On May 12, 1812, Edward Lear was born. His most famous poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat,” was written in 1867, and the term “runcible spoon” has been finding its way into dictionaries ever since. Lear has been considered second only to Lewis Carroll in coining nonsense words, but he was second to none in writing limericks.
Lear & Limericks
Lear did not invent the limerick. No one knows exactly where this ingenious little ditty came from, although some poetry experts insist they see hints of it in medieval songs and in Shakespeare’s works. Be that as it may, the first collection of true limericks did not appear until 1821, and the form never really caught on until Lear published A Book of Nonsense in 1846.
After A Book of Nonsense came out, newspapers and magazines began holding limerick contests and publishing the winning poems, increasing the form’s popularity. People have since experimented with limericks in a variety of ways, writing them in Latin, using them to poke fun at politicians, and even using them as memory aids in physics classes. But the original purpose of the limerick is still the same — telling silly, lighthearted stories to pass away the time.
What Makes a Limerick a Limerick?
Limericks are easy to identify. The first, second, and fifth lines all rhyme and have a “da DUM da da DUM da da DUM” rhythm. The third and fourth lines also rhyme and have a “da DUM da da DUM” rhythm. To borrow an example from Edward Lear himself:
There was an Old Person whose habits
Induced him to feed upon rabbits;
When he’d eaten eighteen,
He turned perfectly green,
Upon which he relinquished those habits.
In this poem you can see two variations on the standard practice that were unique to Lear. Notice that he used the same word at the end of the first and fifth lines instead of choosing two different rhyming words. Also notice that unlike most limericks today, the first line does not end with a proper noun.
There is much flexibility in limerick-writing as long as you stick to the basic rules of rhyme and rhythm. These two rules are what make limericks so catchy. Maybe the physics students were onto something!
Brief biography at the Academy of American Poets.
What IS a Limerick?
Simple explanation from BJUPress.
The Limerick Song
Great way to remember the particulars of a limerick! (You may want to install an ad blocker before viewing.)
Very helpful explanation and illustration at ReadWriteThink.org.
Interactive at Annenberg Learner. Just select the phrases; this one is preset to follow the correct pattern.
Free Rhyming Tool
For those who get stuck!
A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear
This is still our favorite version, retaining the drawings of Lear himself. (The bad reviews refer to the free Kindle version that was released without pictures!) Also available free online.
Example of a Physics Limerick:
The classic example of the independence of the x- and y-motions in projective motion is the “hunter and monkey” problem. In it, a hunter aims an arrow at a monkey hanging from a branch in a tree. The monkey, thinking he’s being clever, tries to avoid the arrow by letting go of the branch right when he sees the arrow released. The unfortunate consequence of this action is that he will get hit, because gravity acts on both him and the arrow in the same way; they both fall the same distance relative to where they would have been if there were no gravity. And the monkey would get hit in such a case, because the arrow is initially aimed at him.
If a monkey lets go of a tree,
The arrow will hit him, you see,
Because both heights are pared
By a half gt^2
From what they would be with no g.
Introduction to Classical Mechanics With Problems and Solutions by David Morin
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Edward Lear, Limericks, and Nonsense: A Little Nonsense
Lesson plan from the National Endowment for the Humanities that uses “The Owl and the Pussycat” as the basis for learning poetic devices.
“The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear
More from our Online Poetry Anthology.
14 Forms of Writing for the Older Student: Limericks
More helps and resources in our writing series.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Owl and the Pussycat Coloring Page
From illustrator Jan Brett.
Free 9-page limerick copywork/notebooking paper download from Notebooking Fairy.com.
Simple notebooking pages for wrapping up with space for limerick writing or copywork, and a biography sheet for Edward Lear.