What Is A Limerick? Discover These Fun Poetic Verses to Use in Your Writing

What is a limerick? Learn how to identify and write this fun and lighthearted type of poem.

A limerick is a specific type of poem, categorized by its structure. Limericks typically consist of five lines, one stanza, an AABBA rhyming structure, and a subject matter that is usually witty and humorous in some way. Many limerick examples are lighthearted, and some lean toward crudeness.

The History Of Limericks

Limericks have been used in literature as far back as the 11th century. The form is considered to have started during the Middle Ages in France. One of the earliest instances of a limerick was found in an ancient manuscript from the 11th century.

“The lion is wondrous strong
And full of the wiles of wo;
And whether he pleye
Or take his preye
He cannot do but slo”

Portrait of William Shakespeare used What is a limerick in one of his play
William Shakespeare used limericks in his play The Tempest

Although the language is Medieval, it’s still easy to hear the cadences and the rhymes when speaking it aloud.

Shakespeare used a variation of the rhythm of limericks in his play, The Tempest, during the character Stephano’s drinking song.

“The master, the swabber,
the boatswain, and I,
the gunner and his mate
loved Moll, Meg, and Marian, and Marjorie,
but none of us cared for Kate.
For she had a tongue with a tang,
would cry to a sailor, ‘Go hang!’
She loved not the savour of tar nor of pitch,
yet a tailor might scratch her where’er she did itch.
Then to see boys and let her go hang!
The master, the swabber,
the boatswain, and I,
the gunner and his mate loved Moll, Meg, and Marian, and Marjorie,
but none of us cared for Kate.”

– Shakespeare, The Tempest

Limerick is also the name of a city in Ireland, and it’s commonly believed that the poem form called a limerick is derived from Ireland. However, limericks weren’t associated with Ireland until the early 1700s, when soldiers brought the rhymes home. This was a few years after Charles Perrault published the first Mother Goose rhymes.

To this day, one of the first limericks that children learn is the Mother Goose nursery rhyme, Little Miss Muffet, which is a famous limerick that many people have memorized.

“Little Miss Muffet,
She sat on a tuffet,
Eating of curds and whey.
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
Another famous limerick for children is Hickory Dickory Dock:
Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock.”

The Irish And The Limerick

Ireland has a long tradition of writers and poets, and this poetic form didn’t take long to catch on across the Emerald Isle. Poets soon began performing whimsical limericks in the pubs, where they were met with great glee. The simplicity of limericks and their humorous tone helped to make them quite popular in social situations, where they can almost always elicit laughter. By the mid-19th century, limericks began appearing in Irish and British literature, particularly in A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear, which furthered the limerick’s popularity.

Later on, limericks went “viral” for that day and age when a humor magazine began running limerick contests. By the end of the 19th century, distinguished literary figures such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stephenson, and Mark Twain had all published one or more limericks in some publication or another. Limericks became an official craze; they were everywhere, all at once.

How Limericks Evolved

Once limericks got into the hands of the Irish and other mischievous bards, they became associated with sexual innuendos. It became a form of tongue-in-cheek entertainment to write or quote limericks of a risqué nature. Today, limericks can be found almost anywhere there are printed words. The subject matter of limericks is much more diverse, ranging from nonsensical to silly, witty to sexual, to scathing.

They are used to delight, entertain, insult, preach, and more.

How To Write A Limerick

1. Identify the Subject

Begin with the subject of your limerick. This could be a person, an animal, a thing, or even a place. Your subject will be introduced in the first line. For instance, “There once was a man from Spain.” Here, the subject is a man from Spain.

2. Develop the Story

The second line sets up the situation or action related to the subject. For example, “Whose love for art was quite plain.” This line builds on the character introduced in the first line and sets up a situation.

3. Create the Rhyme Scheme

The first two lines, which are longer, should rhyme. Keep the ‘AABBA’ rhyme scheme in mind. Introduce a Twist: Lines 3 and 4, typically shorter, introduce a twist or a change in the story and rhyme with each other. These lines can introduce a problem or action or add more details to the story. For instance, “He painted all day, (B) Without much pay.” (B)

4. End with a Punch or a Twist

The final line (line 5) returns to the length of the first two lines and must rhyme with them. It also serves as the punchline or conclusion. For example, “But his colors never turned gray.” (A) Consider the Meter: Besides the rhyme, remember that limericks have a particular rhythm or meter.

The first, second, and fifth lines typically have three metrical feet (da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM), while the third and fourth lines have two (da-da-DUM da-da-DUM).

5. Have Fun With It!

The key to writing a good limerick is creativity and humor. Make your limerick funny, silly, or absurd. The more imaginative, the better!

So the complete limerick might read:

“There once was a man from Spain (A)

Whose love for art was quite plain. (A)

He painted all day, (B)

Without much pay, (B)

But his colors never turned gray.” (A)

This example follows both the rhyme scheme (AABBA) and the metrical scheme of a limerick. When you write limericks, bear in mind that the structure is there to guide you, but you shouldn’t let it stifle your natural instincts and creativity.

Examples Of Limericks

Sometimes it helps to read what others have written to find your path. Here are some examples of successful limericks and why they work so well.

Example 1

“There was an Old Man of Kilkenny,
Who never had more than a penny;
He spent all that money,
In onions and honey,
That wayward Old Man of Kilkenny.”

Edward Lear

This limerick by Edward Lear is successful because it incorporates three essential elements— humor, absurdity, and character—to create an amusing image. The rhyme scheme is traditional (AABBA), and the rhythm is mostly anapestic, fitting the usual form of a limerick. The repetition of the location “Kilkenny” also ties the limerick together and adds to the humor.

Example 2

“A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!”

– Dixon Lanier Merritt

This limerick, often attributed to Dixon Lanier Merritt, is effective because it uses a clever play on words to achieve a humorous effect. It uses the expected AABBA rhyme scheme and has the right rhythm. The surprising and funny last line is a great example of the punchline often found in limericks, and the two made-up words, “belican” and “helican,” make it fun.

Example 3

“There once was a man from Leeds
Who swallowed a packet of seeds.
In less than an hour,
His nose was a flower,
And his head was covered in weeds.”

This anonymous limerick is successful because it presents a silly, improbable story that makes us laugh. It follows the typical AABBA rhyme scheme and the usual rhythmic pattern of a limerick. The surprising image at the end of the limerick, where the man’s head is covered in weeds, gives it a humorous and unexpected conclusion.

Variations Of Limericks

To accommodate the growing use of limericks, several different variations have emerged. All the variations still share a similar cadence and rhyming structure, though.

Traditional Five-line Limerick Example

“There was a small boy of Quebec,
Who was buried in snow to his neck;
When they said. “Are you friz?”
He replied, “Yes, I is-
But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”

– Rudyard Kipling

Double Limerick Example With 10 Lines

“There once was a frog from Kent,
Whose body was terribly bent.
He hopped all around,
But then he found,
A lily pad that made him content.
He then met a bug who could dance,
Who taught him moves from France.
With a hop, skip, and slide,
And his friend by his side,
They created a peculiar prance.”

Extended Limerick Example With 6 Lines

“There once was a cat from Madrid,
Who could perform like no other cat did.
He could juggle three balls,
And bounce off the walls,
But his best trick of all,
Was flipping his lid.”

Tongue Twister Limerick Example

“The thick-thinking thrush thought through,
Three thistles that threatened to throuw.
He thought, “Thou I thrive,
On things thorny and live,
Threading through these will make me feel blue.”

Limeraiku Example With 3 Lines ( a combination of limerick and haiku)

“Cats in a fast race,
Tripped on a shoelace,
Chaos fills the place.”

Truncated Limerick Example With Short Last Line

“There once was a man from Peru,
Whose limericks stopped at line two.”

Hand writing with feather
Limericks are useful in all kinds of writing

Limericks are useful in all kinds of writing and can be a powerful tool in your work. Once you master the structure and rhythm, you can develop your style and start incorporating limericks in your writing and sharing them with friends.

Looking for more? Check out our guide looking at examples of mood in poetry!