Limerick (poem)

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A limerick is a short, usually joking poem in five lines with the rhyme scheme aabba and a (relatively) fixed metric scheme .


One of the first Limerick poets was Edward Lear . His limericks have the following characteristics: The poem begins with a reference to the often geographical existence or special nature of a person (1st line) in a very specific state (2nd line). This is followed by two short rhymed lines with an apparently logical continuation of this introduction (3rd and 4th lines), although their content is determined exclusively by the rhyming words chosen at random. The 5th line closes the poem with a variation of the 1st line; the rhyming word of the 1st line is mostly repeated here. Often the 5th line contains a pointed judgment about the named person, based on a selected adjective (incongruous, imprudent, futile, ecstatic, horrid, bewildered, whimsical etc. / dt. Approximately, depending on the context: inappropriate, careless, futile, ecstatic, terrible, confused, whimsical), sometimes even a neologism ("ombliferous") served.

The shape, created in England around 1820, was given the structure described by Edward Lear , her first and still best-known master: A Book of Nonsense (London 1843) with 107 Limericks, which Lear also illustrated. With him the lines 1 and 2 as well as the lines 3 and 4 are combined into one long line with inner rhyme .

Lear, A Book of Nonsense , sheet 47:

There was an Old Man of Apulia, whose conduct was very peculiar;
               He fed twenty sons upon nothing but buns,
                     That whimsical Man of Apulia.

Lears Limericks appeared in German, for example, in "Edward Lears Complete Nonsense" in the translation by Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

This 'classic' form by Edward Lear was exported into all languages ​​and has been varied in many ways to this day. The 5th line in particular is now mostly used for further punctuation , not just, as with Lear, for a rhetorical return to the 1st line. In particular, the rhyming word of the first verse is almost never repeated in the last verse.


There are various hypotheses as to the origin of the name:

  • The Irish city ​​of Limerick could have given its name .
  • The name could be derived from the Irish soldier song Will you come up to Limerick from the 18th century.
  • Another explanation refers to the collection of Nursery Rhymes (nursery rhymes) in Mother Goose 's Melody from 1765, in which rhythmically similar forms occur.

Hickory, dickory, dock!
The mouse ran up the clock.
    The clock struck one -
    The mouse ran down.
Hickory, dickory, dock!

In a certain type of such nursery rhymes (meaning those that begin with "There was a ...") there are also echoes of content.

There was a man of Thessaly,
and he was wond'rous wise,
He jump'd into a quickset hedge,
and scratched out both his eyes.

A distinction must be made between the first appearance of precursors of the form and the appearance of the name Limerick in the early 19th century. Already in the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas there was a similar rhyme form. Examples of (approximate) form can also be found in Shakespeare's drinking song in Othello or Ophelia's song in Hamlet .

Edward Lear, Limerick No. 1

Edward Lear's first Limerick on sheet 7 of his collection in a German translation:

Once upon a time there was an old man with a beard
Worried about what birds mate
    On larks, orioles
    On owls and jackdaws:
"They all do it in my beard!"

In Germany , the Limericks came back into fashion in the 1970s through the folk singers Schobert and Black , who set and performed the works from Limerick Teutsch by the poet duo Georg Bungter and Günter Frorath . Also Ulrich Roski published on its LP Next, please ( A song for beknackten , 1977) a mehrstrophiges song in Limerickform. The satirist Dieter Höss also used this form of poetry; well-known authors are also Ogden Nash and Isaac Asimov . In the GDR , the satirical magazine Eulenspiegel contributed to the spread of Limerick since 1968.

The metric form

The two main features of the Limerick metric are the anapaesic meter in all lines and the contrast in length between the three-part lines 1, 2 and 5 on the one hand and the two-part lines 3 and 4 on the other. This creates the characteristic rhythm of the poem form.

The permitted variants are numerous. The beginning can be shortened ( acephalous ) and the cadences sounding (feminine, two-syllable) or blunt (masculine, monosyllabic), which means that the meter can also be seen as amphibrachy . Two syllables can also be combined into a longer one or, conversely, the stressed syllable of the rhyming word takes the place of two syllables by stretching. Also Tonbeugungen - in jocular poem forms already often than usual - occur. In terms of rhyming, too, especially in English, a number of things are allowed that stricter rules do not allow.

The following examples show the scheme of some rhythmic variants in metric notation :

(◡) ◡ — ◡◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)
(◡) ◡ — ◡◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)
(◡) ◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)
(◡) ◡ — ◡◡— ◡ (◡)
(◡) ◡ — ◡◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)


(◡) ◡ — ◡◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)
(◡) ◡ — ◡◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)
(◡) ◡ — ◡◡—
(◡) ◡ — ◡◡—
(◡) ◡ —◡◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)

Less common:

◡ — ◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)
◡ — ◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)
◡ — ◡— (or —◡◡—)
◡ — ◡◡—
◡ — ◡◡ — ◡◡ — ◡ (◡)

The rhyme scheme is in each caseaabba, that means the first, second and fifth lines rhyme and also the third and fourth.


In addition to the above-mentioned content pattern in Edward Lear, which usually does not provide for a final punch, in more recent Limericks the 5th line is usually provided with an exaggeration, which often results from a course of action, i.e. a climax with a third a-rhyming word and not, as with Lear, is a return to the first a-rhyming word. The following example shows not only the new rhetoric of Limerick, but also metrical peculiarities such as the stretched stressed syllable of the a-rhyming words or the gentle tone inflection in "Gáragendach":

A chain smoker from Nice,
who looked in the tank of his car for fuel,
    flew with a crash
    through the garage roof
into the pizza of an astonished guest.

A well-known example of the modification of the final punch line is the following poem, which in the literature is often attributed to Cosmo Monkhouse (1840–1901) or Edward Lear (1812–1888). However, it was published anonymously in the Los Angeles Times in 1891 . The recourse of the 5th line to two words of the 2nd line (rhetorical return as with Lear) and a final punch line is particularly artistic. (In the tradition of this text, "Niger" alternates with "Riga".)

There was a young lady of Niger,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.
    They returned from the ride
    with the lady inside
and the smile on the face of the tiger.

In a German transmission:

A very young girl from Niger
rode a tiger with a smile
    . She came back too
    But in his belly
The smiling one was now the tiger

In a Latin version:

Puella Rigensis ridebat
Quam tigris in tergo vehebat.
    Externa profecta
    Interna revecta
Sed risus cum tigre manebat.

Place name

Another typical feature of Limerick is the lack of meaning for the place name, which often appears as the first rhyming word, because place names, unlike normal nouns, do not have a semantic level that the reader is already familiar with. They are mere rhymes. This already signals that there is no explanation in the second line, but an arbitrary combination, which is then increased in the third and fourth lines, because here, too, only the rhyming sound creates coherence. The following example shows this particularly well:

A boy from Tehuantepec
ran away on his aunt's path;
    she ran after him
    because she loved him very much
and he also carried her hand luggage.

Poetological references and explicit pseudo-justifications also make use of such location information:

A Limerick poet from Aachen,
not knowing what Limericks were promising,
    drove it too colorful,
    and that was the reason
that friends broke with him last.

How important the place name is for Limerick poetics is also shown by the fact that the alphabetical table of contents of Limerick collections is often ordered according to this first rhyming word.

Diversity of topics

Limericks often contain coherent considerations, as the example of Isaac Asimov shows, which, however, is very different from the standard form.

"On the beach," said John sadly, "there's such
a thing as revealing too much."
    So he closed both his eyes
    At the ranks of bare thighs,
And felt his way through them by touch.

Or the author is amused by certain theoretical connections:

There was a young lady of Wright
Who traveled much faster than light.
    She departed one day
    In a relative way
And returned in the previous night.

In a German transmission:

    upon a time, a girl was eager to travel even faster than light. One day it broke open at a rapid pace
it came into view the day before

Famous and infamous are the Limericks (Nursery Rhymes) from The Pearl , a collection of Victorian erotica, published in London in 1879 and 1880 :

There was a young man from Peru
Who had nothing whatever to do.
    So he took out his carrot
    And buggered his parrot
And sent the result to the zoo.

There was a young monk from Siberia
Whose morals were very inferior.
    He did to a nun
    What he shouldn't have done
And now she's a Mother Superior.

In a German transmission:

A monk in Calcutta was
not morally all right.
    He always loved
    a nun.
And now she is venerable mother

Finally, existing poems can be remodeled as Limericks, such as the famous sonnet No. 20 by William Shakespeare Als Limerick:

A hermaphroditic being
would have been something special to me,
there I found a part that
doesn't make me horny
about this strange being.

Limerick, strictly limited to its five lines, like the Japanese haiku poem, shows the capacity for absolute condensation, which is of course meant here as a joke. It should also be noted that the author reverts to a characteristic of Lear's Limericks when he qualifies the apostrophized person in the final line.

The anti-limerick takes the strict form on the subject by parodying or breaking it:

A reckless young man from Toulouse who thought he had nothing to lose said: "I don't care a dime if my limericks rhyme!" - and he went off to live in Toulon.

In German translation:

Said a girl born in Danzig - a very young beauty, only twenty - "Whether it rhymes or not, it remains a poem" - and so she resolutely moved to Denmark.

A young poet on the Rheine (only accomplished one line)

The German dialects also take part in Limerick poetry. Here are two examples from Switzerland. The first was written by the Swiss cabaret artist César Keizer (1925-2007), it comes from his so-called "Keizericks".

There was Mr. Stöckli from Stocken,
who washed his feet and socks.
    The Sigrist von Meggen
    pretended to be shocked
and rang all the bells.

The second example is a Bern German limerick by Mani Matter . Here is the first verse of a longer ballad in Limericks:

Dr Sidi Abdel Assar from El Hama
het early in the morning no in pajamas
    ir rhinestones in front of the mosque
    two beautiful eyes see
that was the start of sym drama.


  • Georg Bungter, Günter Frorath: Limerick teutsch . Piper, Munich 1969, ISBN 3-492-01738-X .
  • Werner Hadulla: Limericks & How to Make Naughty Poems - With a foreword by Dieter Hildebrandt . Edition unica, Leipzig 2012, ISBN 978-3-933287-60-1 .
  • César Keizer: Limericks . Drawings by Scapa. Unionsverlag, Zurich 2017, ISBN 978-3-293-00525-9 .
  • Ole Haldrup : Book of Limericks. With drawings by Horst Dubiel. 3rd edition, Nereus Verlag, Marburg 2003, ISBN 3-9809295-0-7 .
  • Jürgen Dahl (Ed.): Limericks & Clerihews. An introduction to Limerick and 222 Limericks, an introduction to his little brother, the (four-line) Clerihew - pronounced klerri.juh - and 77 Clerihews, as well as informal translations to bridge any vocabulary problems. Langewiesche-Brandt, Ebenhausen near Munich 1981, ISBN 3-7846-0503-6 . (illustrated by Paul Flora)
  • Richard O'Toole: More of the World's best dirty Limericks , HarperCollinsPublishers, Hammersmith, London W6 8JB, 1994, ISBN 0-00-638374-2 .
  • Bernd Wahlbrinck: Fabulous Limericks from Northern Germany: An enjoyable journey through cities and villages , Tumbelwied 2019, ISBN 978-3-00-063033-0

Web links

Wiktionary: Limerick  - explanations of meanings, origins of words, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. The Big Book of Nursery Rhymes, ed. By Walter Jerrold, London 1903, p. 213.
  2. Anthony Kenny : Thomas von Aquin , Freiburg 1999, footnote p. 31: "Thomas even seems, perhaps without noticing it, to have created a new form of verse: the Limerick." This is evidenced by the verses "Sit vitiorum meorum evocatio ... “, See la: Limericus
  3. a b c d Transfer by Heinz Hermann Michels, see translations of English-language Limericks , accessed on January 31, 2018.
  4. Ole Haldrup : Book of Limericks . Nereus Verlag, Marburg
  5. a b Fred R. Shapiro (Ed.): The Yale Book of Quotations . Yale University Press, 2006, ISBN 9780300107982 , p. 531
  6. Adam Gopnik: The Sense Beneath Edward Lear's Nonsense . The New Yorker, April 16, 2018
  7. Ludwig Strauss : Gesammelte Werke 3/1: Lyrik und Transfers, Wallstein, 2000, p. 823.
  8. Limerick by Isaac Asimov. In: Isaac Asimov and John Ciardi: Limericks: Too Gross / or Two Dozen Dirty Dozen Stanzas
  9. A Limerick from the book A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking on the subject of Relativity / Theory of Relativity .
  10. here first in the German translation of the original by Christa Schuenke:

    Nature gave
    you a feminine face , Lord and Mistress of my passion;
    A soft woman's heart, but without a trace of
    whims, cunning and witchcraft.
    Your eye, more radiant and less shimmering,
    gilds everything that surrounds his gaze;
    Confusing for a man's eye and a woman's heart,
    you, man image that draws attention to itself.
    As a woman, nature wants to
    create you according to her plan , but she fell in love with
    you and hung something on you:
    a thing that has no value for me.
       Did she give you the thing to delight women, give
       me love; you may make them happy.

    William Shakespeare, Sonette, Munich 1996, p. 19
  11. ^ William Shakespeare's Sonnets for the First Time Globally Reprinted, ed.Manfred Pfister and Jürgen Gutsch, Dozwil 2009, p. 300