with either ending, on either side of the pond.

Lear wrote the poems in Nonsense to entertain the grandchildren of the man who for several years in the 1830s had employed, housed, and fed him – Edward Smith-Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Lear was well-known during his lifetime, nevertheless a rumour went round claiming the name Edward Lear to be a pseudonym, and the true author to be Lear’s dedicatee, his patron. Believers of the rumour pointed out that both men were named Edward, and that Lear is an anagram of Earl. Hmm.

One of Edward Smith-Stanley’s forebears was William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, who lived from 1561 to 1642. William was highly educated, a man of culture. He travelled widely in Europe and Asia during the 1580s, and was said to have dabbled in playwriting. Although no work survives with his name on it, in the 1890s he was put forward as a candidate for the authorship of the works of Shakespeare.

Will Stanley was not Shakespeare, he was Shake-Speare’s son-in-law. He married my eldest daughter Elizabeth in early 1595. For my wedding gift to the bride, I wrote a fanciful play about love and marriage. More recently, I wrote about a 1935 filmed version of it.

If only I could show that Edward Lear’s patron Edward Smith-Stanley was the direct descendant of Edward de Vere. But Vero Nihil Verius: I don’t make this stuff up, and it didn’t work out that way. Thanks to my daughter, the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th Earls of Derby did indeed have some of my blood in their veins, presuming Lizzy had any to begin with (another story entirely). But Derby #10 died without an heir and the title passed to the Bickerstaffe branch of the Stanley family tree, from which it descends to this day. The incumbent earl, #19, is yet another Edward.

I cantered through the Stanley/Derby genealogy to cobble together some details in a PDF, but you don’t have to read it unless you want to. There’s some North American sporting trivia at the end, if a tease helps you decide.

A Book of Nonsense 1875 cover - Shake-Speare's connection limerick LearThis is the cover of the 1875 edition of A Book of Nonsense. I was looking online for a one-size-fits-all image to add to some of my limerick posts, as part of the SEO project I mentioned a month ago. I clicked on a Wikimedia Commons link, and from the Creative Cloud above burst forth a Choir of Photoshop Angels, singing Behold! Naught but Few Pixels requireth Alteration! Hosanna Hey!

From within their midst appeared Ofora, Muse of Choir, who descended from that brightest heaven of invention to remind me that while I had been writing limericks for four years, I had not yet written about them, nor about my connections to them.

Inspiration from the Muse of Choir is not something to be ignored.

Lear wasn’t the only Victorian versifier to tackle the limerick. W S Gilbert, the words half of comic-opera partners Gilbert and Sullivan, put limericks into several of his libretti. Easy to spot are the first two verses, plus one in the middle, sung by the title character in Act I of 1877’s The Sorcerer.

Outside his day job, Gilbert got testy about this limerick from Nonsense:

There was an Old Man in a tree,
Who was horribly bored by a Bee;
When they said, “Does it buzz?”
He replied, “Yes, it does!
It’s a regular brute of a Bee!”

So he sent it up with one of his own:

There was an Old Man of St Bees
Who was stung on the arm by a wasp.
When they asked, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t,
But I thought all the while ’twas a hornet.”

The earliest published examples of modern anapaestic limericks date to 1820. Lear may have made the limerick popular in the second half of that century, but he did not create it nor christen it. He called all his silly poems Nonsense, and they were not all limericks.

The name was first used in letters written in 1896 by illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who composed one that’s a good example of the transgressive nature of many early limericks (and many later ones). Its subject was a lady, a Catholic saint no less, who Played dirty tricks / With a large crucifix.

Limericks were called by that name in print in late 1898, in the Cantab, written and published by Cambridge University students. Research has yet to prove any connection between the name of the form and the city in Ireland. Some sources and some Irishmen make the claim anyway. This example from a 2017 Irish Times article by Matthew Potter, curator of Limerick Museum, is germane:

If Shakespeare and Stratford succeed
Their link forever guaranteed
Then should we be embarking
Quite soon on trademarking
The Limerick with our title deed?

– Dominic Taylor, Limerick Writers’ Centre

Notwithstanding its subject, I find this one a challenge to recite without rehearsal. The stresses are not where I expect them. Perhaps it sounds better in Limerick.
Limericks like Lear’s were obviously unknown during my lifetime, but anapaests were as available as any other tool in the metrical box, and I made use of them when appropriate. If a character needed comic exaggeration when drunk, or witless, or singing, or all of the above, then it was time to play with the funny feet.

Some of my anapaestic bricks were stacked in ways that might be seen, at least with hindsight, as proto-limerical.

The quotes which follow are a mashup of Open Source Shakespeare’s text and that of the First Folio. Some extraneous bits have been removed.

Example 1: The closest King Lear gets to Poet Lear. The metre is more iambic than anapaestic, but you can see a similarity in structure.

King Lear, Act III, Scene 4 – Edgar feigns madness

Enter Gloucester with a torch.

  • Edgar: This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet. He begins at Curfew,
  • and walks till first Cock. He gives the Web and the Pin,
  • squints the eye, and makes the Hare-lip; mildews the white wheat,
  • and hurts the poor creature of earth.
  • Saint Withold footed thrice the ’old;
  • He met the Night-Mare, and her ninefold;
  • Bid her alight
  • And her troth plight,
  • And aroint thee Witch, aroint thee.

[Web and Pin are eye diseases. Aroint thee means begone, shoo, scram.]

Example 2: A drinking song that doesn’t reach Limerick either, but the metre is marginally better. The BB couplet isn’t bad.

Othello, Act II Scene 3 – Iago gets Cassio drunk

Iago: Some wine, ho!

  • [Sings]
  • And let me the canakin clink, clink;
  • And let me the canakin clink
  • A soldier’s a man,
  • Oh man’s life’s but a span,
  • Why, then let a soldier drink.

Some wine, boys!

Cassio: ’Fore Heaven, an excellent song.

  • Iago: I learned it in England, where indeed they are
  • most potent in potting. Your Dane, your German, and
  • your swag-bellied Hollander –Drink, ho!– are nothing
  • to your English.

[A canakin is a smallish cup usually made of metal, thus clinkable.]

Example 3: Getting closer. I’m not the only one who says so. I’ve edited the following excerpt to shorten and focus it, but I’ve been careful not to alter the points made by its author, George N Belknap. It comes from his 1981 article History of the Limerick, sourced at the end of the post. The highlighting is mine.

[Pre-1800] examples fall conspicuously short of the form that became standard in the early nineteenth century: about half are strictly iambic stanzas, the other half a mixture of iambs and anapaests with iambic the dominant meter. Only one example abandons iambs for anapaests, and here the meter is accompanied by a feature that is unique in the history of the form: […] the BB couplet lines are double length. [It is]

Stephano’s song in The Tempest, Act II, Scene 2

Enter Stephano, singing, bottle in hand.


  • [Sings]
  • I shall no more to sea, to sea,
  • Here shall I die ashore–
  • This is a very scurvy tune to sing at a man’s
  • funeral: well, here’s my comfort. [Drinks]
  • [Sings]
  • The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I,
  • The gunner, and his mate
  • Loved Mall, Meg, and Marian, and Margery,
  • But none of us car’d for Kate.
  • For she had a tongue with a tang,
  • Would cry to a sailor, Go hang!
  • She loved not the savour of tar nor of pitch
  • Yet a tailor might scratch her where’er she did itch.
  • Then to sea, boys, and let her go hang!

This is a scurvy tune too:
But here’s my comfort. [Drinks]

The first [six] lines are basically iambic and have no formal relevance to the limerick tradition.

Comments by Shakespeare scholars [Stratfordian ones, he means] turn largely on whether the song is Shakespeare’s invention or a real sea chantey. Frank Kermode in the Arden edition argued that the lines lack the rhymic “marks” of a working song and are too sophisticated. It has been pointed out that Kermode does not tell us what the “marks” are. The answer is, perhaps, a fast tempo, which anapaestic meter tends to block. [Gilbert disagrees.] Stephano calls the song a “scurvy tune,” which probably has no reference to the working-song question. He was not a working seaman and would have been no judge of chantey efficiency.  I have begun to suspect that his song is the one historical prototype for the nineteenth­-century anapaestic limerick and perhaps the specific model for the form in its first appearances in print.


The examples from the seventeenth century and earlier are for the most part ballads, love lyrics, drinking songs, and bawdy songs, or fragments from these genres, together with several verses on tobacco. Conspicuously absent are the nonsense, playful wit, irony, and satire characteristic of the fully developed limerick at its best – except in the anapaestic lines from The Tempest.

Alfred Molina as Stephano (2010, directed by Julie Taymor)

Shakespeare’s invention? Authentic sea chantey? Exceptional among its contemporaries in both form and content? Too sophisticated?

Stephano the drunken butler was not a working seaman, but his creator had been. Standing upon the hatches of my own ship, beside the singing sailors, the savour of tar and of pitch in the salt air swelling the sails.

As for the surplus of sophistication, the accusation is laughable and too ironic. One of the blackest marks ticked against me in my day (my father-in-law kept a list) was that I wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough.

I partied with scoundrels and spent my time scribbling;
I should have been tending my acres and rents.

Yes, well. Get your Author right and these questions cease to exist.

One further point about The Tempest, far outside the purview of Belknap’s article. Stratford’s incorrect dating of the play to 1610-11, after the 1609 wreck of the Sea Venture off Bermuda (conveniently post obitum meum) makes it impossible for them to properly consider the creative roots of Stephano’s song. A thorough discussion would require much more space than I’m willing to give it now, but the upshot is: don’t be fooled by that red herring the Sea Venture. Move the date of the play’s genesis back twenty years, closer to the Armada than to King James. 1590 will serve, though it’s simplistic to give my plays such discrete creation or completion dates. I wish more people understood this.

  • When you’re writing for laughs I suggest
  • Some advice to which I can attest
  • Use the foot that will help you to turn a fine phrase
  • When you need to be funny in Act II of plays
  • Put it into a mouth and it always repays
  • You in smiles: the odd anapaest

As a poet and playwright I did most of my dancing with iambs, not anapaests. I did not give birth to the limerick, but I may have played a small part in its conception. Now, more than four centuries later, it’s fitting that I write new ones.

  • As I wait for the world to catch on
  • To conclusions that should be foregone
  • It’s amusing to play
  • In this anapaest way
  • Edward Lear’s nonsense to build upon

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Gilbert and the Limerick []
  • · by John A Degen
  • · Victorian Poetry, Vol 25, No 1, Spring 1987, pages 87-93
  • · West Virginia University Press, Morgantown
  • History of the Limerick []
  • · by George N Belknap (1905–1996)
  • · Bibliographical Society of America, Vol 75, No 1, Q1 1981, pages 1-32
  • · The University of Chicago Press
  • · The edited excerpt quoted is taken from pages 13 and 14.
  • · Belknap completed a book-length manuscript for The Limerick: A Critical Study, but never found an agreeable publisher. The manuscript is now part of his unarranged and therefore unavailable collected papers, held in 16.5 linear feet of boxes by the University of Oregon in Eugene. Unfortunate.
  • Short biography of Edward Lear []
  • · Site contains a variety of articles, and examples of Lear’s illustrations and artwork. He could have been another Audubon, but his eyesight gave him trouble.

Terry Jones
1 February 1942 – 21 January 2020