Some famous poetic formats herald a champion – a writer of old who produced a plethora of the poems and became renowned for them. The most famous example is probably William Shakespeare and the sonnet. But what Shakespeare is for sonnets, Edward Lear is for limericks.
The limerick’s origins are surprisingly mysterious. There’s no definitive documentation for when they started being written, although scholars discovered verses with similar styles dating back to the 11th century. We do know that limericks originated in England. Some of Shakespeare’s plays actually feature a few, including Othello, King Lear, and The Tempest.
Limericks didn’t really take off until the mid-19th century. Prior, limericks tended to be associated with raunchy short stories for drunkards or dainty children’s poems. Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll began experimenting with the format, solidifying the poem as a form of whimsical storytelling perfect for his nonsensical fantasy lands.
In 1846, Edward Lear published a collection of limericks titled A Book of Nonsense, popularizing the format and starting a sort of movement. Newspapers and other publications began hosting limerick competitions with prizes. By the end of the century, many famous writers tried their hands at limericks, including Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Thanks to its easy and humorous format, the limerick became the poem for the masses.
Consisting of five lines, limericks feature an AABBA rhyme scheme. The third and fourth lines are usually shorter than the others, with about four or five syllables compared to about seven or nine in the first, second, and last. Limericks also possess a very recognizable meter. It’s a galloping format, with a stressed beat almost every other syllable.
You’ll know a limerick when you read it thanks to the rhyme scheme and meter. The nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock” is one of the more famous limericks. Below is one of Lewis Carroll’s pieces (we’ll forgive him for rhyming “beard” with “beard”, but just this once):
There was an Old Man with a Beard
Who said, “It is just as I feared!”
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren
Have all made their Nest in my Beard!
When writing your own limericks, prioritize your meter. The structure makes a limerick a limerick, and it’s easily recognizable even without the rhyming. These poems work well in fantasy settings due to their whimsical nature. The most important part about limerick writing? Have fun! They’re short, sweet, and ridiculous, so go nuts!