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Author Topic: On the Writing of Limericks  (Read 4788 times)
Captain Shipton Bellinger
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« on: November 08, 2011, 06:48:26 am »

Part One - Introduction and Metre

AS Lady Willoughby's One Line Limerick thread has proved to be both popular and (sometimes) contentious, I thought I'd write a short treatise on the writing of limericks. Yes, I know that there are many such to be found on the Ætherwebs anyway, but they tend to be either very simplistic (and therefore stifling of creativity) or exhaustively academic (and therefore impenetrable to the Common Man). In this guide I shall try to steer clear of such beastly technical terms as anapaestic, amphibrachic and 'feet' and keep to everyday English if I can.

Basic Form - Metre
A limerick comprises five lines.
While all lines conform to the same general metre, lines 3 and 4 are (almost*) always shorter than lines 1, 2 and 5.
It is generally told that lines 1, 2 and 5 have 9 syllables, while lines 3 and 4 have 5 syllables, but this is not really the best way to look at it. Forget syllables for the moment and concentrate on the beat. What's important is that lines 1, 2 and 5 have three stressed (or lifted) beats and lines 3 and 4 have two lifted beats. In all cases the stressed beats are separated by two unstressed or lowered beats.

Still concentrating purely on metre, this gives the very simplest limerick form as:

  DA da-da DA da-da DA - 7 beats
  DA da-da DA da-da DA - 7 beats
  DA da-da DA - 4 beats
  DA da-da DA - 4 beats
  DA da-da DA da-da DA - 7 beats

for example:

  IF you should FIND my old HAT
  DON'T be scared - GIVE it a BAT
  LUMPS it has ROUND
  LOOKing half-DROWNED
  'CAUSE it escAPED from a VAT

Yes, I know it's not very good; I'm extemporising here. Sad

Limiting the beat count to the absolute minimum actually makes it quite difficult to construct a limerick that reads well and conforms to reasonable English, so let's pep it up a bit.

Getting in the Groove
We can't break the metre by inserting more unstressed beats between the stressed beats, but we can add none, one or two at the beginning and the end of each line, giving this for lines 1, 2 and 5;

  DA da-da DA da-da DA - 7 beats - IF you should FIND my old HAT
  da DA da-da DA da-da DA - 8 beats - i ONCE knew a CHIMP with a FEZ
  DA da-da DA da-da DA da - 8 beats - MICHael was RAther conDITioned
  da-da DA da-da DA da-da DA - 9 beats - at the TIME of the LAST boer WAR
  da DA da-da DA da-da DA-da - 9 beats - a SPIFFing young FELLow named BRIan
  da-da DA da-da DA da-da DA-da - 10 beats - had a HAT made of CONcrete and IRon
  da DA da-da DA da-da DA da-da - 10 beats - a WILD-western STEAMpunk caLAMity
  da-da DA da-da DA da-da DA da-da - 11 beats - an amBITious young VAMPire from KETTering

and this for lines 3 and 4;

  DA da-da DA - 4 beats - LUMPS it has ROUND
  da DA da-da DA - 5 beats - when ASKED does it HURT
  DA da-da DA da - 5 beats - Over his JUMper
  da-da DA da-da DA - 6 beats - on the NINEty-ninth STROKE
  da DA da-da DA-da - 6 beats - who KEPT putting SAND in
  da-da DA da-da DA-da - 7 beats - with a BANG and a CLATTer
  da DA da-da DA da-da - 7 beats - with Open hosTILity
  da-da DA da-da DA da-da - 8 beats - it was SIMply unWEARable

And that's pretty much it for the metre, except that - if you saw the (almost*) back up there - you'll now see that it is quite feasible to have lines 3 and 4 as long as, or longer than, lines 1, 2 or 5:

  IF you should FIND my old HAT - 7 beats
  DON'T be scared - GIVE it a BAT - 7 beats
  it was SIMply unWEARable - 8 beats
  with a SMELL quite unBEARable - 8 beats
  beCAUSE it escAPED from a VAT - 8 beats

A last note on metre:
It is, at times, possible to use a slight pause in place of an unstressed beat. This only really works with certain consonant/vowel sequences and should be approached with caution.

And here ends Part One. Part Two will follow shortly.

« Last Edit: November 08, 2011, 06:58:58 am by Captain Shipton Bellinger » Logged

Capt. Shipton Bellinger R.A.M.E. (rtd)

Captain Shipton Bellinger
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« Reply #1 on: November 08, 2011, 06:51:30 am »

Part Two - Rhyming

So now that we've played with all of the possible rhythms it's time to start putting words to the beat framework. Yes yes, I know I've already started doing that in part one, but that was purely to illustrate the metre.

>ahem<

Let's get rhyming out of the way first...

End-Line Rhyming
Limericks should rhyme - as any fule kno.
Lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyme with each other.
Lines 3 and 4 rhyme with each other.
Lines 3 and 4 *may* also rhyme with lines 1, 2 and 5 (my favourite sort of limerick!).

Rhyming in limericks can be either exact or quite loose, depending upon your bent or the effect you are trying to achieve. It is, after all, the archetypal nonsense verse-form. Taking some examples from the works of Edward Lear

  There was a Young Lady of Portugal,
  Whose ideas were excessively nautical:
  ...

  There was an Old Man of the Wrekin
  Whose shoes made a horrible creaking
  ...

  There was an Old Man of the North,
  Who fell into a basin of broth;
  ...

  There was an Old Man of Kamschatka,
  Who possessed a remarkable fat cur;
  ...

None of these (in my book) is an exact rhyme, but they're close enough and eminently serve their purpose. In general, vowels are equivalent for rhyming purposes (especially if they take the 'schwa' value - sorry to get technical), but the closer the actual rhyme the tighter and better the limerick.

Also, despite the limerick being essentially a spoken form of verse, Lear was not averse to using a *visual* rhyme when it suited his purpose:

  There was an Old Man of Marseilles,
  Whose daughters wore bottle-green veils;
  ...

  There was an Old Person of Prague,
  Who was suddenly seized with the Plague;
  ...

If it was good enough for Lear it should be good enough for most folk.

Internal Rhyming
In addition to rhyming the line-ends, internal rhyme (or assonance if we're being posh) can be used to great effect, especially in the final line. For example:

  ...
  And asked Roger the lodger to bodge her.

I leave it to your fertile imaginations to reconstruct the first four lines. Wink

Lastly, there is a thing known as the anti-limerick, in which an implied rhyme is purposely avoided to comic effect. Possibly the best-known example of this device is by W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame):

  There was an old man of St. Bees,
  Who was stung in 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."

And here ends Part Two. Part Three will follow shortly

« Last Edit: November 08, 2011, 07:16:28 am by Captain Shipton Bellinger » Logged
Captain Shipton Bellinger
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« Reply #2 on: November 08, 2011, 06:56:44 am »

Part Three - Counting Syllables

At last we can start to talk about syllables, as it should be fairly plain from Part One that each beat corresponds to one syllable. Ah! If only it were as easy as simply doing a syllable-count and keeping within the limits!

English, as with most North-Western European languages, has its own built-in system of stressing and de-stressing syllables within words and sentences. The fun part of making up limericks is to match the natural stress pattern of the language to the metre of the verse. The easiest way to accomplish this is just to read each line aloud, in a normal voice. The natural stress pattern should be immediately obvious.

Ideally the natural stress pattern of the spoken English and the beat pattern of the limerick will seamlessly coincide, although there are exceptions. Occasionally applying an unusual stress to a word can be used to comic effect, or to accentuate a point or foreign word. Using two or more shifted stresses in a single line just makes it hard work for the reader, as they struggle to discover just where the stresses need to be to make the limerick work.

Spoiler (click to show/hide)

Some words such as 'general' and 'every' can be used as either 'GENeral' or 'GENral' and 'EVery' or 'EVry' as the situation dictates.

Trial Run:
So let's take an existing example that was put together by four different people over on the 'One Line Limerick' thread and see how it fares. I'm not digging at anyone; it's just that this particular limerick caused several raised eyebrows at the time, and consequently has several good learning pointers in it.

So, first let's see it as plain text...

  a captain of an enormous blimp
  and his butler, who was a chimp
  would travel the skies
  in a racy disguise
  while smoking boatloads of hemp!

Now let's show the natural stress pattern and examine each line in turn and make the smallest amendments possible...

  a CAPtain of an eNORmous BLIMP

Hmmm... the naturally-spoken rhythm just doesn't conform to limerick metre. When I read this I want to continue something like this: 'A captain of an enormous blimp/Had two glass eyes and a starboard limp./He steered by touch so missed by far/His course towards the North Pole star.'

To make this line work as a limerick you have to pronounce it 'a capTAIN of an Enormous BLIMP', which shifts two out of the three stressed syllables and contorts the English pronunciation terribly. Better would be 'the BOSS of an Enormous BLIMP' if you want to keep 'enormous', or 'a CAPtain who HAD a huge BLIMP' if you want to keep the 'captain'.

And no, I'm not being confrontational.

  and his BUTler, WHO was a CHIMP

This works reasonably well, using a slight pause between 'butler' and 'who' in place of an unstressed beat. If I was going for the full-on metre I think I'd make it 'and his BUTler, a CHEEKy young CHIMP'.

 would TRAVel the SKIES

Works well as-is.

 in a RAcy disGUISE

The only nit I'd pick would be the 'a' - this implies that there's only one disguise between the two of them. 'in RAcy disGUISE' makes the English a little better but still maintains the correct metre.

  while SMOking BOATloads of HEMP!

Again relying on a slight pause instead of an unstressed syllable, but the slight syncopation actually highlights the comic image of 'boatloads of hemp'. 'hemp' is a perfectly acceptable rhyme with 'blimp' and 'chimp'. I was going to suggest that 'while SMOking baNAnas of HEMP' but on reflection I think I prefer the original. Maybe it would work better as 'while SMOking whole BOATloads of HEMP!', I dunno.

The outcome is:

  A captain who had a huge blimp
  And his butler, a cheeky young chimp'
  Would travel the skies
  In racy disguise
  While smoking whole boatloads of hemp!

Which rhymes, scans, maintains correct metre, is amusing, and is very close to the intent of the original four writers.

I really don't like correcting other people, which is why I haven't done it over on the 'OLL' thread, but hopefully this set of posts will help those less used to constructing limericks with their construction.

To round things up - my all-time favourite limerick. This is what I aspire to in my dreams:

  There was a young fellow named Tate
  Who dined with his girl at 8:08
  But I'd hate to relate
  What that fellow named Tate
  And his tête-à-tête ate at 8:08

It has everything; perfect metre and rhyme with the best internal rhyme ever in the last line. I wish I could remember who wrote it - it's just perfect! Was it Ogden Nash? It feels like Nash...

And so I'll leave you now with a limerick freshly minted for this post.

  Making limericks needn't be hard
  If the rhyme and the metre's unmarred
  Just follow this guide
  Show your work off with pride
  And admirers will gush "What a card!"







And if anyone has actually read this far, all I have to say is - if you think writing good limericks is tough going, try composing Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse in Old English. The metrical system can be... tricky.
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Mr Peter Harrow, Esq
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« Reply #3 on: November 08, 2011, 08:04:06 am »

Very informative Captain, but you do realize that you have made a rod for you own back, the first duff rhyme, the first skip in meter and you will have no option but to retire to the study with your service revolver and a bottle of good whiskey. Grin
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Captain Shipton Bellinger
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« Reply #4 on: November 08, 2011, 08:37:51 am »

I claim my rights in advance to be as fallible as the next man...

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« Reply #5 on: November 08, 2011, 08:42:30 am »

May I also add a point of etiquette?
If coming up with limericks with other people the worst thing you can do is open with a word that is difficult to rhyme with or difficult to understand the pronunciation of, which means words with distinctly different methods of pronunciation.
Examples are:
Pasta (PAS-ta/PARS-ta)
Dance (Darnce, like smart/Dance, like hands)
Feijoa (FEE-jowa/FUH-jowa/FEY-yoa)
Nicola (NIH-co-luh/NEE-co-lah/nee-CO-lah/nih-CO-luh)

Non-English words (excluding ones commonly used in English, like genre and touche) should be avoided also.

Finally, avoid the use of words that are commonly known but use exotic sounds with few common rhymes (Like Bruge)

I hope this makes everything a bit smoother...
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« Reply #6 on: November 08, 2011, 11:55:39 am »

Very helpful Captain, thank you.

*tips hat
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« Reply #7 on: November 08, 2011, 12:18:40 pm »

Should we sticky this topic? Methinks its interesting in terms of knowledge, future relevancy aside.
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Capt. Dirigible
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« Reply #8 on: November 08, 2011, 12:38:43 pm »

Should we sticky this topic? Methinks its interesting in terms of knowledge, future relevancy aside.


Yes, I think this thread should be 'sticky'
And no, I'm not taking the micky
To prevent our verse
From coming out worse
'Coz Limerick writing is tricky

« Last Edit: November 08, 2011, 01:19:40 pm by Capt. Dirigible » Logged

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« Reply #9 on: November 08, 2011, 12:58:06 pm »

Remove the 'a' in the first line Captain! Wink
~Longeye~
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« Reply #10 on: November 08, 2011, 01:21:38 pm »

Remove the 'a' in the first line Captain! Wink
~Longeye~

When I read it back after posting I realised that the 'a' was superfluous. I have now removed it.

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« Reply #11 on: November 08, 2011, 01:37:39 pm »

See, this thread already doing wonders! Cheesy
~Longeye~
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Silk Willoughby
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« Reply #12 on: November 08, 2011, 01:48:16 pm »

An excellent article. Thank you Captain Bellinger.


(p.s. thank God I didn't suggest Haiku!)
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« Reply #13 on: November 08, 2011, 02:18:33 pm »

Excellent! And jolly fun too. Grin
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« Reply #14 on: November 08, 2011, 02:27:46 pm »

(p.s. thank God I didn't suggest Haiku!)

I'm all for haikus
It's a lot easier than
Writing Limericks

Five syllables first
Then seven syllables next
And then five again

The best thing about
Writing a haiku is this
They don't have to rhyme

Anyone fancy
Starting a thread for haikus
Or am I alone?

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Herr Döktor
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« Reply #15 on: November 08, 2011, 02:33:41 pm »

The rules of rhyme writ by one Captain Bellinger,
Shocked the Princess of Orange, her
Reaction was such,
it all go too much,
Perhaps we should hand him his Derringer?
« Last Edit: November 08, 2011, 03:35:32 pm by Herr Döktor » Logged

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« Reply #16 on: November 08, 2011, 02:58:09 pm »

Iambic pentameter, Doktor?
Also, a Haiku thread sounds like a good idea! No nonsense with whether or not a line fits! It's either right or not!
~Longeye~

EDIT: When I read the Doktor's post the lines were off, and I read it in iambic pentameter, hence the confusion Wink
« Last Edit: November 09, 2011, 01:17:07 am by Augustus Longeye » Logged
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« Reply #17 on: November 08, 2011, 03:32:22 pm »

Iambic pentameter, Doktor?
Also, a Haiku thread sounds like a good idea! No nonsense with whether or not a line fits! It's either right or not!
~Longeye~


Herr Döktor's meter is not marred?
Augustus, your judgement is hard!
His limerick banter's
Not iambic pentameter?
Nothing to do with The Bard!

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Dr cornelius quack
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« Reply #18 on: November 08, 2011, 09:33:02 pm »

In a limerick, you compress, one finds
your entire narrative to five lines.
Where tortuous rhymes
are quite trying, at times,
but, generally, nobody minds.
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« Reply #19 on: November 08, 2011, 10:14:10 pm »

I can see the point of haikus being easier but somehow they are less satisfying as they don't have the benefit of comedic timing that is built in to limericks

Also:

Haikus are simple
But sometimes they don't make sense
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Captain Shipton Bellinger
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Why the goggles..? In case of ADVENTURE!


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« Reply #20 on: November 09, 2011, 09:19:24 am »

Thank you all for the kindly replies
I had trouble believing my eyes
Now the words from you guys
Cause me satisfied sighs
As I prize your opinions so wise


As for making the thread 'sticky', I think it needs a moderator to do that - and Miss Clough has been absent since August.

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The Corsair
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PixieOnTheMic
« Reply #21 on: November 09, 2011, 09:24:58 am »

Ahhh my jurisdiction ends beyond Portrayal, call one of the Big Bad Moderators and I'm sure they'll be happy to help. May be a little processing time though...
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Dr cornelius quack
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Arrant Carney. Phmebian Cultural Attache.


« Reply #22 on: November 09, 2011, 09:43:39 pm »

  DA da-da DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA da-da DA

Some Limericks are obscene. Notoriously.
And, others nonsensical. Gloriously.
The Captain's 'Algebraic' form
generalises the 'norm'.
But, still makes me laugh. Quite uproariously!!
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Cubinoid
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« Reply #23 on: November 09, 2011, 10:28:47 pm »

  DA da-da DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA da-da DA

Some Limericks are obscene. Notoriously.
And, others nonsensical. Gloriously.
The Captain's 'Algebraic' form
generalises the 'norm'.
But, still makes me laugh. Quite uproariously!!

That's the problem with structures; they're odiously
Restricting the meter. So, obviously
Bending rules will amount to a
Poet's feast - tantamount to a
Banquet during a famine in Cambodia, see?
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Captain Shipton Bellinger
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Why the goggles..? In case of ADVENTURE!


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« Reply #24 on: November 10, 2011, 11:03:51 am »

  DA da-da DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA
  DA da-da DA da-da DA

Some Limericks are obscene. Notoriously.
And, others nonsensical. Gloriously.
The Captain's 'Algebraic' form
generalises the 'norm'.
But, still makes me laugh. Quite uproariously!!

The verses that flow from my desk
Contain rhymes that are often burlesque
But the metrical scheme
Is an avant-garde dream
In fact it quite Dada-esque

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