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.
(As an aside - most multi-syllabic words which are anciently native to English or other Germanic tongues are stressed on the first syllable. Many words that have been 'borrowed' from Mediterranean languages, such as Latin, French and Greek, are stressed on the second or later syllables. Not important - I just find it interesting.)
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.