Limerick master Edward Lear celebrates his 200th birthday

Limericks survive today with poems that pay tribute to everything from Steve Jobs to the London Underground.

The limericks of poet Edward Lear limericks were sometimes rude and occasionally gruesome but always funny.

This year marks the bicentenary of the man who gave us the delightful image of the owl and the pussycat who sailed away together, married in the land of the bong tree, and ate quince with runcible spoons. Edward Lear (1812-1888), the acknowledged master of the limerick, described his own work as “nonsense, pure and absolute.” His limericks were sometimes rude and occasionally gruesome but always funny.

Limericks of some shape and form were known to exist centuries before Lear made them popular; from the classical Greek poetry to Shakespeare and later day Irish verse, the AABBA meter has found a place. The name itself is believed to have originated from the Irish town of Limerick where a game around such extempore verse was played regularly in pubs.

In the 20th century, poet Ogden Nash celebrated the limerick with his witty and often risqué rhymes in the tradition of the best of them.

There was a young belle of old Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comments arose
On the state of her clothes,
She replied, "When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez."

Cut to the present. Limerick stories are no longer limited to men with long beards or women with sharp noses from faraway places. The form has now lent itself to contemporary themes ranging from Google to the London Underground. There are tongue twister limericks and twitmericks – limericks in the twitter format (or is it the other way around?).

There are also famous poems rewritten in the limerick form. Take this version of Wordsworth's ever-popular "Daffodils" by an anonymous genius:

There once was a poet named Will

Who tramped his way over a hill

And was speechless for hours

Over some stupid flowers

This was years before TV, but still.

When Steve Jobs passed away last October, among the millions who paid tributes to him was a blogger from Kolkata, India:

Cried an Apple fan, "Lord, it's appalling,
That it's Jobs, whom you ended up calling."
Said the Lord, "My dear lad,
I need him pretty bad,
You see, my iPad needs overhauling!"

Aparna Ray from Kolkata, India, has used the limerick form to comment on news and current affairs on her blog Newsmericks since June 2005. And finally, there is the excellent Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form project, which aims to have every English word defined through an entertaining or informative limerick by 2039. Go there to contribute or just browse around for new takes on familiar words.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Monitor contributor.

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