Our pick of the greatest limericks – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The limerick is a poetic form shrouded in mystery: nobody knows why they’re named after Limerick, who invented the form, or when they were first composed.
What we do know is that they’ve been with us for a long time – the earliest limericks date back to the Middle Ages – and that, at their best, limericks can be very, very funny. They can also demonstrate a masterly control of verse form and admirable economy of language.
There’s even a limerick in Shakespeare’s Othello. In Shakespeare‘s great tragedy, written in around 1604, Iago sings a drinking song which he claims he heard in England: ‘And let me the canakin clink, clink; And let me the canakin clink: A soldier’s a man; A life’s but a span; Why then let a soldier drink.’ And from the Roxburgh Ballads, published in 1640, we have this poem, ‘Mondayes Worke’:
Good morow, neighbour Gamble,
Come let you and I goe ramble;
Last night I was shot
Through the braines with a pot,
And now my stomacke doth wamble.
(‘Wambly’ is an old word for ‘afflicted with nausea’.)
In this post, we’ve gathered up a dozen of our favourite limericks, which are among the funniest limericks ever written and the finest examples of the form. Many of them are anonymous, but where the author of the limerick is known, we’ve mentioned this.
Warning: some of these classic limericks are rather rude, to say the least.
The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.
While Titian was mixing rose madder
His model reclined on a ladder.
The position to Titian
So he ran up the ladder and had ’er.
The following three classic examples of the limerick were all written by one man, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). Swinburne was one of the most technically accomplished poets of the Victorian age.
But as well as the variety of verse forms he mastered, he also wrote about a number of risque and taboo themes, especially sexual themes, in his work. (He was a colourful figure, known for his saucy private life as much as for his poetry, and tales of his fondness for flagellation and naked sliding down banisters are well-known.)
In a separate post, we have selected some of Swinburne’s greatest poems, showcasing the full range of his talents, but the next three limericks on this list also show his talent for ribaldry in the five-line verse form.
There was a young lady of Norway
Who hung by her toes in a doorway.
She said to her beau
‘Just look at me Joe,
I think I’ve discovered one more way.’
There was a young man from Dundee
Who b*ggered an ape in a tree.
The results were quite horrid:
All a*se and no forehead,
Three balls and a purple goatee.
There was a young girl of Baroda
Who built an erotic pagoda;
The walls of its halls
Were festooned with the balls
And the tools of the fools that bestrode her.
The following limerick was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior (1809-94), the American poet and polymath:
God’s plan made a hopeful beginning.
But man spoiled his chances by sinning.
We trust that the story
Will end in God’s glory,
But at present the other side’s winning.
I met a lewd nude in Bermuda
Who thought she was shrewd: I was shrewder;
She thought it quite crude
To be wooed in the nude;
I pursued her, subdued her, and screwed her.
There once was a young man named Cyril
Who was had in a wood by a squirrel,
And he liked it so good
That he stayed in the wood
Just as long as the squirrel stayed virile.
There was a young lady of Chichester
Who made all the saints in their niches stir.
One morning at matins
Her breasts in white satin
Made the Bishop of Chichester’s britches stir.
The thoughts of the rabbit on sex
Are seldom, if ever, complex;
For a rabbit in need
Is a rabbit indeed,
And does just as a person expects.
We’ll conclude this selection of limericks with one by the British writer Norman Douglas (1868-1952), who is probably best-known for his 1917 novel South Wind.
The frequenters of our picture palaces
Have no use for psychoanalysis;
And although Doctor Freud
Is distinctly annoyed
They cling to their old-fashioned fallacies.
About the limerick
Curiously, nobody knows for sure why limericks are named limericks. There have been numerous theories put forward for why the five-line verse known as the ‘limerick’ is so named, but none of them is conclusive. The name ‘limerick’ was first applied to the five-line form in the late nineteenth century, and one theory holds that comic verses once contained the line ‘Will [or won’t] you come (up) to Limerick?’
But although the poems are almost certainly named after Limerick in Ireland, whether this is the true explanation of the name’s origin remains unproven.
One thing’s for sure: the limerick, unlike the sonnet or other poetic forms, seems to be a peculiarly English form. It has even been described by Brander Matthews as perhaps the only original verse form in the whole of English literature. For more information, see our list of curious facts about the limerick form.
If you enjoyed this pick of the best bawdy and risqué limericks, we recommend this glorious collection, Lure of the Limerick, The. You can find more classic limericks, courtesy of SF writer Isaac Asimov, here.
You might also enjoy these classic humorous poems and our short biographies of Victorian writers told in limerick form.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.