A limerick is a five-line humorous poem with an AABBA rhyme scheme. It is about 500 years old, and held to have first been used as a distinct form at the end of the sixteenth century. The limerick was popularized by Edward Lear in A Book of Nonsense, which includes many limericks as well as other poems, for example "The Owl and the Pussy Cat."
Limericks are in accentual verse, which means that the satisfactory construction of a line is determined by the number of accents with little or no regard to the number of syllables. In this it differs from metered verse, which is accentual-syllabic, taking account of both the pattern of accents and the number of syllables. Because the syllables are not counted, accentual verse has a certain flexibility. Ballads and nursery rhymes are other types of accentual verse. In limericks, the accents work like this:
- Line 1: 3 accents
- Line 2: 3 accents
- Line 3: 2 accents
- Line 4: 2 accents
- Line 5: 3 accents
Because of the freedom allowed by accentual verse, the first line might work like this: There was once a young man from Berlin. or it might work like this: There was a young man from Berlin. Similarly the third line might work like this: He rode on a whale or it might work like this: And he rode on a whale. No matter which variations are used, the result is verse that basically has an anapestic feel -- a pattern of strong, weak, weak.
The limerick form as practiced by Lear was often different in two respects from what we expect of limericks today. Lear frequently uses the fifth line of the limerick as little more than a paraphrase of line 1 or 2, or a combination thereof. In addition, he generally uses the same word at the end of line 5 as at the end of line 1. For example,
However, neither generalization is always the case. Sometimes the final line serves more as a punchline, as in most modern limericks, and ends with a different word.
More modern limericks generally end with a punchline, the same way many jokes do. There has also been an expansion of the topics covered in limericks since Lear's time, and there are many bawdy limericks nowadays. Here is a limerick with a punchline:
Another development is that some people are interested in playing with the form, as in this anonymous limerick:
W. S. Gilbert played with the form in a different way:
People have also combined limericks with other forms, in this case, a tongue twister, while ignoring the BB rhyme: