The literary lives of twelve famous Victorians, told in the poetic form they knew so well
Nobody knows for sure why limericks are named limericks. They’re obviously named in honour of Limerick, the city in Ireland, but beyond that nothing is known for certain about why a five-line comic poem should be so named. But the limerick is probably the most recognisable poetic form: ask people to name the usual number of lines in a sonnet or villanelle, and you’ll doubtless find some who are in the know, but many will be unable to say for sure. Conversely, it is almost universally known that a limerick is five lines long, with the first, second, and fifth lines usually rhyming (and, to complement this, the third and fourth lines).
As limericks were such a favourite literary pastime of the Victorians – as attested by the popularity of Edward Lear’s limericks in his Book of Nonsense (1846) – we’ve set ourselves the task of writing some limericks about Victorian writers. The results of our efforts are documented below. Where possible, we’ve tried to incorporate biographical facts into the poems, such as Thomas Carlyle’s dyspepsia, but this has not always been easy – so sometimes, I’m afraid, we’ve fallen back on a bit of good old-fashioned absurdist nonsense. In our defence, such a strain of nonsense is a staple of the limerick form as it was practised by the Victorians. Anyway, we hope you enjoy these.
There once was a woman named Braddon
Whose writing would frequently madden
The critics and booers
Like George Henry Lewes
Who’d read her, but wished that he hadn’.
There once was a writer named Carroll
Who would pen little poems in a barrel.
When he’d done an acrostic
He would then light a joss stick
While wearing some gaudy apparel.
There once was a writer, Carlyle,
Who seldom, if ever, would smile.
Known for Sartor Resartus
He was king of the farters
When dyspepsia plagued him awhile.
There once was a writer named Stoker
Who was known as a practical joker.
He teased H. G. Wells
With unfathomable smells
And would taunt Oscar Wilde with a poker.
There once was a man, Bulwer-Lytton,
He gave Bovril its name
But the bulk of his fame
Rests on being as weak as a kitten.
There once was a man, Rider Haggard,
Who was known as a right little blackguard.
King Solomon’s Mines
Was the least of his crimes
As from barroom to barroom he staggered.
A writer named Emily Brontë
Had a passionate fling with Tom Conti.
On their rapturous nights
She’d reach wuthering heights
Crying YES like the Man from Del Monte.
There once was a fellow named Hardy
Who ordered a triple Bacardi.
He knocked it right back,
Got as drunk as a sack,
And arrived home that night rather tardy.
There once was a writer named Thackeray
Who ordered a raspberry daiquiri.
The lime made him smart
(It was bitter and tart)
And his face ended up somewhat lacquery.
There once was a woman named Gaskell
Whose dislike of Ian McCaskill
Reached the end of its tether
When he read out the weather
And she called him a right little rascal.
There once was a poet named Browning
Whose wife was perpetually frowning.
He bought her a clean
And new trampoline
And now she is upping and downing.
A young man they called Conan Doyle
Was always found covered in oil.
Once exclaimed, ‘What the hell…?’
He replied, ‘Let me come to the boil.’
There is one glaring omission from our selection above: Edward Lear himself. So if you have a suggested limerick about him, we’d love to hear it.
Image: Cover for A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear (ca 1875 James Miller edition), Wikimedia Commons, public domain.